Competition in Life, and Why It’s Not All That It’s Cracked Up to Be

Some thoughts on competition applied to everyday life, amongst your peers, and why it can actually be bad

working a job or trapped in prison

As a consumer, competition is usually great – it spurs innovation and leads to more efficient pricing.  In this post, however, I am going to focus on competition in life, and why it can actually be sub-optimal.

Since I “course-corrected” my life in pursuit of happiness entrepreneurship, I have been approached by friends and family who have told me that they wished they “had the courage” to leave their jobs and follow their dreams.  Entrepreneurship definitely isn’t for everyone, but I am a firm believer in living life without regrets.  My advice has generally been something along the lines of, “if you’re in a place in life where you honestly aren’t enjoying what you do and can’t see a better future, you should probably do something about it.”

In fact, the whole premise of spending your life doing something that you don’t want to do is *actual insanity*.

Competition as a Means of Validation

As a byproduct of looking for new ways to improve people’s lives, I have spent a lot more time looking at how people behave.  One thing that I have found interesting is the use of competition as a means of validation – where people go after something that everyone else is going after.  After all, if something is super competitive, it must be great…right?

I will admit that, in general, if a lot of people do something then it’s often good (such as buying a house so that the rent you pay goes into your pension pot rather than a landlord’s).  The problem is that there is not always wisdom in crowds, and this appears to hold true for a lot of careers – look at how competitive companies such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey are.  Why?

A lot of competition comes down to the human desire for success – to be recognised as being one of the best in your field.  At what point, however, is the sacrifice for success too much?  What if life in your field really sucks?

A tremendous amount of people[…]wanted to join the company, yet there was also this slightly strange scenario where a lot[…] wanted to get out and leave.

I joined a leading oil & energy company after graduating and, at our induction, we were reminded of this competition; congratulated on beating 50 other leading candidates to the job.  What was bizarre, though, was the dynamic between people on the outside and people on the inside.  I met and worked with a tremendous amount of people (such as contractors and upcoming graduates) who wanted to join the company, yet there was also this slightly strange scenario where a lot of my friends and colleagues “on the inside” wanted to get out and leave.

And this seems to happen across a lot of fields.  I have good friends at top-tier strategy consultancies, top financial firms & investment banks, global law firms and leading engineering companies, all of which were fiercely competitive to get into.  Yet, I have heard tale after tale of how unhappy they are – how they have lost touch with friends because their lives have been consumed by work; how their wellbeing has degraded as a result of the intense pressure, or how they have spent their best years in a job which isn’t had the positive impact they once dreamed of.  Admittedly “the grass is always greener on the other side”, but many people seem to be standing on flaming-hot coals as opposed to moderately-less-green grass.

Some of my ex-colleagues have told me how great it is to see someone have the courage to leave and actually “escape from prison”.  The irony is that I just walked out – there was no intricate Scofield-esque escape plan.

working a job or trapped in prison
Working a job or trapped in prison?

Sometimes the juice is worth the squeeze.  Competition does make you better at whatever it is you do, because you’re aware of the need to continuously improve.  A couple of my friends would not change anything in spite of the challenges they face.

The key thing here is to ensure you don’t lose sight of what is important, and not spend too much time looking at the competition.  If you spend all your time focusing on what everyone else is doing, you will stop asking the bigger questions and you will lose track of what is truly valuable.  After all, if you try and rush up the stairs that everyone else is trying to rush through, you might miss the lift that is just down the corridor.

Author: Christopher Pavlou

Christopher’s interests include technology, social impact, sport and travel, and he is passionate about finding ways to use technology to improve people’s lives. He is a Fellow of the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, and an alumnus of the University of Cambridge where he read Aerospace & Aerothermal Engineering.

16 thoughts on “Competition in Life, and Why It’s Not All That It’s Cracked Up to Be”

  1. Great read, guess I’m one of the lucky ones, having had satisfaction and no regrets of the career path chosen, but there again the pressures to achieve ones aims during the years 1958 to 1973, were not so evident or mind boggling as the young generation is having to put up to be a success today, especially in the work environment.

    The Marine Industry, especially seafaring, has been both rewarding and life enriching, after all how many of those today can truly state “I bring the stars down from the heavens, to the oceans”, nowadays ocean going vessels navigate with GPS systems, no more do they use the “Sextant” or apply the associated spherical trig. mathematics involved. There again that’s progress, until the Sat-Nav System breaks down, just need our nearest star, the Sun to impinge a direct hit magnetic storm at Earth, and then the true Master Mariners skills will need to come back into play.

    Really enjoyed the article Christopher, and all kudos go to you for making the brave move from a well paid job to a start-up in the consultancy field

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice read man. Whilst competition is rife amongst people (an example is a company giving bonuses to the ‘best department’), competition is probably higher with yourself. It’s that thing of ‘have I done enough work?’, ‘i’ll just do an extra hour to finish things off’, reading a report you wrote for the 10th time… It’s takes some time to become an recovering perfectionist but is certainly worth it, regardless of your career situation. A quote from a mate who packed in his job to become a ski-instructor in New Zealand ‘don’t take life too serious’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d say that, if you’re doing something you really like, it’s not really a question of competition. It can more be an obsession, and then it gets dangerous in that you can end up spending all your time working on one thing and neglecting everything else

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      1. True. Is that common in entrepreneurship (as it definitely is in academia) with people putting all their eggs in one basket and grinding whist they start their business up? When I went to http://www.environmentyes.org/environmentyes/index.aspx heard speeches from a couple of entrepreneurs who all mentioned sleepless nights/horror stories of something going wrong (one guy said his lab burnt down). Obviously their business came out alright as they were up on stage.

        Are people mostly pushed to entrepreneurship due to not enjoying their job or is mostly pulled via having that interest early on e.g. studying business, an MBA?

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        1. Most people have day jobs and spend their evenings/weekends working on their start-ups (see the bottom of https://memoirsofanentrepreneur.com/2016/06/28/nef-application-process/) until they get funded/can pay themselves salary. Others (who don’t get/want funding, e.g., Airbnb’s first few years) just do it anyway (and hustle for cash if needed – Airbnb sold cereal…).

          Time is super important – I know entrepreneurs who slept at the office and I’ve seen recommendations from YC to have your team all live in the same house to save time and build a culture (like Facebook did). Netscape became a unicorn largely because they beat ~37 competitors to be first to the market (by 2 weeks).

          People tend to go into entrepreneurship because they can’t imagine doing anything else/love of solving a problem. Running or working in an early stage startup is stressful and you get some pretty low moments so you need to have something really keeping you going – hating your job probably won’t do that. MBA content largely prepares you for life working in/advising SMEs/corporations but, because you meet some bright, ambitious people when you do one, you often get MBAs going off and starting companies, e.g., Peek.com

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  3. Thanks Chris, it’s is truly inspiring. Although it sounds simple to escape from the “prison” , it takes huge courage to follow your dreams. I guess only courageous make this world.

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  4. With the benefit of hindsight you can’t help but nod sagely as you read through but wonder how you weave this into the psyche of future generations as they compete for the best schools, then universities only to compete again for the ‘best’ jobs and continue in this circle

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