In primary school, I was clever. I knew I was clever because for three years in a row I was first, second or third in my year in every subject. Twice a year I could take my school report card home and hand it to my parents in exchange for cheers and a pat on the back. Laura, Simon and I welcomed the tussle for that number 1 spot, knowing everyone else wasn’t even in the race. I placed the cherry on top of my junior genius cake, by getting a scholarship to senior school and off I went, wind in my sails and the prizes under my arm.
The secondary school I went to was single sex and took pride in having the best academic results in South West England. A strange thing happened here. When my results starting coming in, I wasn’t 1st, 2nd or 3rd. Or 4th… in fact I was about 30th. Distinctly middle of the road, class average. Why wasn’t I smart anymore?!
As is probably obvious, the change wasn’t reflective of my deteriorating ability, but simply the relative intelligence of me vs my new class-mates who were “smarter”. My perception of success was based on my position in class, relative to those around me.
As I left school, this competitive assessment continued. Where did my University sit in comparison to where my friends and classmates were going? It had dropped two places in the league tables, how would that affect my future? What % was I averaging compared to my sister/housemates/hot Ben who was in my seminar class. You get the picture; anyone and everyone was competition.
Moving on from school, into the world of business, a common question asked to me (and by me) is: “how long did it take you to get to this level?” I’ve spent hours looking at how old someone was when they were promoted, made their first million, bought a flat, got married. Followed by panic stricken questions “if I’m a year older what does that mean… that I’ll never get as much?!” We’re consistently told that competition is a positive thing, a motivator, however in this way it starts to become negative. It can become an obsession that is detrimental to our growth as individuals. We focus a large proportion of our limited time and energy, on other people, and as a result deny this from the person we could be focusing on… ourselves.
Beyond the attention aspect, there’s the fact that you don’t know the details of someone else’s situation. For all you know, that colleague who goes on lots of fabulous holidays, could be secretly up to their eyes in credit card debt, or that friend who’s boyfriend takes *adorable* couple selfies could have zero libido ;-0. Your perception is inevitably slightly warped or clouded by your perspective. Warren Buffet, a Billionaire investor, warns
“You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.”
One of the most damaging effects of competitive obsession, is the way focusing on a comparison relevent in the present, the ‘now’, could result in denying yourself a brighter future, as you aim for what’s in sight rather than your greater potential. Instead we need to observe the sometimes quick success of others more passively whilst keeping locked onto our own paths. Remember that old tale about the hare and the tortoise? Its so tempting to follow the behaviour of comparison we know so well but I’ve found in my own life, rather than providing a positive force for growth and development, it leaves me panicking, or fixating on the wrong things. Things which could mean closing my eyes to other opportunities. When scale is involved its often 6months wasted obsessing about being 6months behind which in 10, even 5years time, is unlikely to be relevant or even memorable. A comparative mindset can leave you stalling rather than speeding up.
Beyond this, there is the danger of building resentment and causing tension in a relationship, which could otherwise be a support. Take a step back from yourself and think of someone you know who holds onto a bitterness towards another person. I bet they have been far more restricted by their bitterness than the target of this resentment.
So what’s the alternative? How are we to measure our success without using other people as a benchmark?
The answer of course lies in ourselves. Only measure your success on how well you’ve done in comparison to you, or better, your vision for you. The greatest thing about this shift is that you are limitless. You can do more than others have and don’t need to be restricted by their pace, perspective, or any other factor. So whilst you may not be the first, you can be something much bigger.