The Toxicity Of Competition


A friend once told me, “You’re always going to be unhappy if you constantly compare yourself to others.”

At the time, I was a second semester senior in high school, and college decisions — the end goal for which my classmates and I had worked (some more tirelessly than others) — were rolling in with the spring months, after four long years. I went to a prep school — where it was expected that every student attend not just college but a college worth mentioning in shiny pamphlets to be distributed to prospective students and alums. We judged each other by the acceptances we racked up and the rejections we quietly glossed over in conversations.

“You got into Georgetown, and you’re not going?” a classmate once asked, coming up to me in the middle of our senior courtyard.

He had been rejected, and his question seemed to insinuate that I had stolen a spot that he would have otherwise received — like I had done something wrong by applying in the first place. Of course, I now know that’s not true — the college admissions process works much differently than any of us could have imagined at 18 years old. But in that moment, I felt terrible; on the other hand, I was unspeakably jealous of another classmate who had gotten into and was planning to matriculate at a school that had waitlisted me. The months of March, April, and May were brutal as we all tried to map out the next few years of our lives — conscientious of how our futures diverged from those of our classmates. We were excited to graduate and move onto the next chapter of our lives — which was freer and involved more enticing shenanigans. Still, many of us were silently bothered. It was though those decisions — yes or no, or, worse, maybe — separated us into groups based on our worth as students, some better than others.

I thought that the competitive dimension of college admissions would have subsided after we all turned in our applications, but it unfortunately stuck around — outstaying any welcome it ever had.

Competition changes nature as we get older, but it doesn’t cease. We still compare ourselves to one another — just in different ways that are no less damaging to our happiness and emotional health.

In college itself, many professors grade classes on a curve — some stricter than others. 20% receive As — and a whole half of those are A-minuses, less impressive to our GPAs. Every other student receives less-than-perfect grades; assignments and exams become less a question of how well we do but how well we do in comparison to others. Come junior and senior years, many of us realize that companies only offer a small number of internships and even fewer full-time jobs. Medical, law, and graduate programs accept a certain amount of students. Academic scholarships — the Marshall, the Fulbright, etc. — are even more difficult to attain. We are all competing with one another for the chance to move our lives forward.

What comes after college? Only a few employees at any given organization receive promotions or raises each year — supervisors can’t afford to dole out these incentives wholesale. Maybe it’s true that everyone performs well, but there are always those that perform even better than others. Most industries and fields only recognize a handful of its top performers — for example, each Nobel category only honors one winner per year, not seventeen. We succeed and advance relatively to our peers. Only a small fraction of the population can afford the most expensive houses, cars, and material possessions, and an even smaller proportion receives institutionalized accolades — the kind that will place their names into public conscientiousness, dialogue, and history books (or Wikipedia pages) for years to come. But we are constantly fighting to catch up with those who outpace us because we want what we can’t have and if everyone could have it, why would we want it?

And, of course, there are the ancillary competitions we face throughout our entire lives. No matter how intelligent, attractive, wealthy, slender, known (or whatever metric we choose to define our own successes), there is always someone who is doing better than us. Maybe he founded his own start-up at the ripe age of 22. Maybe she is so beautiful that modeling scouts regularly approach her in public and offer her contracts. Whatever it is that they do that we can’t, they make us feel insignificant.

Recently, I have been thinking about the advice that friend gave me all those years ago. How right he was back then! How right he still is!

Don’t get me wrong. Without competition, innovation and progress would stagnate. The possibility of reward or the risk of reprimand motivate our performance — as students, employees, and as humans of the world who generally gravitate toward shiny, pretty objects. Competition can be healthy, even beneficial. For example, teams of scientists might race to find the cure for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases because they are altruistic but also because they want the acclaim that comes with pioneering their groundbreaking research before and better than others in the field. Still, in the process, the work that they do could end up saving millions of lives. Another example: Students compete with one another for 100 or so spots at a given law school each year. In theory, this means that they should work harder in college, know the material better than their peers, and become more effective lawyers — though this may not be true in practice, this kind of competition is meant to improve their field.

However, the emphasis that our society places on competition can be unhealthy — especially for those of us who grew up in environments that taught us to claw our way above whatever ladders (social, career, academic, etc.) loom over our heads.

We will never be fully happy with ourselves if we go through the motions of life as if it were a competition. If we think about it in those terms, we will quickly learn that we aren’t ever going to be able to win. We will always sabotage our own contentment and peace of mind if we compare ourselves with those around us — because without fail, there is always going to be someone who outshines us in some capacity. Imagine, then, realizing at the end of our lives that we have spent the past 80 or 90 (or 170, given the current medical climate) years living for other people rather than for ourselves.

When we compete with others, we are seeking external validation. We are trying to construct measures for our self-worth that ultimately mean nothing but that make us miserable in the present. Instead of trying to measure up on our own terms, we are trying to measure up to opinions that should not matter as much to us as those we hold of ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I caught up with an older friend, who was newly engaged. I told her about my summer and possible graduation plans, asking if she had any wisdom to impart upon me from her 27 years of life. She mulled over the question for a few minutes and began to tell me about her fiancé’s mother — a doctor whose particular line of work leads her to treat many patients on the verge of dying.

According to my friend, her mother-in-law-to-be had worked as a doctor for almost 30 years, frequently seeing patients who are on their deathbeds. Not once in that span of time had she encountered someone who told her that they wished they had worked harder, earned more money, or got that promotion when they had the chance. No one told her that they wished they had had a better car than their neighbor, a nicer house than their brother, or a gold-plated nametag on an office door in one of the most impressive-looking buildings in the Manhattan skyline.

“There’s this law — I think it’s called the dying declaration — that allows courts to use what people say on their deathbeds as evidence in trials,” my friend added, perhaps a bit flippantly given the conversation. “Because, when you’re about to die, you have nothing to lose — you say what you actually feel…so you know that her patients were being honest when they said that they didn’t care about stuff like that.”

Instead, those patients usually confessed that they wished they had been a better person — a kinder friend, a more attentive parent, a gentler lover. That they had apologized in one circumstance or confronted an issue head-on in another. That they had cared about things that mattered and brushed off things that didn’t. That they had lived fuller lives.

This is what competition does to us — it pushes us into leading lives that are less full than they could be. When it becomes excessive, it causes us to lose touch with what is truly important, to sacrifice our well-being for artificial happiness. We chase a kind of fulfillment that will always be just out of reach for us, and we foster our own discontent — envy, greed, and the desire to be two steps ahead of everyone else can do that.

Let’s forget about competition. Let’s forget about how well our peers are doing and focus on how well we’re doing. Let’s not lust after what they have that we don’t but remember what we do have and how lucky we are to have it. Our lives are more than laundry lists of accomplishments, and we ought to take charge of them for no one but ourselves. In the end, we can be the purveyors of our own happiness.