Being competitive isn’t all bad, but how it affects your career in the long-term might surprise you.
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash
Before I was in Hollywood, I was a classical ballerina, which could arguably be one of the most competitive careers in the world. And I was talented, worked incredibly hard, and had good fortune, so I rose very quickly to signing my first professional contract with American Ballet Theatre Studio Company at age 16. But that’s just for context. I ended up injured and unable to continue dancing professionally less than a year later. Since then, I’ve coached many ballet dancers that went pro, switched careers, and have since built something resembling a new career for myself in showbiz.
In the couple decades of being in various highly competitive fields in the performing arts, as well as coaching dozens of students in both fields, there are few things that stand out to me as being key predictors of success. One of the most prominent is an individual’s level of competitiveness.
And it might not be what you expect.
Now, being competitive isn’t all bad. Many conservatories with cut programs, high-level entrance exams, or cutthroat audition processes continue to operate that way because it consistently gets them results: the cream of the crop, high achievers, and the hardest working natural talent. But that’s not really the competition I’m referring to.
Many studies have been done on levels of happiness, burnout, career satisfaction, etc. based on factors of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic being coming from within yourself, and extrinsic coming from outside influences. Time and again, the data points to the same conclusion: the people who derive their motivation from intrinsic factors, are happier, less likely to burn out, and have far greater career satisfaction compared to their extrinsically motivated peers. And in my personal experiences as a coach, this rings true, but is often overlooked.
Add next a study about long-term legacy and global impact, that compared famous classical music composers over time, which found that the rate of a composer creating a piece of music that has lasted over centuries and has stayed relevant, was directly correlated to the volume of their output. This goes against conventional wisdom that “genius” is simply born, not learned. Or should I say earned. And yes, genius and innate talent certainly plays a large part, but not as much as we believe it does. It also goes against the notion that certain composers left a legacy because they “were better” than their peers. To a point, they were, but every composer in the study was already great, what made them relevant and gave them those outlier “hits” that made them household names for centuries to come wasn’t about beating any type of competition. It was simply about making MORE music.
But. I believe it goes further than that.
We’ve seen it in certain high level “rivalries” like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Ryan Lochte (who still wins a lot) loses because he’s so focused on beating everyone around him, and Michael Phelps wins because he’s busy trying to beat Michael Phelps. And in my years of coaching, I believe this is the true secret to achieving superlative success. The happiest, healthiest, and highest achieving dancers were often not as competitive with their peers. Their focus was much more singular and their gaze self-focused.
The question they asked each day was not whether they were better than the other dancers around them, but were they better than yesterday’s version of themselves?
Sure, we all watch, learn from, and get inspired by the work of those around us, but for the dancers who thrived the most over time, needing to “beat” the competition was not a main goal. The dancers who experienced more burnout, injuries, and mental distress throughout their careers tended to be the ones who relied very heavily on external validation and “beating the competition” for self-esteem and motivation. In the long-term, being overly competitive eventually becomes a detriment to your career instead of a boost.
I believe this is universally true, spanning all fields, from medicine, technology, arts, cooking, you name it. I’d bet good money that the data correlates regardless of the field. The people achieving the greatest heights, building legacy-long careers, and experiencing the most satisfaction, are the people who:
A. Actually enjoy the process, the real work, involved in what they do.
B. Push themselves out of an intrinsically motivated place, not via external metrics or comparisons.
C. See other high achievers in the same field as inspirational and collaborative, rather than a threat or reason something may be “taken away” from them.
D. Are focused on their individual growth as an ongoing area of iteration and development, so the peaks and valleys of reaching career goal posts is part of a larger picture climb rather than a series of competitions.
My advice to you is — when you notice that you are losing motivation to do something, when you are teetering on the edge of burnout, and you aren’t enjoying the process of your work anymore, pause and take a moment to see if you are creating a bunch of external standards for yourself. And if so, can you remind yourself of what an intrinsically motivated reframe of that goal might be like?
For example, if you are burning out on a very tedious publication submission for a technical journal, are you thinking about how excited you are to show your ideas in action and present your research to peers who’s work you admire? What got you into this field to begin with? What do you really love about this type of work? Or are you thinking about how many more of these papers you have to crank out this year to qualify for that raise, so you can afford the shiny new apartment near where your fancier friends live, impress your in-laws, or publish more this year than Steve down the hall who always seems to be one step ahead of you?
See what I mean?
Not that wanting any of that stuff is inherently bad, but you’re far more likely to get it by focusing on why you love what you’re working on, than trying to beat someone else, keep up appearances, or impress someone you’ve placed on a pedestal.
Remember the classical music findings. Being better than your peers doesn’t guarantee leaving a legacy. Creating more output of what you are passionate about will. Don’t let an overly competitive mindset suck the joy out of the pursuit of your goals. Your goals belong to you, not the Joneses next door. So just keep doing what you love, trust the rest will follow.
I hope this helps you, happy creating!
This article was originally published on Medium: