Focus on competing in areas that are driven by your intrinsic motivators and, where possible, focus on competing with yourself.
For almost all of human history, we lived in scarcity. We lacked food, housing and safety and lived in small communities that could easily be wiped out by competing tribes. It’s hard to imagine for most of us, but famines occurred regularly. Warfare between tribes was the norm in many regions of the world. And being ostracized and expelled from the community you were born into was a death sentence.
The notion of scarcity introduces the need for competition. If there’s only enough food for one of us, I’d rather be the one that gets to consume it as my innate desire to live will cause me to choose myself over the other person. Or, by extension, I prefer for my children to live even if that means that those of someone else might not.
After millennia of scarcity, humans are hardwired to compete. As we do not only compete one on one but also in groups, this causes us to build hierarchies. These hierarchies then become our focus and we constantly strive to get one up on our nearest competitors.
According to Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, humanity has twice as many mothers as fathers among our ancestors. The explanation is that in prehistoric tribes, the women would only choose men in the top half of the male hierarchy for mating. The men in the bottom half never got to have offspring. So, competing and clawing your way up the male hierarchy was literally a battle of life and death for your genes. And, of course, the consequence is that we’re the progeny of the most competitive individuals among homo sapiens and drawn to competition.
Very few living in the Western world are experiencing scarcity at an existential level. We all have food, housing and safety. So, in many ways, the need to compete has no existential basis anymore. However, millennia of natural selection don’t just disappear overnight and we all have an innate need for and drive to compete.
The challenge is, of course, that in modern life, the number of hierarchies to compete in is infinite. We compete in sports, animal breeding, beauty, investing, fashion, art, cars, housing, careers, travel, social media and numerous other arenas. There’s no end to the opportunities offered by society and industry to spend your energy and time in competitions of a wide variety of categories.
If you want to be the protagonist of your life and be successful at work as well as in life in general, this means that you need to be careful in the competitions you engage in. It’s important to put your energy into competing in hierarchies that align with your purpose and that matter to you, yours and the world.
In general, my experience is that two factors are beneficial to consider when thinking about where to expend your life energy and time: intrinsic motivators and competing with yourself. Most of us will know the notion of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivators. The former are concerned with focusing on external rewards, such as money, praise and fame. Intrinsic motivators are your internal drivers that align with what you intrinsically experience as relevant. They’re based on autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you feel that what you do matters, you’re good at it and you get the freedom to perform the work in the way you want, you’re aligning with your intrinsic motivators.
In my experience, focusing your energy and time on your intrinsic motivators is much more rewarding in the long run. Of course, this isn’t black and white as, for instance, mastery is often measured in comparison to others. However, competing with others easily becomes a treadmill without end whereas the honing of skills and capabilities over time is inherently rewarding in and of itself.
The second factor is concerned with who you compete with. Although much of modern culture is focused on competing with others, if only because it aligns so well with our genetic makeup, in my experience it’s much more rewarding and valuable to compete with yourself. To focus on small, continuous improvements that make you a little bit better today than what you were yesterday, last week or last year.
If you’re not intentional about carefully selecting where to compete and where to ignore competition, it’s very easy to spend your energy and time on a wide variety of things where you don’t make any reasonable progress. You can easily spread yourself too thin. Even when you focus on one or a few hierarchies to compete in, but these don’t align with your purpose or you focus mostly on competing with others instead of yourself, you’ll lose motivation over time. In my experience, people can accomplish great things only if there’s a deep, innate drive that’s sustained over time. And this requires internal alignment with your purpose and intrinsic motivation.
We’re genetically wired to compete in hierarchies as for most of the history of humankind, we lived in a state of scarcity and it easily came to “either me or the other person.” Modern life offers an infinite number of hierarchies to compete in and it’s easy to spread yourself too thin competing in too many hierarchies or to compete in those that don’t align with your purpose. Instead, focus on competing in areas that are driven by your intrinsic motivators and, where possible, focus on competing with yourself. As Martin Seligman said, just as the good life is something beyond the pleasant life, the meaningful life is beyond the good life.