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Consider the common (albeit, often unspoken) competition between friends to have the nicest car, newest electronics, and most expensive clothes. I’m sure that you’re familiar with this phenomenon enough to know that it’s often coupled with feelings of jealousy, resentment, and discontent.
Humans are naturally competitive and have an intrinsic drive to have a relative advantage over one another. There is a lot of research to support this claim, such as this 1974 study that found that a country’s richer citizens were generally happier than those who were poor. However, as the country gained wealth, their citizens’ sense of happiness didn’t correlate–if everyone became richer, no one got happier. This is because in this case, people’s happiness stemmed from their relative amount of wealth when comparing oneself to others.
Furthermore, a study of 12,000 citizens in England revealed that an increase in income only heightened life satisfaction when one’s income rose comparatively to similar aged peers with an equivalent education.
These social comparisons are examples of unhealthy competition.
Now, think back to your childhood when you had postgame lineups to exchange high-fives with the other team, saying “good game, good game, good game” to each opponent as you walked down the line. This was done not only to teach you sportsmanship as a child, but also to reiterate the intention of healthy competition for these events.
The difference between healthy and unhealthy competition really boils down to your perspective and attitude about both your and other people’s success. Your competitive nature should be carefully monitored because if you have an unhealthy sense of competition, it can leave you feeling frustrated, unfulfilled, and inadequate–and it’s a quick way to lose the respect of those around you.
In this article, we are going to talk about the benefits of healthy competition and then look at 7 ways to tell when your competitive attitude is becoming a negative thing.
What is Healthy Competition?
Competition cultivates excellence, as it encourages people to engage with each other, master a skill, and it breeds aspirations for achievement. Competition teaches children critical thinking skills and teamwork, which are vital competencies for their long-term success once they get into the real world.
Competition in any area of life (work, sports, among friends) can be a catalyst for unlocking your personal potential, increasing your sense of motivation, and continuously improving your performance. Competition is vital because it leads to innovation, as people and companies are continuously aiming to be one step ahead of others who share similar goals.
Competition encourages a genuine sense of effort in children and society alike, as it sets people’s common interests in opposition; however, it does this to serve a greater, mutually-beneficial purpose.
But what happens when competition turns destructive? And how can you tell that your attitude is crossing that line from healthy to unhealthy?
Here are 6 differences between healthy and unhealthy competition, and how to tell when your competitive attitude is becoming a negative thing.
6 Differences Between Healthy and Unhealthy Competition
1. Value the Process
A healthy competitive environment fosters appreciation for the value of the process. Instead of restricting the focus to the final result of one’s efforts, there is also attention placed on the lessons learned over the span of the journey.
In fact, the healthiest form of competition may be one in which you’re simply competing against yourself. When you focus on setting and meeting your goals and continuously challenging yourself to achieve higher levels of success, you will naturally be focusing on the process and analyzing how you can improve yourself.
When you’re your own opponent, you will continuously be testing your ability to find innovative solutions and improve upon your existing work. Not only does competition with yourself eliminate the factor of potentially cutting corners to make it to the end, it’s also healthy because it is intrinsically motivating. Which leads me to…
2. Enjoy the Journey
People who have a healthy attitude toward competition have a sense of intrinsic motivation to reach their final destination. They aren’t looking for a shortcut to the finish line because they place great value on the lessons that they learn along the way and the wisdom that they’re able to gain.
When you have a healthy attitude about competition, you’re able to look past just winning or losing. Instead, you reflect on the effort that you put into getting where you ended up. After finishing a competition of some sort, you’re able to look back and recognize the aspects of your method that were successful, even if you didn’t come out on top. Upon reflection, you’ll look at your losses objectively while also noticing the personal progress you made on your journey. You can use this knowledge to restructure your goals and increase your chances for success in the future.
3. Feel Inspired
When you engage in healthy competition, you help drive other people to push harder and test their boundaries–and they do the same for you. With a healthy attitude, you strive to be a source of inspiration and motivation for those against whom you’re competing, and you find inspiration (and have an appreciation for) other people’s skills as well.
When you see people who are “celebrities” in your industry, rather than feeling any sort of jealousy, you feel inspired by these advanced people and look to them for ideas on how you can improve yourself. People who are successful want to see other successful people do well, and they aren’t intimidated by the idea that there is a limit to the number of people who can achieve greatness.
Unhealthy competition can lead to a scarcity mindset, meaning those who compare themselves to others believe there’s a limited amount of success in the world to go around. This scarcity mindset makes some believe that if someone else is successful, then their own ability to be successful declines. However, those with a healthy mindset know that there’s plenty of success to go around, and other people’s successes don’t limit their own potential.
An example of what would not be healthy in this case would be if you lost yourself in the other person’s success by becoming obsessed with their work, allowing it to make you feel negative about yourself and damage your self-esteem.
4. Don’t Compare Yourself to Other People
This may be easier said than done.
However, no two people have the exact same skill set. Everyone comes from their own unique circumstances and has had different life experiences. That said, you can’t compare yourself to someone else, especially if you’re limiting your focus to one skill or one of life’s domains.
There will always be someone who has different skills than you do–which may mean they’re more proficient in their ability to do something than you are–or, it could just mean just that–that their skills are different from yours. So at the same time, there will always be someone who is less proficient than you are as well.
Everyone has different abilities and talents, so comparing yourself to other people is a subjective practice to engage in that will only lead to frustration. Focus on your progress, not your level of perfection. Don’t worry about the successes of others, just compare the person you want to be today with the person you were yesterday.
5. Consider the Bigger Picture
Those who have a healthy sense of competition are able to keep the bigger picture in mind by realizing the impact their success has on other people, their organization, and even their industry as a whole.
When someone achieves something new or breaks a record of some sort, it can be a major step towards universal success and increased potential for everyone. So whether it is you who came up with a million-dollar idea or someone who works for a competing organization, when a major win occurs that positively impacts other people, you have a genuine sense of appreciation for the person who originated the idea.
6. Don’t Feel Threatened
People who have a healthy attitude toward competition don’t feel threatened by up-and-comers or other people in their industry. Instead, they elevate other people in order to elevate themselves as well. They’re able to recognize that everyone has something to offer and you can learn from other people’s experiences, no matter how new they are to the field.
People who have an unhealthy attitude toward competition and look down on other people are actually just devaluing themselves because their perspective becomes narrow, which impairs their ability to grow and develop. Valuing others leads to valuing one’s own existence, meaning, and purpose, while devaluing others puts you in a devalued state, where your will to live becomes second to the will to have some sort of power or prestige over others.
Final Thoughts on Healthy vs. Unhealthy Competition
While the assumed point of competing is to come out victorious, there is a fine line between healthy and unhealthy competition where feelings of jealousy and inadequacy begin to surface. However, competition isn’t really black and white–there's a lot more to it than just winning or losing.
When you see other successful people, it’s best if you’re able to take the elements of their work that inspire you and incorporate them into your own work, while leaving out the things you don’t necessarily connect with. Then you can take what you learn and engage in your own self-improvement.
As a healthy competitor, focus on yourself and your progress without worrying about others who have similar goals to your own. This is the only way that you will maintain the right focus and drive to make it to the top.
Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.