Picture ©MyMachine Global Foundation: invented by a 7 year old girl: the always-a-goal-machine.

I was probably 6 when I saw the inside of a factory for the first time, joining my father – during school breaks – at his work as an adviser to his customers, which were typically huge companies. That is how, all through my youth, I have seen many businesses from the inside. And that continued into my own professional path when I was an innovation consultant. A phrase that stuck with me from an early age on -and that I have heard regularly ever since- is businesspeople saying that ‘competition is what keeps them awake’. The more people I heard saying this, the more I started to think how awkward that is. Why would companies need competitors to keep awake? Why isn’t this coming from an internal desire to be and to stay relevant to your stakeholders? I have come to learn that the absolute best companies out there are the ones that indeed have this internal drive to deliver the best product or service possible to their customers. Not the ones that rely on their competition to move.  

The same goes for the individual level. From industry to education, there seems to be a widely held belief that winning is a force for good. Something to which we should all aspire. Yet, I don’t think this idea serves us well. If anything, it holds the vast majority of us back from reaching our full potential. Unless we shift the paradigm. This argument that competition is a good thing, or only a good thing, is an argument I have never understood. The more experienced I get, the more I know that competition is indeed a phenomenon with a lot more severe drawbacks than actual benefits. It is clear that for the vast majority of us if we want to thrive, the last thing we need to do is to fall into the trap of the misguided promise contained in the false benefits of competition. Especially a competition that is only based on rivalry. And you can witness rivalry everywhere. It’s common in business, sports, and various organisations. And unfortunately, schools are no exception. That’s where we learn to compete from an early age. Parents, teachers and coaches all lauding the virtues of winning throughout childhood and adolescence. At best, creativity, collaboration, happiness, and kindness, are considered a nice unintended side effect. At worst, we’re encouraged to avoid them actively – after all, in that mental framework, collaboration is frequently mistaken for cheating, and coming up with different solutions, doesn’t fit the idea that there’s only one good answer. And while some argue that competition makes us perform better at certain tasks, it hardly ever teaches us to help others. 

From the legacy of Sir Ken Robinson we have learned that our education system was built for the purpose and in the image of the first industrial revolution; focusing only on academic ability and with a complex, competitive attitude involving grades, prizes and even league tables. By incorporating competition, our education system risks overlooking important intrinsic drivers, such as children’s passions and talents, collaboration, divergent thinking, and the satisfaction of creating. Standardised tests rarely acknowledge 21st-century skills, let alone reward them. On the contrary, they demand a form of convergent thinking based on unequivocal answers to speed up the correcting of the exams. This has a profound impact on student and teacher performance. And this approach is not helping us in life. The world we live in is complex, and we should embrace that. There’s almost no simple right/wrong axis to it, but mainly lots of related parameters whose mostly invisible mutual relationship is the cause of many contingencies. Lineair thinking is therefore poor preparation for this complex personal and professional endeavour we call life. While focusing on winning motivates some, it actually demotivates the vast majority of people. It takes us to a space where we divide the group into one winner and a clear message to all others ‘You are a loser’. As a result of this conditioning, there’s a high risk of ending up struggling with serious self-esteem issues for many years. Many of us not seeing ourselves as good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, or successful enough. 

Yet failure is part of our daily lives and a vital part of any learning process. But here’s the thing: if the only goal is to win over somebody else and not learn anything in the process, the vast majority of us will be left behind feeling discouraged. Some argue that a little (‘healthy’) competition might be good for students. It helps prepare for wins and losses later in their adult life, and to develop essential skills like focus, resilience and perseverance. Yes, those skills are critical if you want to thrive, if you desire to become the best of who you are. But it’s wrong to say that these skills can only be developed through a competitive approach, where the only goal is to come out on top of others, leaving behind a massive pool of ‘losers’. 

According to Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the competition must foster a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. When we believe that the qualities we have cannot be changed, we have a fixed mindset. Consequently, these people believe that change is not possible. They are stuck with what they are given and often feel the need to prove themselves repeatedly. The opposite of a fixed mindset is the growth mindset: recognising your current skills and abilities, but believe that they can change, improve, or that you can add new skills with time and effort. 

So if there’s any competition worth joining, it’s the competition with yourself. Trying each day to be a better self than who you were yesterday. Your competition isn’t other people; it’s your own procrastination. Using a growth mindset for that is essential. This is true for your personal growth and your professional life, no matter what industry you are in or what you want to achieve in life. To beat your yesterday self is to improve and thrive along the way. We might admire the accomplishments of Olympic athletes in their individual events, but we need to understand that their day-to-day concern is not how their competitor is doing. They focus on those things that only they can control, the bar rotation in the high jump, their balancing, or start off the gun, essential to become better at what they do. And so we should focus on those things in our life or business that only we control. Don’t get me wrong, from a business point of view, for us to improve and thrive, we need to monitor our industry and trends to stay relevant. But we should leave out worrying about how to mirror them, because that takes the focus away from our own strengths and opportunities.  The most successful brands in any industry have understood this. 

This Wall Street Journal’s reporting shows that many corporate boards of directors are now evaluating how well CEO candidates get along with others, including their peers. In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world -a term coined by the military- no one heroic leader can know all of the answers. Rather than go it alone, leaders have to tap into their team’s knowledge, skills, and experiences to assess situations and figure out what to do. Liz Guthridge, Connect Consulting Group, points out that what happens when top executives convert a competitive work environment into an utterly collaborative one is increased cooperation, better coordination, more openness to new ideas and change, and higher levels of trust. 

Of course, there are some circumstances when we have no choice but to compete—when attending job interviews, for example. However, there are primarily situations when we make the rules, and the choice is entirely up to us, whether or not we feed ourselves with tensions and frustrations. We can mind our own journey or choose to compete with others or ourselves. While the competition with yourself is a healthier one, it also has pitfalls. Striving to become a better version of ourselves should not be a focus on our mistakes, flaws and perceived limitations. We all learn from our experiences and mistakes, but we also need to embrace our passions and talents. There is no point in turning your life into a never-ending competition with yourself. Growth is about taking each day as an opportunity to learn more about life and yourself. 

In the end, it’s about searching for that sweet spot where finding your happiness does not have to be a constant self-improvement competition with yourself, and yet having that growth mindset that allows you to dream, think bigger, and finding the strength to pursue that bigger goal you set for yourself. Because the best version of yourself is the best tool you have to being a contributing team-player to the human race. And we need a lot of strong team players since we face exigent concerns. The global challenges we face aren’t ones that can be ‘won’, and certainly not by individual efforts. From climate change to inequality, from global health to poverty, these are all areas that require collective, long-term responses. The biggest tool we have to turn this into success is education. But we need to change how we define success at school because that shapes students’ mindsets and behaviours for the rest of their lives. I have the privilege to work on a daily basis with so many extraordinary teachers around the globe. We notice that the ones we collaborate with are already completely aligned with this mindset. They know that redefining what ‘winning’ means, is not limiting students. Education done right is a context that allows all children to find their passions and talents, with the support they need to get better at it. As they then will thrive, they will be ‘winners’, they will be contributing to a better future we all need to design together.