By Christopher R. Edgar
I have a friend whose business, in his view, has failed. He’s been trying to start a hedge fund, but he hasn’t attracted the investor interest he wanted. The saddest part of the experience for him is what happens every day when he leaves his apartment building. There’s another man who lives on the street right near my friend’s home. When my friend sees this man each day, he says to himself “I’m no better than that man,” and he feels ashamed.
I used to have similar experiences in college. I took my studies very seriously. But I’d sometimes get distracted, or feel like I was missing out on fun I could be having and get depressed. To keep myself motivated in those moments, I’d think of some other students I knew who didn’t focus as much on academics. And I’d say to myself “when you let yourself get distracted, you’re no better than those other students.”
For a long time, I saw this kind of attitude as an inevitable aspect of human nature. Humans are competitive creatures, I thought, which means they have a natural desire to be better than each other in everything they do. But one day, I had a realization that convinced me that things aren’t quite that simple.
I’ve loved playing drums ever since I was a kid. I played with a jazz band, among other groups, in college. One night, I was worried that I wasn’t going to do well in a class, and I specifically remember thinking “if I don’t do well in this class, I’m no better than those people who don’t study enough.” I walked into a jazz band rehearsal with my mind on these concerns. But when I sat down at the drumkit and began to play, my anxieties about being “better” than my fellow students faded away. Until the moment I left the rehearsal, I forgot I’d ever had those nagging, painful thoughts.
I came away from this experience with an interesting new perspective. When I’m doing something I love, I recognized, I don’t care whether I’m better or worse at it than anyone else. The activity I’m involved in is enough to satisfy me—I don’t need to be superior to someone to get satisfaction from it. It’s only when I’m doing something that doesn’t intrinsically satisfy me that I start worrying about whether I’m better at it than other people.
I also recognized that, sometimes, whether I find an activity intrinsically satisfying depends on the attitude I come into it with. To illustrate, as I said, I love playing drums, but there are a few rare situations in which I don’t enjoy playing. Auditions are one example. When I was auditioning for a spot in my college jazz band, my mind definitely wasn’t on how much I loved playing—it was on being better than the other drummers who were auditioning. Coming into the audition with that goal made it an unpleasant, anxiety-provoking experience. Most of the time, however, I sit down at the drums with the expectation of loving what I’m about to do, and—lo and behold—I end up loving it.
If you feel afraid or angry because you think someone is better than you at something, or you feel like you’re under constant pressure to be better than others, I have a few exercises for you to try. First, find a quiet place where you can sit with your eyes closed. As you sit in silence and breathe, see if you can bring to mind, and feel in your body, your enjoyment of what you’re doing. If you’re having competitive anxiety in your job, for instance, try to connect with the passion that motivated you to enter your career. If you can get back in touch with that passion, you may find your need to be better than your coworkers fading into the background.
If you can’t connect with a sense of love for what you do, take a hard, honest look at your reasons for entering your field. It’s possible that you never harbored any passion for what you’re doing in the first place. In fact, you may have entered your field solely to prove that you were better than others around you. Maybe you wanted to show that you were superior to others in your family, your friends, your fellow students in college, and so forth. In that case, recognize that, because you entered your career with such a goal, you’re probably not living up to your full potential or experiencing the fulfillment you could have in a field that genuinely feels right to you. Depending on your personal and financial circumstances, you may wish to consider a change.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t enter a competitive career—by which I mean a career in which multiple people are vying for the same positions, promotions, and other perks. But you don’t need to constantly worry about whether you’re better than others in your job to compete effectively. In fact, such concerns will probably just distract you and detract from the quality of your work. When you’re in touch with your passion for what you do, you naturally become able to compete. Just stay focused on why you’re doing the job and what you want from it, and you’ll see the best results—both emotionally and out in the world.
Copyright © 2007 Christopher R. Edgar. All rights reserved.
Christopher R. Edgar is a success coach certified in hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming. Through his coaching business, Purpose Power Coaching, he helps professionals transition to careers aligned with their true callings. He may be reached at http://www.purposepowercoaching.com.