By Jean Fan
A close friend and colleague recently asked: “What are your views on competition?” He couldn’t get a read on me, even after having seen me in a variety of different settings.
When I spent some time reflecting on it, I realized that his confusion stems from the fact that I just have a strange approach to competitions.
Specifically, I am both crushingly competitive and not competitive at all. Most of the time, I will go to great lengths to avoid competition. A small fraction of the time, however, when there’s something at stake that I really care about, I will do whatever it takes to win. I will find paths that others miss, take risks that others won’t, and face pain that others can’t.
Why this dichotomy?
It’s not that I’m afraid of competitions. It’s just that I think they’re dangerous.
The Confusion of High School
In high school there are two well-known competitions. The “cool” kids compete in the popularity contest. The “smart” kids compete in the college contest.
The popularity contest is one that we’ve all experienced, or at least heard of. Depicted in movies like Mean Girls, this competition requires students to be attractive, have some knowledge of social rules, and invest time in obtaining social points. After all, as Paul Graham writes: “Popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school.” If this is the competition you choose to spend time on and you win, you get the chance to hang out with the “cool” kids. For a brief four years, you and your friends rule the school. Enjoy it while it lasts, because after graduation, it won’t really matter
The second contest — the rat race to get into college — is the one I’m more concerned about. It’s the one parading around as though it’s the “right” competition to be in. In this competition, students race to rack up the most impressive credentials they can. With the abundance of default school activities, students can now do this without ever thinking about what they actually like. After they’ve gotten into their top colleges, therefore, these students often still have no idea what they actually want to do, and are now back to square one. “Smart” kids are not immune to dangerous competitions.
You Choose: The Forest or The Trees
In both of these cases, competitions encourage people to miss the point. It doesn’t matter if you’re popular. What matters is that you’re a good person. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gotten into your top college. What matters is that you’re closer to discovering who you are.
Once I figured out that what I actually wanted was to become someone interesting (as opposed to someone with the most leadership positions), I felt comfortable taking myself out of competitions that I judged to be counterproductive.
As a junior, as everyone else ramped up their involvement in school activities, I decided to quit everything I was doing. Instead, I gave myself time to go out and explore my interests in the real world. At the time this felt like a huge risk. I wasn’t sure if I was giving up my future by defaulting from the norm. Luckily, it was worth it. My last two years of high school were filled with adventure and self-discovery. I found things that I really liked, became an interesting person, and was accepted into Stanford University last spring.
The Problem With Competitions
By engaging in competition, it’s implied that you’re trying to win by the same means as everyone else. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that you will guarantee a win by approaching a race in the same way that your competitors are. If many other people have taken a certain path, you’re crazy to think that you’ll produce different (and radically better) results by taking the same one.
You need to find better ways. Much better ways.
I realized early on in high school that I wasn’t significantly smarter or more hardworking than my peers. I couldn’t gain a major advantage in the collegiate race just by outcompeting them. I would have to do something new. So I did, and I won.
If You’re Going to Compete...
First, make sure you’re competing in the right race and for the right reasons. Then, make it a point to ruthlessly win.
You’re not going to do this by applying the same procedure as everyone else. So instead, take some time to figure out what you actually need to win. Recognize and ruthlessly ignore social norms. Find a truth that other people are missing. Cut out the bullshit, and create a quicker path to getting ahead.
The best thing is when you are doing something so fundamentally different than your competitors that they don’t even realize that you’re still competing with them... that is, until you actually win.
People Compete For Known Successes
The final thing about competitions that bothers me is that you know what you get when you win. After all, the prize incentivized you to compete in the first place. In this respect, college is very much a competition.
As I finish the last stretch of my gap year, I find myself wondering (yet again) if college is the right path for me. If I graduate from Stanford, I know exactly where I’ll be in four years. I am effectively guaranteed a high-paying job, however predictable. This terrifies me.
Is This War Even Worth Fighting?
Venture capitalist Peter Thiel spoke a while ago about how, in the process of creating companies, people “get addicted to competition” and end up “fighting over things that don’t matter.”
In his lecture series at Stanford, he described how companies of the Dot-com era fixated on outcompeting each other: “All that mattered was winning. External questions that actually mattered — Is this war even worth fighting? — were ignored... You can find this pattern everywhere.”
Be wary of competitions, especially those that bring glory in the short run without contributing to your larger purpose. As you’re going through life, make sure to choose your competitions carefully, and check that you actually care about what you’re aiming for. Only then can you stop competing, and start winning.