Making the grade: Why high achievers require competition


Rodney King famously asked why we can’t all just get along. Believe it or not, there may be some good evolutionary and biological reasons for that. It might well be that getting along is not the best way for humans to progress. There is also a difference between getting along and being without conflict and competition. We are complex social creatures that thrive on competition. We might even require it at some level.

Some science fiction presents us with a vision of a post-scarcity society. Even in those scenarios, we are not entirely free from competition. Our best and most beloved futurists cannot imagine a thriving humanity that never has to compete.

Competition and competitiveness is often portrayed in a negative light. But that is not really a fair assessment of this human trait. While anything can be taken to an extreme, the brute fact is that we are all competing for almost everything all the time. Denial of that fact is to place yourself at a disadvantage. Here are some healthier ways to think about competition, and why it is so important to be good at it:

There Are Only So Many Promotions

If you work for a company of any size, from time to time, there will be opportunities to advance. That promotion will involve an increase in responsibility, status, and income. If there are 20 people in your office working roughly at the same level, there is a good chance you will all want to take that promotion when it comes up for grabs.

One way a company might decide which of you gets that promotion is by determining which of you has racked up more wins along the way. They can make that determination in a number of ways. Trophies are visible signs of achievement.

Many companies incentivize their teams to reach certain goals. The advantage of using trophies is that they are visible for all to see, and stand as a lasting testimony of your value to the company. Because there are only so many promotions, everyone is always competing for the next opening, whether or not they realize it.

There Are Only So Many Hubble Telescopes

If you think the world of academia and science is free of competition, you are sadly mistaken. The classroom is more competitive than the football field. The best teachers in a school can only personally mentor so many students. There are only so many research grants for the most promising projects. And there are only so many Hubble telescopes, LHCs. and other resources.

You are competing for a spot in the best universities long before you get there. You are starting in your freshman year of high school when your school record starts to count. You have to make better grades. And you have to get the best recommendations.

Once you enter the world of science, you have to have the best or at least the most prominent ideas. There is a lot of pressure to publish first when working in a particular field of research.

It does not always come down to merit. Company, interpersonal, and international politics all play a part in which medical research and experiments get funded. If you believe you are competing only on the merit of your ideas, you are likely mistaken. The real world of competition simply does not work that way.

There Is Only So Much Attention

They call it 15 minutes of fame because the moment of celebrity you get from some interesting thing you have done is fleeting. The world only offers so much attention to any one individual. It takes a lot to achieve even that 15 minutes. To get more than that, you have to compete hard and win spectacularly.

While it is true that companies are competing for your dollars, the real battle is for your attention. You only have 24 hours in a day. The one who controls where you place your attention controls where you spend your money.

There will never be a post-scarcity society because some things will always be scarce. Today, scarcity includes work promotions, educational and scientific resources, and attention. We either have to learn to compete on purpose or accept the crumbs left over by those who do.