What’s the difference between competition and ambition?
Let’s look at competition…
A competition is between you and others. Someone’s going to win, and it better be you! So you compare yourself to others, looking over your shoulder to see who’s gaining on you, looking ahead to see who’s outpacing you. You find yourself hoping that he or she trips, so you can get out in front. And you may feel bad about yourself because of your bad will toward your fellow competitors. Winning at all costs exacts a price in self-esteem.
This isn’t just a sports phenomenon. And it often starts early. When I was growing up, there was a television commercial for a dog food brand called Ken-L-Ration which illustrates the childish competitive stance. Here’s the jingle:
“My dog’s faster than your dog.
My dog’s bigger than yours.
My dog’s better ’cause he gets Ken-L-Ration.
My dog’s better than yours.”
It can play out in a classroom or professional setting with group projects, presentations, or simple discussions. Let’s say you’ve got a new idea that you mention. Someone else builds on it in a collaborative way. Do you feel that the person diluted your idea and diminished your standing in the group, even if the change enhances the idea? Do you look at the other person’s contribution as stealing your thunder? Or do you welcome collaboration, embracing the notion that “two heads are better than one”?
If you’re ambitious, you do your best and hope that everyone else does, too. Why? Because the ambitious person knows that it’s more fun when everyone is doing their best and working together for the best outcome. It’s the office or classroom equivalent of an economic aphorism: “a rising tide lifts all boats.” It’s definitely not about trying to win an advantage over your colleague or peer. You’re not thinking in terms of winning and losing. It’s not about your turn in the spotlight. Not about getting your fifteen minutes of fame. You’re thinking about overall progress and a shared improvement and empowerment.
Real-life consequences of choosing competition over ambition
Imagine if the US and the Soviet Union had collaborated on achieving the moon landing. It probably would’ve occurred sooner, assuming no interference from politics and bureaucratic red-tape. And assuming the scientists, engineers, and government leaders could put aside their narcissism. (Big assumption, I know!)
One of the most devastating examples of choosing competition over ambition occurred during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Research teams across the globe competed against each other, jealously guarding their findings from each other, wanting the distinction of cracking the code first. How many lives were lost unnecessarily because of this approach? We will never know! But we can reasonably conclude that a collaborative approach based on ambition, instead of a competitive approach based on narcissism, would have yielded results and the current protease inhibitor treatment protocol sooner.
Professional consequences of competition instead of ambition
If you become known in the workplace as protecting your individual work instead of working collaboratively, it can have negative consequences for your career. You become known as a “me first” person who’s more interested in your advancement than in your team’s or company’s greater good. You may be seen as professionally and emotionally stingy—even ruthless!—instead of generous. Your actions to promote your career may backfire and work against your reputation and career advancement.
The roots of competition
Siblings may have been pitted against each other by the parents in childhood. Or in a large family kids may feel that they have to be the best at something in order to get the parents’ attention or approval.
Kids may have seen their parents turn everyday things into a competitive event between the parents. Who is a better cook? Knows more on a particular subject? Makes more money?
Or the kids may absorb the parents’ competitive nature with other people. Who has the bigger house? The nicest clothes? The most expensive car?
Or the kids may be used by the parents to compete with their friends. Whose child has the best grades? Got into the best school? Was class president? Or captain of the team? Is prettiest or most handsome?
All of this sets the stage for problems in life.
Personal consequences of competition over ambition
If you have to be the best in order to feel good, you’re going to be anxious and probably not much fun to be around. You’re also going to be unable to feel good from the inside out, because you’re oriented toward getting your self-esteem from external sources:
winning the race
getting the award
earning the biggest salary
getting your name in Who’s Who
having the largest or most expensive wedding
being the thinnest or most muscular of your friends.
Virtually anything can be used in a competitive way, if that’s your orientation.
Competition is not a satisfying way to live and you turn off others. The end result is that you’re alone—and lonely—in your superiority.
And if you’re not able to rise above everyone else, you may feel like a failure and become bitter, looking at life as a pie, instead of an ocean, as I wrote about in a previous blog post.
Let’s use HBO to illustrate
HBO’s “In Treatment” is one of my all-time favorite television series. The main character is Paul (played by Gabriel Byrne), a psychotherapist in private practice. (No wonder it’s one of my favorite series!) In one episode, a patient, Alex (played by Blair Underwood), tells Paul that Alex has heard that Paul is the best. Paul says that in the psychotherapy profession, “the best” is a matter of personal opinion. Alex argues and says that the best can be established by facts and figures, and that he always goes to the best. Alex is revealed over time to be a deeply unhappy and psychologically brittle person, who is competitive to his (damaged) core.
A competitive person is by definition an unhappy person, because the competitive person is anxious. If you have to be the best in order to feel good, you’re going to be anxious because you risk the “humiliation” of losing. And you can’t be an anxious happy person. If you are the best—whatever that means—you’re going to be paranoid, because you will feel that others are trying to beat you, steal your ideas, etc.
Ambition feels good, even if it doesn’t result in a “win”
Why? Because you’ve given it your best effort, as have your collaborators or the other team, and good effort feels good, regardless of the results. That’s why you see some elite athletes congratulating other elite athletes who outscore them. (See Kobe Bryant’s tweet to LeBron James when James broke Bryant’s scoring record.)
Ambition leads to graciousness instead of sour grapes; collaboration instead of jockeying for position; satisfaction instead of anxiety. Competition? Or ambition! In our society, ambition is the road less traveled, but to paraphrase poet Robert Frost, it makes all the difference.