Friday, May 1, 2015

Competition Is For Losers

That's right, kids. Repeat after me: "Competition is for losers".

What kind of silly advice is that? Isn't competition meant to make us faster, better, harder and stronger? Hasn't science and history shown us, time and time again, that only the fittest shall survive?

Not quite true, argues billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel. The best way to build a successful business is to build a monopoly, and shun competitive markets altogether.

And his advice resonates not only in business, but also in life.

1. Competition Distracts You From Your Life Purpose

From young, all of us are constantly pitted against each other. Scoring the highest marks in class. Building the biggest muscles. Courting the most 'likes' on our Instagram selfies. Some competitions are meaningful, some aren't. But beware - even the traditional ones, like fighting for a place in colleges and companies, can be less valuable than you think.

We often assume the intensity of competition is reflective of the value of its prize. That's misleading. For the value of something differs from individual to individual. How much joy does the prize give you, even if you do attain it? How hard have you tried looking at other alternative competitions? How sure are you there are no better prizes out there?

Too often, we are thrown right into the competitive mix, without us know what's truly at stake. Blame it on parents, teachers and friends who don't know you better. Go to law school. There's lots of money to be made, becoming a lawyer. Stable job. Can save a life or two, while you're at it.

And before you know it - only when you're neck-deep into the rat race - a sliver of enlightenment flickers in your head: "Oh shit. All I ever do is draft papers after papers for rich clients over their piles of cash. This isn't what I sign up for. What happened to changing the world?" Well, that didn't happen because you were too busy researching about preliminary jurisdictional challenges, bickering with colleagues over the relative hotness of Harvey Specter, and dragging your bosses' document bags around the courtroom. Worse still, you soon realise - too late - that you might saved more lives and changed the world, had you took up science and technology instead. The world needs less lawyers, more doctors.

The chase for a professional degree. The appeal of high-paying jobs. Every day, we fight and fight for more fame, more money - but at what cost? To lose sight of our life purpose? To bury our secret dreams into the ground? We are so obsessed with competition, that we lose sight on the things that matter to us in life. So chose your battles wisely. Fight for the right prizes.

Stopping the spread of Ebola - the kind of fight that does matter

Image from Carl De Souza /AFP / Getty Images

2. Competition Makes You Insecure, Irrational and Inefficient

Competition is tempting. If there's a long, snaking line of people under the sweltering sun queuing up to get into some restaurant, the food must be great, right? Not really. Hype can be illusionary. When all your friends are gushing over the latest Marvel blockbuster, you feel pressured to agree with them, even if you thought the action scenes were overdone and yawned a few times in the cinema.

Competition, Peter Thiel explains, is a form of validation of our insecurities. We are unsure what to do or say, hence we seek for 'safety in numbers'. Go with the flow. Follow the majority. There's some people queuing up to jump off a cliff. They can't be all wrong, hmm? Wait, did someone just say "last to jump is a monkey's backside"? Quick, jump off the cliff right now!

In life, we are constantly overwhelmed by the fear of missing out (FOMO). Hence, we keep posting beautiful photos on Facebook to impress our friends, spending hundreds of dollars on flowers to impress our loved ones, raising our hands to ask annoying questions during meetings to impress the bosses, and so on. We like to compete because we like to win, and we like to win because it makes us feel good about ourselves, if not better than others.

But eventually, we end up competing in battles that waste our time and energy. We end up doing things because we have to, not because we really want to. Like catching the latest mindless Marvel blockbuster on Sunday afternoon, instead of reading a good book, in fear of being left out in conversations. Like chasing a ball with 21 other guys on a field, instead of staying home practising violin, in fear of being ridiculed for not being manly.

Don't be fooled by the sight of a crowd competing over something. Chances are, everyone is competing for the sake of competing. Avoid pointless battles. The world would be a sad and boring place if everyone played football and watch movies. The world needs more rich books and classy music.

Everyone wants to be the next Ruud Gullit

3. Competition Dilutes Your Chance Of Winning

Let's say you really, really want to be a winner. Just like your idols, Christiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. You don't mind fighting tooth and nail to get a shot at fame and fortune. Whoever said chasing dreams was easy, right?

But think a moment. There are millions of kids, all round the world, from the dingy slums of Rio to the shiny stadiums of London, trying to be the next Ronaldo and Messi. It takes a huge stroke of luck even for a real genius to be noticed. It takes years of perseverance to climb through the ranks of youth academies of La Masia or Amsterdam. It's a one-in-million shot.

Now, take tennis. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal probably earn as much as Ronaldo and Messi from tournament winnings and endorsement deals, and just as famous. Tennis is competitive too, but less so than football. Take a look around school. There are, what, fifty kids kicking balls on the field to every two kids hitting balls on the court? It's a one-in-a-hundred-thousand shot.

The point here is not to avoid competition altogether or to abandon your childhood dreams. But do be realistic at your odds of success, and consider the risks versus rewards. Interestingly enough, Nadal was also skilled in kicking balls as a kid (his uncle was the legendary Barca stalwart, Miguel Angel Nadal). He eventually chose to pursue tennis, and look where he is today - 14 Grand Slams and counting. Would he have reached the heights of Ronaldo and Messi, had he chosen differently instead? Hard to say. Still, it's hard to deny - statistically, at least - that he had an easier path with less competition reaching the pinnacle of tennis, as opposed to the crowded field of football.

There's nothing cowardly in avoiding intense competition. It's just being smart at picking your fights. After all, there's nothing glorious in being the second or third to climb Mount Everest. As Will Ferrell in Taladega Nights put it: "If you're not first, you're last". Sad, but true. History only immortalises the pioneers and record-breakers. Explore new territories. Shoot for Mars like Elon Musk, not the moon (Neil Armstrong's been there, done that).

Pick the path of lesser competition, because the taste of success is much sweeter. Don't try creating the next Facebook. The word has enough of social media platforms. Do things that hasn't been done before. And humanity will be eternally grateful to you.

The name 'Yuichiro Miura' (oldest person to reach the Everest summit at an incredible cost of USD1.26 million) might come in handy during Trivia Night.

The Road Less Travelled

Peter Thiel sums it up best: "Don't always go through the tiny little door that everyone is trying to rush through, maybe go around the corner and through the vast gate that no one is taking".

He's not saying that you can't eventually reach through the tiny little door, for if you compete hard enough - and competing do make you faster, better, harder and stronger at what you do - you can. All that he is urging us is to pause, glimpse around and think carefully, for there may be a greater prize hidden in clear daylight beyond the vast gate that everyone else is too busy and too afraid to notice. Is it glorious to be the hundredth person to climb Everest? Maybe, but definitely not as glorious as being the first person to step on Mars.

Take the road less travelled. Be a pioneer. Build a monopoly. It's more fun and rewarding, at the end of the journey.

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