Being overly competitive was poisoning me. Here’s what I’m learning to do. 

5 mins read
Published on Apr 17, 2024

TLDR: Being overly competitive can arise in emotional stresses and other ugly emotions like jealousy and insecurity. Where is it stemming from, and how do we be mindful of it?

A new year brings about new slates, and for some, perhaps a fresh start to yet another race.

How do you want to run it? Do you need to be the first? How will you pace yourself – is every step aimed at maintaining the lead? 

Must it be a race?

My sprints to the goalposts are usually bumpy, and more often than not incite a whole gamut of stress and unhealthy emotions, such as the three poisons of Buddhism – greed, hatred and delusion. And it’s not easy to admit, but sometimes I could be the one placing the obstacles myself. 

A Buddhist mentor whom I look up to shared with me that since young, she has always expected herself to be placed within the top three in school, but she could never explain why. Likewise, for myself, working in an industry with a rapid pipeline of projects and transparent reward mechanisms also means there’s pressure for people to vie for the top. And I wanted to be the fastest hamster in this rat race. 

Both of us were fortunate enough to have parents who wished nothing but for us to grow up happy and good – so where did the competitiveness come from?

Comparison, and a constant need to assess where we stand amongst our peers, are key drivers behind the competition. Comparing, which is referred to as māna in Pali, is also translated to ‘arrogance’ or ‘conceit’. Could our competitiveness stem from wanting to be better than others, achieve what they have, or from the fear of losing out? 

Rearranging the race: competitiveness as a force for good

Ambition is not always and necessarily harmful, but at what point does greed and competitiveness rear its head from it?

In Handful of Leaves’ first podcast, Brother Chade-Meng Tan floated the idea of how Gautama Buddha was ambitious in his compassion and efforts in teaching – an ambition and desire for good qualities to arise.

From there I wondered if being competitive is not all bad. Perhaps if we rearranged the race so that the benchmark becomes yourself.

If competitive people, like us, are always finding different ways to outrun others, can we also set aside part of that “resourcefulness” to be more astute of our shortcomings and consistently put in the effort to fine-tune ourselves to be better people than we were the day before?

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Bettering oneself by not being blown by the winds of the world

In recent months, I’ve come to understand the profound impact of the Eight Worldly Winds on the human experience: gain and loss, success and failure, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. This newfound awareness has shed light on my tendencies towards attachment and aversion to these fluctuations in life.

Seeking validation through praise in my work, I found myself caught in a cycle of constant pressure to excel and avoid failure. However, upon reflection, I realised that this drive for improvement stemmed from external influences beyond my control.

It became evident that true peace comes from accepting the transient nature of praise and criticism alike.

I needed to make peace with the fact that I can’t hold onto a wisp of compliment, keep it in a bottle and strut it around like a medal. And likewise, when criticisms descend like a hurricane, I need to know how to separate the tone from the lesson, learn what to take out of it, and remember that the next day is a chance to incorporate the learnings and start afresh. 

Looking out for kalyana-mittas in the industry

Having kalyana-mittas (spiritual friends) as sounding boards can help us be aware of any blind spots. They can also keep us grounded in an environment where the temptation to take shortcuts is high. 

I’ve seen the lengths to which jealous and overly competitive acquaintances can stoop – from cheating in tests and job interviews to spreading false rumours about competitors. My mentor with over 16 years of experience in the finance industry shared that for every kind and successful senior she has encountered in the workplace, there are also those with more “aggressive personalities” who have no qualms about putting their colleagues down just to get ahead.

After witnessing all that, she made a promise to herself to lead in a way that uplifts her subordinates as she ascends the ladder, without any need to trample on others. Additionally, she found grounding by surrounding herself with people who held similar values and learning from their example. 

A key message I took out of our talk is to be on the lookout for people like that in my industry, and perhaps even beyond.

Thank your competition? Learn to rejoice in others’ good qualities

Sometimes, in chasing what others have, we could also be blind to what others covet in us, too. Over time, without downplaying the discomfort and stress that equally competitive teammates can bring, I’ve come to appreciate those who have in some ways been my competitors at different points in my life. 

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Without them, where would our barometer for improvement be? True, we all have other intrinsic and external motivations that drive us.  But how often do we fully acknowledge the extra push (albeit sometimes a bit too close to the edge) that additional competition can bring?

There’s a quote from Venerable Thubten Chodron that I relish but find it difficult to practice: “Being happy that others are better than we is an excellent antidote to jealousy.”

Her rationale was that while we often desire the best for ourselves, if we were the best the world has to offer, with just our current abilities, the world would lack a great deal, such as electricity, computers, food, etc. A lot of what we use and enjoy now are dependent on others’ skillsets and specialties.

“Whereas envy cannot endure others’ good fortune and excellent qualities, rejoicing appreciates these, thus filling our mind with joy,” she wrote in one of her books.

Additionally, she has also taught us how pressurising it would be to be heralded as “the best” at a certain trade or talent, especially in a rapidly changing world with a population of over 8 billion. The fleeting joy of being crowned as such would be superseded by the anxiety to defend that title and by the fear that we would one day relinquish the position. 

“We should contribute to the well-being of the world, and by making us admire what is constructive, rejoicing increases our tendency to do that,” wrote the Venerable. 

When it comes to work, I’ve come to realise that it’s not so much a sprint, but a marathon. And as with every marathon, remember to take a breather at every rest point. And rather than reaching out for an isotonic drink to keep racing, take some time to check in with yourself – was your recent lap better than the one you set before? Even if it does not – that’s okay, too. 

Wise steps: 

  1. Benchmark internally: Shift focus from comparing oneself to others to setting personal growth benchmarks.
  2. Find a supportive network: Surround yourself with like-minded individuals who provide guidance and keep you grounded.
  3. Practice gratitude and rejoicing: Appreciate others’ contributions, and be happy for their success, thereby fostering a positive mindset and reducing jealousy.
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