Tuesday, January 23, 2020

Success You Can be Proud Of

Going through some “to read” saved blog links, these words from Steve Olson jumped out at me:
Many of our interpersonal anxieties and social problems revolve around a dysfunctional belief that money is a measurement of fairness, equality, and human value. [via]
He linked to a piece by Charles Wheelan at Yahoo! Finance [link] which quotes research showing that people are often more motivated by a sense of competition than by the absolute amount they earn. That is, they want to feel they are doing better than others more than they want to get any particular level of reward.

Here’s Mr. Wheelan’s key point:
In other words, we care less about how much money we have than we do about how much money we have relative to everyone else. In a fascinating survey, Cornell economist Robert Frank found that a majority of Americans would prefer to earn $100,000 while everyone else earns $85,000, rather than earning $110,000 while everyone else earns $200,000.
This ties in with similar behavior in other fields, such as “competing” over who works the longest hours or suffers the greatest amount of stress [link]. It seems that our competitive society has so infiltrated people’s minds that they care more about “beating” others than anything else.

This is the path to madness.

If all you achieve is the same again, the sense of pride and excitement quickly goes out of it.
The trouble is that achievers must continue to achieve, and we have built a whole business culture around a cult of personal achievement. In many ways, achievement is always relative. Even if your are not openly competing against someone else’s success, you are competing against your own in the past. Whatever you do today can be done better tomorrow. If all you achieve is the same again, the sense of pride and excitement quickly goes out of it. Like the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like success,” you could say that nothing gives you a buzz like succeeding more than you did the last time—or more than somebody else. Just as in sport, the belief goes around that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Is competition somehow wrong? Should we be trying to set up some kind of collaborative utopia, where no one ever competes with anyone else?

I cannot see that this makes any sense either. Competition is everywhere throughout the natural world. Many of the comforts that we enjoy were discovered and developed from a sense of competition. Our whole capitalist economic system is based on competition.

Still, competition needs to be kept in perspective. Winning isn’t the only thing—even in sport. If it were, there would be no reason to stop athletes from using drugs to increase their chances. Much of the pleasure of a sporting match comes from it being a fair test of skill between opponents. At the end, everyone lives to play another day. The winner who humiliates and belittles the loser is seen as doing something reprehensible. Crowds love to support the underdog and see the proud champion brought down a peg or two.

If people would only take the time to slow down and reflect on what is really going on, I don’t believe there would be a problem with competition.
In business, as everywhere else, competition needs to be tempered by compassion and a sense of fairness. Payment should reflect proper reward for work done, not be used as yet another forum to display crude one-upmanship. Those who do well are rightly praised; but those who do not manage quite the same standard (yet) should be encouraged, not humiliated. That is something everyone should bear in mind as the dreaded (and typically negative) performance appraisals come around.

If people would only take the time to slow down and reflect on what is really going on, I don’t believe there would be a problem with competition. It gets out of hand because people are carried away by the thrill of winning (over almost anything) and never stop to consider the implications, or the other people involved. I hope most of us aren’t really so crude and uncivilized as to want to crow over others regardless.

Years ago, I talked with a man who was a keen tennis player, as well as a ruthless competitor at work. He told me he played tennis with his 11-year old son every weekend. “I wipe him off the court,” he said. I felt amazed (and a little sick) and so asked him why he did it. “So that one day, if he is ever good enough to beat me, he’ll feel the triumph,” he said. Then he laughed, and added: “Not that it will ever happen.” He was sick. It never seemed to occur to him that beating a child in a game of tennis was hardly an achievement; or that the constant reminder to his son of who was “top dog” was probably doing terrible things to the child’s mind.

An extreme case, of course, but it makes a point. Winning isn’t everything. Sometimes, it isn’t even anything. Success that you can be proud of comes from fair and reasonable competition. And setting a boundary on success isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s proof that the person involved has thought it through and decided that when enough is enough, keeping some balance between life’s many aspects counts for more than being better than the next guy in any one of them. Earning more doesn’t make you a better person. Nor does having a grander job title or a bigger office—especially if what it took to reach that position soiled and diminished your true worth as a human being along the way.

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar


John Wesley said...

I agree with you, and wish things could change, but I don't see it happening. Our society is hardwired for competition. We see each other as enemies rather than allies. Everyone wants to be the best at everything and everyone seems to worship wealth and material success. It's become terribly dull.

1:17 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, John.

I too see no change at a national or global level, but that doesn't mean that individuals cannot become much less dull by deciding to be who they are, not who the world wants them to be.

Keep reading, my friend.

1:32 PM  
Kartik Agaram said...

"..a majority of Americans would prefer to earn $100,000 while everyone else earns $85,000, rather than earning $110,000 while everyone else earns $200,000."

Prices of consumables tend to move towards the median population. So if you're above the median you'll have more purchasing power than if you're below. Actual dollar values are meaningless.

1:58 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Kartik.

I agree that purchasing power depends on prices, which, in turn, tend to be affected by ideas such as "what the market will bear" and move up as wages increase for the majority. That's the engine that drives inflation.

But the point remains that, however you calibrate it, competition increases the "feel good" factor that makes people decide they are more valuable than the next guy.

And it doesn't only work where price pressures provide a clear incentive. Highly-paid executives desire still more money, even when they cannot possibly spend what they have on anything that is needed for a normal (or even somewhat abnormally luxurious) life. They want the extra cash to show that they are worth more than their colleagues.

Keep reading, my friend.

6:18 PM  
Subbaraman Iyer said...


I agree money has a role in motivating, but having said that successful people have been motivated more by the cause and the joy of doing it, than by the money. Money for them is an accidental by product.

8:16 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Sometimes, Subbaraman, sometimes.

I don't think I would dismiss money as a major motivator quite so easily—nor simply winning in competition.

Even successful people don't always have such high ideals.

9:16 PM  
Shawn said...

This is an excellent topic. Having a personal vision is essential to over competing. Understanding who you are and where you want to go helps form what your goals should be. It’s tempting to see someone else excelling in an area and trying to shift focus to out do for the sake of competition but where is the value added? How many of us (to sadly include myself) contrast a latest interest or direction against a long-standing personal vision? I originally started grad school to spite an ex-girlfriend. Now, great goal and glad I did it but strange motivation indeed. Did I just finally admit that?

Mentorship is also a great source for self-correcting. It’s easy to convince yourself that the direction in front of them is the direction for them. Getting honest and candid feedback on your choices and directions can also help you stay focused.

I still believe people find their complacent level somewhere along the way. The competition slows and you say “you know what…this is a pretty good gig!”

5:04 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Shawn,

Great comment.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:25 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.