It’s time to rethink the role of competition. The idea that “it’s a dog-eat-dog world” no longer holds true, and cut-throat competition doesn’t benefit anyone, including yourself.
In business, the lines between competitors and customers have become increasingly blurred. Netflix competes with Amazon and at the same time is their customer. Many small and mid-size companies both compete and cooperate with each other to grow their shared market, not just their market share.
If you think competition is a necessity for success, consider innovative companies like Tesla and Salesforce that have grown and excelled for years with virtually no competition.
We see the new face of competition on athletes like Shalane Flanagan who ground it in authentic, close relationships.
Flanagan is a long-distance runner who holds the American record for times in the 3000 meters (indoor), 5000 m (indoor) and 15K road race, an Olympic medalist and winner of the 2017 New York City Marathon (the first American woman to win in 40 years).
Shortly after winning the Marathon, Lindsay Crouse explained Flanagan’s approach to competition in the New York Times article How the ‘Shalane Flanagan Effect’ Works.
Instead of being threatened by her teammates’ growing accomplishments, Flanagan embraced them, and brought in more women, elevating them to her level until they become the most formidable group of distance athletes in the nation. National championships, world championships, Olympics: They became some of the best runners in the world.
Every single one of her training partners, 11 women in total, has made it to the Olympics while training with her, an extraordinary feat. Call it The Shalane Effect – You serve as a rocket booster for the careers of the women who work alongside you, while catapulting forward yourself.
Flanagan is not simply being altruistic. Make no mistake, she competes to win. But it’s not about defeating her competition. She has figured out that the stronger she helps her competition become, the better and stronger she becomes. And it has paid off for everyone, including Flanagan.
During the 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials for the Rio de Janeiro Games, Flanagan began to falter at 23 miles, clearly in distress. Amy Cragg, her training partner, who was also competing for a spot on the Olympic team, turned to her repeatedly to cajole her, slowing her own pace to coax her on.
In an LA Times interview, Cragg said, “Before the last water stop I looked at her and she was turning bright red and I knew the heat was getting to her. That’s where I told her, ‘I’m going to get you a water bottle. Dump the whole thing on your head.'” And that’s what she did.
Because of Cragg’s support, Flanngan was able to across the finish line – collapsing into winner Amy Cragg’s waiting arms – thus securing her spot on the Olympic team. This is what the new face of competition looks like!
The idea that “winning is everything” is simply out of date.
If you think success is about beating the competition, the race is over as soon as you win. Peak performers focus on being great, surpassing their own limits, and beating themselves, not others. If they lose a race because the competition did a better job, they admire and respect them for raising the bar. Supporting others increases your own level of success, as Shalane Flanagan showed us.
So why is the old-school idea of the role of competition still hanging around? Why do we see ads telling us to “Compete or Die” with images of roaring lions… and tigers… and bears?
It’s time to recognize the new face of competition, to use it to harness our full power, and see our competitors as allies in pushing beyond what we thought was possible.
Such a great post for the times we live in. Coopetition is the new way to compete through collaboration and generosity. Flanagan’s example is an excellent way to look at this.
It reminded me of a story I had heard in school: A farmer was well known for producing best crops and sharing his best seeds with other farmers in the vicinity.
When asked why, he said, “It is a selfish act. Winds collect pollens and carry it to adjacent fields. If my neighbors use the best crop, the quality of my crop would also go up.”
Wonderful story and example, Tanmay! I am struck that shifting from a mindset of scarcity to abundance, actually creates more opportunities and gives competition new meaning.
Great food for thought. Love the contrasting pictures.
Thanks James. As you know, the saber-toothed tiger is now extinct 🙂
Change is the only constant and it seems that ‘Competition’ is no exception!
I am reminded of the quote – ‘Competition is the best school in which companies and individuals learn to excel’ – perhaps the school would remain; it is just that how the pupils learn will change.
Competition in its new avatar seems to negate the zero-sum game and actually is engendering win-win partnerships !!
Exactly! The new avatar “negates the zero-sum game and actually is engendering win-win partnerships” – it’s competition through collaboration.
Jesse Lyn, you are in possession of some lovely perspective, resulting in useful comments on our world and how to live in it.
How nice to hear that from one whose perspective I have admired for many years. My best to you Geoff!
Sometimes competitors are your best allies. This is true especially in the arena of professional services. It’s important to have experts to refer to as no-one can be an expert at everything.
Another advantage to recognizing the new face of competition. Thanks for your insights Frumi!
Love this post. Would that Congress would read it. Looking out only for oneself makes everyone weaker. As always, Jesse, your words are always so powerful and thought-provoking/
A self-serving attitude goes hand in hand with the old-school ideas of competition.
The new definition of “competition” engenders a new definition of “success,” something more in line with fulfillment and connection, rather than domination and fear.
Well-said. Rule by domination and fear is ineffective at best, and the quest for power comes at the expense of connection and fulfillment. It never worked well, but now in the Digital Age it is simply nonsense. The Internet was created by collaboration, not competition. We are too interconnected to achieve our potential without relying on each other. (Check out The Innovators by Walter Isaacson on the history of the digital revolution).
It’s true of nonprofits as well as individuals. In our field, we compete when contracts are put out for bid, but we band together to persuade the administration or the legislature to increase their support for the people we serve. It’s high competition and high collaboration at the same time.
Great example. And I would suspect that the kind of competition you describe is grounded in mutual respect. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Betsy.
In my view, the insight in Jesse’s post is this: More than ever before there is a need for smarter strategic thinking when considering and determining a company’s competitive advantage. As she rightly points out, there may be a better way to skin the competitive cat. However, we must not forget that markets still grow nicely in highly contested competitive environments where innovation is critical to survive and thrive. Why is the old-school idea of the role of competition still hanging around? Maybe it’s because old-school guys like me are still hanging around.
All true, John. I’m not saying there’s no place for competition, but that it needs to have a kinder face. I think some people are hard-wired for competition, but that’s more about personality type than about what’s needed to succeed. And I suspect that many of the successful ones have learned to temper it a bit and channel it in their personal and work lives.
So true, Jesse.
Competition to stroke egos is so wrong (as are most things associated with egos). Competition as in friendly challenging of personal / GROUP bests is very healthy; consider the group of runners you discuss.
In all situations, it has been found that transparent cooperation will always lead to the best overall outcomes. Witness the runners: all qualified for the Olympics. In business, cooperation internally or externally will result in similar outcomes. For example, Tesla and SpaceX make all patents open to everyone. Consider the saving of money and resources, not having to “protect” their gains – AND presumably the valuable feedback from other users. And, all the time, both Tesla and SpaceX are competing for vehicle sales and launch contracts!!!
Love (and learn) from each of your posts.
Great examples of the new face of competition and how it works. Thanks so much for adding to and deepening the conversation, John!