Every July, after the college and NBA basketball seasons have ended, some of the most talented basketball players in the world converge in Las Vegas. And, though you may be familiar with the NBA “summer league” for young rookies and developing players, I’m thinking of players that are even younger: teenage high schoolers on their summer AAU basketball teams. Last summer I went to Las Vegas to see hundreds of these kids in action. They’re truly incredible, averaging a height of around 6 feet 5 inches, easily performing the most athletic basketball plays (re: dunks), and this at just sixteen or seventeen years old.

One of the most amazing athletes I saw was a high school senior from Massachusetts named Jalen Adams. Not only did he run faster and jump higher than every one else an the court, but he seemed to think faster as well. It was obvious that he had dedicated his life to basketball, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that he committed to play for the UConn Huskies, the reigning national champions in college basketball.

If you take a look at his past and future, it seems pretty clear that Jalen Adams is destined for a life of winning. He may even become a professional athlete, in which case he would be paid extremely well to keep winning like he always has. But do all those wins really mean anything? If you set aside his potential for income and a career, what real advantage has he gained from winning? Does it really matter that he’s “better” than so many other people? More importantly, if you base your own goals on how you compare and compete with others, what will you gain?

The Best in the World

You may want to sit down for this next part, because I have some bad news. I’m sorry to say this, but you’re never going to the best at anything. When I say the best, I mean in the WHOLE WORLD. There are 7.25 billion people living with us and you will never, ever, be at the tippy top. If you’re an ambitious, motivated person you probably thrive on your ability to perform better than other people in specific areas. But no matter how good you are, you have a very very low probability of ever actually being numero uno out of 7.25 billion.

This is one of the problems with comparing ourselves to others, and the first reason I’ll offer in an attempt to convince you that–to use the cliche–winning isn’t everything. Often when we set goals for ourselves, we base them on how we compare to other people. It’s convenient to set your sights on another person to benchmark your progress.

For example, since I’ve started running regularly, I frequently compare myself to other runners. I think, “If I could just beat my friend Steve then I would be completely satisfied.” But I know that as soon as I beat Steve, I’ll just find another, faster friend that I want to beat. Since there is zero chance of ever being the fastest person in the world, I can never really be satisfied if this is the standard I use for success.

If your standard for success is outperforming other people, it’s nearly impossible to feel like you’re achieving your goals. Author Alfie Kohn wrote an entire book, No Contest, about the problems with competition. In his words, “Even when [you manage] to win, the whole affair, psychologically speaking, becomes a vicious circle: The more [you compete], the more [you need] to compete to feel good about [yourself].”

Setting Up False Dilemmas

A funny thing happens to me when I find out that friends or co-workers are taking a trip to Europe, Hawaii, or some other exciting vacation destination–I become jealous. It’s embarrassing to admit, but often I find myself analyzing their plans, creating arguments in my head that explain why they shouldn’t be taking the trip. “That time of year is terrible timing,” I think, or “they probably can’t afford it anyway.” Why do I do this?! It’s a consequence of competition.

When you compare yourself to others or compete against them, you immediately (and often unintentionally) limit the number of satisfactory outcomes that are possible. The result is win-or-lose without the potential for any number of alternatives. And that’s why I’m so jealous of vacation plans.

I tell myself, “They’re going on an awesome vacation and I’m not,” which is an unfair classification of winner (them) and loser (me). It seems silly to think this way, since there is essentially an unlimited quantity of vacations to Europe. Nothing prevents me from saving money, making plans, and flying over there, and my friends can all go too. But when use comparisons, I’m adhering to a win-or-lose philosophy, where the best scenario (vacations for everyone!) doesn’t exist.

The Narrowest of Thinking

Competition doesn’t just narrow the number of possible outcomes that we have, it also narrows the scope of our abilities. Teresa Amabile is a Harvard Business professor who studies many aspects of psychology including creativity and motivation. More than 20 years ago, she conducted research specifically to determine how competition affects individuals that are working on creative projects.

In one of Amabile’s research studies, she asked a group of girls, ages 7 to 11, to create art collages. Half of the girls knew that their artwork would be judged and that the winners of the contest would receive prizes. The other half of the girls were told that prizes would be presented randomly as part of a raffle. As the team of judges reviewed all of the artwork, they found exactly what you might expect. When prizes were awarded based on competition, the girls’ artwork was uniformly less creative in a variety of dimensions, though it was more technically proficient.

In other, similar studies, Amabile found the same results, proving that peoples’ motivation for creating works of art dramatically affected the style and creativity they used to create it. When we compare and compete, we focus intently on winning and losing at the expense of creativity.

Focus on Progress

A close friend of mine is a high school tennis and basketball coach. He’s found plenty of success in coaching, helping leads teams to four state championships (two tennis, two basketball) in just twelve seasons coaching. So I asked him, “Which season did you enjoy coaching the most?”

I wasn’t sure how he would respond, but I expected that “winning” would be an important factor. His answer surprised me. He said that in all of his seasons of coaching he had two favorite teams, but for different reasons. The first was a girls basketball team that won the state championship. “They did everything they were supposed to,” he said. “We showed up at games, they took care of business, won by 30, and we went on to the next game.” The methodical, systematic winning seemed to impress him and clearly impacted the level of success they achieved.

“The second team,” my friend said, “was another girls basketball team. But we lost a LOT of games.” So I asked, why did you enjoy coaching that team so much? “In the beginning, the girls weren’t very good at anything. They couldn’t play defense, didn’t run the plays on offense, and had a difficult time following coaching instructions. But through the course of the season, you could visibly see their progress. We worked hard to coach them and they worked hard to improve–the progress was incredibly rewarding for everyone.”

Don’t Be a Loser

Competition and comparison are the most detrimental when they become the focal point of your personal goals. When you’re trying to change something big, something really important in your life, there’s no need for winners and losers. When this is our mindset, too often we end up the losers. Focus on progress, making small improvements overtime, and you’ll always see the results of your efforts.

Max Ogles

Hi, I'm Max Ogles. I'm a behavior designer, entrepreneur, and writer focused on psychology, technology, and business. Read My Full Bio