If You Want to be the Best, Stop Competing

Racer in a wheelchair on a track

The best way to compete is not to.  I recently had this epiphany about competition that flies in the face of everything I’ve ever learned about leadership, business, and life. Let me explain…

Last week I was away at a business retreat with my business mastermind group.  We get together weekly on Zoom and twice a year we meet in person for four days.  While our mastermind is to help each other grow our respective businesses, the retreat is focused on personal growth.  One of the things I recently discovered is that if I’m not growing as a person, my business won’t grow.

Compete to Fail

I was participating in a breathwork session.  If you aren’t familiar with breath work, it takes many forms and is a technique for controlling your breathing that has similar benefits to meditation.  It’s a practice that has been around for centuries and possibly millennia.  Studies show that it invokes a sense of calm, reduces anxiety, helps with focus, can increase endurance and energy, etc.

The breath work practice we participated in involved six rounds of different types of breathing with a breath hold for anywhere from 60 seconds to 150 seconds at the end.  While this doesn’t sound particularly onerous what makes this challenging is it is done with no air in your lungs.  The first breath-hold round was only 1 minute and each round got progressively longer.

This was not my first experience with breathwork like this.  The last time I did it I couldn’t complete the breath holds without taking a little “sip” of air.  While not ideal, it is permissible.  This time I was determined to go the distance.  As we entered the first breath hold I focused my attention, stilled myself, exhaled everything in my lung and waited.  Time ticked on and I started feeling the lack of air.  Lungs aching screaming to breathe, I gave in and took a quick sip, exhaled, and continued.

As the breath hold approached again, at the end of the second round, I set out to hold my breath even longer.  Determined not to give in, I exhaled, focused, and waited.  I definitely lasted longer but eventually, with my lungs screaming for air, I took a sip.  Then it hit me, I was competing.  I was competing with myself and with the stories of others who lasted the entire time.  The facilitator had been telling us to “lean into the discomfort.”  I took that to mean bear down, tough it out, and force yourself to last.  Except that wasn’t working.  What if I did the opposite?  What if I stopped competing?  What if I stopped struggling and stopped “trying” and leaned into it by relaxing and enjoying the experience?  What do I have to lose since I had already “sipped” twice?

Fail to Compete

The third round of breathing started.  When we got to the breath hold, I dutifully emptied my lungs and held my breath.  As I started to feel the discomfort I forced myself to relax.  I leaned into it and enjoyed the sensation.  Time seemed to stop and the next thing I knew, the facilitator was instructing us to inhale.  I had made it.  This continued for the final three rounds, each getting longer and each getting easier.  I hadn’t held my breath when I was “trying” for 60 seconds and 75 seconds in the first two rounds but I did for 90 to 120 seconds in each of the subsequent rounds because I wasn’t trying.

That’s when it hit me, competition is not good.  I realized that when we compete with others, we try to be better than they are, which usually means we try to do what they do, only better.  In other words, we try to be like them.  The problem is we are not them.  Even when we compete with ourselves, we are trying to be like our old self, the person who set the standard or record.  Except, just like we aren’t the other person, we also are no longer our old selves.  We’ve grown and evolved.

Have you ever noticed that on the days you set your personal best or broke that record, you probably weren’t trying that hard? You probably found yourself in “the zone” that athletes talk about.  That place where you are completely in the moment.  It is frequently an out-of-body experience that takes no effort.  There is no thought about what the other person did, what the record is, or what we did in the past, there is only the now.

Win Without Competing

When we reach this place we are our fullest and truest selves, we are acting from a place of joy and pleasure and it is completely stress-free.  Imagine leading your team from such a place.  How joyful would that be?  How stress-free?  How would your team respond?  What if you can get your team to operate from there?  What could you accomplish?

Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, none of these giants got to where they are by competing with someone else, they all broke the mold and were the only ones in their respective markets.  What’s your unique gift?  Find it, tap into it, work from a place of joy that is uniquely you and stop competing.

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