Self-competition: only compete with your past self

Competition is stressful, but many regard it as a powerful driver of personal growth. Competitive fire has been praised for the success of political candidates, Olympic athletes, and champion chess players who reached the top by racing someone else. But what we rarely talk about are people who do great without competing against others. In fact, external competition can have a terrible impact on our performance. Self-competition is much more productive.

The impact of competitive stress

Researchers Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson conducted an experiment with 124 Princeton University students. The first group were asked to share which high school they’d attended before Princeton, and how many of their high school classmates were also at Princeton. “This was intended to make most test-takers feel (…) that they were lucky to be at Princeton, and that they had barely made the bar for admittance,” Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson wrote.

That first group was asked to take a test labelled as an “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire.” Why this test title? “They wanted the test’s title to be threatening to the students, to make the students fear that, if they did poorly, the test would reveal they lacked the true ability to be at Princeton.”

The second group was asked about their high school only after they took the test, and the test was labelled as an “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire”—way less threatening and stress-inducing.

Students in the first group got 72% of  their answers right, while those in the second group answered 90% of the questions correctly. By mildly influencing the competitive stress felt by the students, the researchers “were able to engineer an 18% difference in their test scores” explain Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson.

So… Is competition bad for our performance? Not quite so.

Competing with yourself

Competition should be about chasing your own unrealised potential. You will never beat your future self—by definition, your future self will always be one step ahead. But you can thrive to accomplish what your ideal self would.

When you try to compete with others, you are following rules instead of creating your own game. You are creating additional stress for yourself by letting others define your performance indicators. You are moving towards someone else’s accomplishments instead of just moving forward in a direction that’s yours to shape.

Not quoting him lightly, but the metaphor is too good to pass. In an interview, Kanye West said: “It’s not about the competition. It’s about competing with yourself. That’s why when I play video games, I like playing racing games instead of fighting games. Fighting games are won by beating someone else down. Racing is a matter of figuring out your technique and driving as fast as you can.”

You are in competition with yourself; with your fears (see FOMO and FOBO), your procrastination, your indecision, your past accomplishments. The truth is, most people don’t care whether you succeed or not. Only self-competition should be driving you forward.

The road to healthy self-competition

How do you go about competing with yourself in a healthy way? Competition can get ugly, and you don’t want to fall into a vicious circle of self-hate and procrastination because it seems impossible to beat your past successes.

Self-competition elements
  • Set ambitious, exciting goals. I always hated so-called SMART goals, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely. I think you should make a PACT instead—purposeful, actionable, continuous, trackable goals. Working on something meaningful, based on outputs you can control, with simple and repeatable actions you can take will go a long way in helping you compete with yourself in a healthy way.
  • Define your values. Self-authorship is the belief that you can rely on your own internal values to make decisions. It’s incredibly important in avoiding external competition. When you compete with someone else, you let their values define your goals and the perception of your own performance. With strong self-authorship, you will follow your own values to decide how well you are performing against your personal metrics, resulting in healthy self-competition.
  • Embrace a growth mindset. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” explains researcher Carol Dweck. When you start seeing failure as part of the process, it becomes easier to compete with your past self. In self-competition, each failure is a learning experience.

It’s hard not to look at other people who seem to be way ahead of you—whether in terms of career accomplishments or learning—but ultimately it’s much healthier and productive to compete with your past self. Make your past self your competitor, and your future self the hero you look up to.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about mindful productivity.

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