Situationally Competitive vs. Always Competitive

Line of Business
In Israel last year, our group of 50 — young leaders in tech — gathered on a beach and split into small groups. A few consultants led us on a team building exercise. They instructed us to build rafts using logs of wood and rope they had provided us. Once we constructed the rafts, we raced the other teams into the water, circled a buoy with the raft, and returned to shore as quickly as we could. The first team to return to shore was declared the winner. To the winner went…the pride of winning a team building exercise on the beach.

Some people took the competition very seriously. They strategized; played drill sergeant; pestered the facilitators to get clarification on the scoring methodology; and expressed joy or dismay at the results, depending.

I found myself not caring. At all. I marveled at how competitive others were getting about an exercise that had zero real consequences other than momentary pride. Yet, I think of myself as a generally competitive person. But the experience crystallized the fact that I am not always competitive all the time.

Some people always want to win. It can be in business, a board game, a sports match, or a team building exercise. Michael Jordan’s father famously said, in reference to Michael’s supposed gambling addiction, that Michael didn’t have a gambling problem. Rather, he had a “competition problem.” Put him in any scenario where there’s a clear winner or loser and Michael can’t stop trying to win.

In the group in Israel, there were many classically successful people, alpha males and females, leaders. For some of them, when the competition light goes on, their emotions soar. It’s not an uncommon trait in business leaders. Chris Sacca tells an anecdote of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick attaining the rank of second in the world in the global Wii tennis leaderboard. It’s not enough for Travis to be atop one of the world’s most valuable tech companies. He must win at everything — even video games.

Not me. I am situationally competitive. I’d like to think I get competitive when the stakes are high, my investment real, and the payoff meaningful to me. Although this is not as colorful a personality as someone who’s limitlessly ruthless — a Larry Ellison-esque archetype the business press loves to cover — I know many successful CEOs who cut a different, more restrained mold.

Of course, I don’t mean to come off too saintly (“I preserve my competitive energies for solving world hunger, thank you very much”). My reptilian, status-conscious brain gets triggered plenty. Indeed, I do care lightly about winning an informal game of pickup basketball, for example. It’s an activity as consequence-free as the raft exercise but I express more care perhaps because I am more skilled at it. I am not particularly good at helping build a raft: I can’t tie knots and generally don’t like to do manual labor. So maybe another lesson is I choose not to care about winning when I am not well positioned to win.

In general, though, one of the most important ways I’ve evolved over the past decade — as I wrote in a post seven years ago — is that I have shrunk the “stuff I care about” box. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win an inane argument. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win at some arbitrary competition I don’t care about. I just don’t care.

Except when I do.

5 comments on “Situationally Competitive vs. Always Competitive
  • On MJ, Phil Jackson said that was a distinction between him and Kobe. Jordan bought a Ms. Pacman machine for his house so he could beat Dave Corzine. Kobe just had the killer instinct on the court.

    You, me and Kobe are in the situational competitive camp. That’s the last time I’ll mention myself with Kobe in the same sentence. I hear you’re good at basketball, though.

  • I have partaken in such “team building” exercises and witnessed intense competition. At a company party once, at a bowling lane (I do not bowl!) I was trying it and was better than most. Two people became hyper-competitive with me, just when I got bored and wanted to quit. I just wanted to see if I could make a few strikes: I didn’t care about the game, and I hope to never bowl again.

    I’m not competitive by nature because I don’t think how other people are doing relative to me is my measure. Rather, I am extremely goal-oriented when they are MY chosen goals. I believe you can’t have too many goals operating at once if you are going to be successful.

    Perhaps I should be more competitive? Arguable point, but I don’t think it is going to happen to me.

  • I was at a global conference in Boston in 2011, when we were split into teams and given a treasure hunt walking map of the city – whose statue is in this park, when was this building built kind of things.

    The first conversation I had with my team was to decide whether we were doing this to win … or to have a fun walk through the city. Either choice was fine, but if we had mixed contexts then it would become frustrating.

    The team decided we wanted to win. So I walked us into the library across the road, found the information desk, and about 20 minutes later with the help of their research staff (who greatly enjoyed the diversion) we had all the answers. So we ALSO got to spend the afternoon having a pleasant walk around Boston, and won quite handily.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *