Finding yourself / How to become a leader / Modern life Q&A

Life is not a competition. Don’t compare yourself to others.

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I grew up during the 1980s, the years known in America as the Decade of Greed. The US economy was flying high, and consumers’ tastes in “adult toys”  – cars, boats, LV handbags, etc. – ran toward conspicuous excess.  Bumper stickers and T-shirts sported the axiom of the day: “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”

I was a highly observant, and highly impressionable, young student of life and, lacking an internally-driven sense of self-worth, I began to crave the outward signs of power and success. Over time, how I felt about myself was based on how I measured up against other people. Other extremely successful people.

Bill Gates and me

Take Bill Gates. By the time I graduated from college, Bill Gates already had dropped out of Harvard, built Microsoft, and become a billionaire. He and I even had a bit of a personal connection, since his wife Melinda had preceded me at Duke by just a few months. By contrast to them, I didn’t know how I’d make my first million.

Then there was my UCLA business school classmate who, upon our graduation, moved to Silicon Valley and rented out her garage to a couple of young kids. Right there, that summer, they started a search-engine company and named it Google. She created their original doodles, and became one of the company’s first executives.

Anytime I read news of someone, I wondered:  “Why is this person ahead of me?  What title does she have?”  And then:  “Am I on the right track? Had I make a mistake somewhere?” Newspapers compounded my misery by printing the ages of all those successful people right beside their names. When someone was my age or younger, I felt nauseous: “Where did I go wrong?”

Why we lose in the race to win

Did all this belly-aching serve me any good purpose in life? Does competition motivate us toward better performance?

In his book No Contest. The Case Against Competition. Why We Lose in the Race to Win, psychologist Alfie Kohn reviews many studies and concludes, “the evidence is overwhelmingly clear and consistent” that “superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.” In fact, he says, a competitive system perpetuates itself by keeping self-worth low and making even the winners constantly needy of more success. He says, “We compete to overcome fundamental doubts about our capabilities and, finally, to compensate for low self-esteem.”

In other words, when we view life through the lens of competition, we’ll always end up feeling small. This point is dramatized in political scientist Xandra Kayden’s book Surviving Power, about ex-politicians and their experience of leaving office. Some “survived,” while others sank into depression.

The trappings of power can feel great. When I was appointed Deputy Mayor, I began to think of myself as a Very Important Person indeed. I thought: “I deserve to have 50,000 city employees stand to attention when I enter a room. TV news reporters follow me around because everything I say is meaningful!”

But when our term ended and Los Angeles elected a new Mayor, and suddenly, the camera bulbs stopped flashing in my direction. I was adrift. I was forced to look in the mirror and face up to the question: “If I’m not the Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, then who am I?”

I was 35, with a lot of living still ahead. It was time to identify and build upon what’s unique about me away from the public eye. It was then, after I left office, that I began to amass the true power that comes from within.

You are enough

He who dies with the most toys, leaves the world empty-handed just like everyone else. This can be rather confusing. After all, from the moment we start school, we’re trained to see all the people around us as names and numbers ranked from high to low. As students, our “job” is to be better than everyone else and get to the top.

Other people are not our standard. Your journey is different from mine, and our journeys are different from that of any other person.

Once we leave school and enter the real world, however, the giant spreadsheet disappears. The world will always contain people who are more successful, and those who are less successful, than you and me. All of that is completely irrelevant to our lives. Other people are not our standard. Your journey is different from mine, and our journeys are different from that of any other person.

There’s nothing wrong with pursuing success, or the power to influence society and the world around us. But it’s wrong to pursue success in a way which cuts yourself off from yourself or in a way which isolates you from other people because you view them simply as obstacles and competitors.

When we compare ourselves to others, we only diminish ourselves and our own possibilities. We can instead focus on own unique and beautiful selves, and we can revel in the fabric of our shared humanity. Indeed, we all are more alike than we are

Warmest wishes from my family to yours for a wonderful Mid-Autumn festival!

Comments welcome, in Chinese, on the Chinese version of this post, here.
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