When Competition is Fierce, it All Comes Down to You

Posted on Apr 10, 2012 in CHI Insight
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With the continual rise in popularity of running events such as the half marathon and marathon, society is putting a literal stamp on the notion of competing with yourself. The goals and reasons for long distance running are diverse. To become a better person. To show support for a loved one or friend who is ill, or to raise money for a cause. And then there are those who simply love to run and compete; to test themselves against the clock; and to rise to a challenge where the circumstances are not decided in advance, rigged against you or subject to the personal or political will of others.

 

Solo versus team training

Despite the solo nature of long distance running, cycling or swimming, many people turn to training groups for support. It is not uncommon to find 40 to 60 people gathered in the dim light on a Saturday morning to start their 10- or 20-mile runs in the company of others. You may not start or finish with the same group, but having company even in a solo sport can make the effort feel easier.

Of course some of your training for long distance running events must be done on your own. And like running, your work in the business world also often requires solo effort.

Perhaps this connection reveals much of the appeal in the discipline of running. Pushing your mind and body through the challenge of training is both pleasure and pain. But it does prepare us to compete better in the business world.

 

The paradox of stress relief

Somewhat ironically, sports like running are proven methods for helping us work off the stress accrued in the work world. How weird is that? Business people spend all week fighting through frustration and mental challenges only to go out in running shoes to push their bodies to fatigue. This seems like a paradox or a mystery. But it really is not.

 

Competition for competition’s sake

The reason that competing with yourself does not feel like competition at work or in the business world comes down to the notion of fun. Many people do enjoy competing in the business world, and in marketing or public relations, that means contributing to the positive bottom line of your division or company. Those empiric standards have been heightened in the marketing world due to increasing pressures on every segment of modern day corporations to produce revenue and growth. Globalization has something to do with that. So does technology, efficiency, productivity and plain old solvency. The well-known maxim, “Compete or die,” remains true in the business world. Increasingly, marketing is directly tied to that maxim of helping companies compete, lest they die.

But for millions of talented people, “compete or die” takes on a different meaning when they lace on running shoes or saddle up on the bike. Endurance sports engage all the senses in activities that raise the heart rate and increase oxygen uptake, improving health by imposing positive stress on the body, if managed correctly.

 

Is there such a thing as positive stress?

Positive stress. The term itself seems like an oxymoron. But it isn’t. Engaging our bodies and minds in stress by choice is training in the broadest sense of the word. If learning to test our bodies and minds and enjoying the process through empiric and social achievement proves anything, it is that human beings really do thrive on having something to compete for, and to share. It is wired into our being.

 

The peak of performance: Show yourself what you can do

Great athletes inspire millions of people because they demonstrate the ability to achieve at the highest level of physical performance in activities where the rules and records are well known, and the efforts of mere mortals pale by comparison. Certainly the world marathon records of 2:03:38 for men and 2:15:25 for women place the pace of most marathoners in firm perspective.

Yet world records are not what most people seek to achieve when they toe the line to compete. Most just want to improve their times, to compete against their own best efforts.

 

Translating competition into creativity

Great competitions – whether in athletics or business – often bring out the inner creativity and inspiration of participants.

Steve Jobs clearly saw and articulated the link between self-competition and creativity. He believed competing with yourself might just be the most important thing you can do in your personal life and in business, because it helps open up and connect the dots between personal and professional achievement.

“Creativity is just connecting things,” said Steve Jobs to Wired magazine in February 1996. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experience or they have thought more about their experiences than other people."

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

And Jobs didn’t end there. One of his most famous quotes illustrates the importance of personal initiative and competing with yourself in all brands of creativity. Speaking about his own ability to see beyond the norm, Jobs said: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

The challenge is both to create the new, and to market or promote it. That process takes solo inspiration, but it often depends as well on a group dynamic to make it real, to make it fun and to make it profitable.

So let’s talk about competition and creativity. Tell us how you get inspired to achieve. We’ll include your feedback in a future blog.


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