The Truth About Competition and Authenticity


…we’re in this together
not to win
not to compete
not to conquer

but to educate
to nurture
to help

we are each the others’ keeper
let us celebrate
the power within us all
to make the difference

to change the world

(from In this Together, by Natasha Josefowitz)

Competition is an ever-present part of life, existing in each social, economic and political system. It creates winners and losers. It relies on comparison and measurement. It produces fear and anxiety in some, and a determination to prevail in others. However, it is fundamentally rooted in a scarcity mentality. Resources – money, attention, jobs, academic opportunities and social status – seem to accrue to those who win.

What if we were to rethink the whole paradigm, focusing instead on the rich rewards of internally motivated gains and collaboration? I’m not saying that healthy competition is in-and-of-itself bad, but I fear that too often we leave unexamined the role that externally generated motivations play in our work and personal lives. And we do so to our peril.

What if we decide there is enough for everyone?

Adopting an abundance mentality allows us to act with the knowledge that there is not only enough to go around, but that our collective human potential is so significant that we can generate above and beyond the levels we currently see. Think about how you feel when you are secure that there is plenty…plenty of food, of great assignments and projects, of attention and affection. Within such a framework, we are all far less likely to be stingy, grabby, scared or jealous. There’s a sense of peace, of ease, and of satisfaction. I’d argue that in this setting, our best selves emerge – our generous, thoughtful and communal natures. A wonderful philosopher, writer and teacher, Angeles Arrien, notes that competition and comparison are barriers to authenticity; thus, if we define authenticity as “the expression of what is genuine and natural”, trying to measure up to an externally generated standard takes us away from who we are.


A “competition,” by its very nature, is what psychologists call an “extrinsic incentive.” Extrinsic simply means that the motivation to adopt a behavior or decision is sourced externally rather than internally (e.g., when you do something because you get a reward for it). A fundamental characteristic (and downside) of nearly all extrinsic incentives is that they only tend to work for as long as the incentive is maintained!
— The Psychology of Competition, Sander van der Linden Ph.D.


Competition in sports and games is fun and necessary, and often stimulates terrific performance (just ask my family about our Scrabble matches!).  But when it goes too far, it is nasty, unproductive and can even become violent or destructive. Just look at the current political climate in the US. This is no small thing, and we are living in a very divisive moment now, where this sense of us-versus-them is yielding a competition for parties and factions to prevail at all costs.  We are vilifying the “other” and have lost the thread of what it means to be a multifaceted society.  We are focusing on winning arguments, not solving problems. 

When I was in college, there was an unspoken rule that you didn’t ask anyone about their grades. We were competing with our own potential, not that of someone else. In fact, in earlier generations, you only knew your grades if you needed them to apply to graduate school. Imagine! Now, instead of an emphasis on internally generated goals to learn and master information, there is a culture of externally validated competition, and it appears that the social fabric is suffering as a result.

It’s not hard to imagine a world in which we are, as the poet Natasha Josefowitz says, each other’s keepers. In such a world, we can focus on collaboration, not comparison.  Instead of thinking about our careers as a series of beating others to get jobs, promotions and plum assignments, we can challenge ourselves to design and then prepare for our most authentically desired success. In doing so, we are free to champion others, whose achievements do not diminish our own, but are, in fact, part of our collective contributions to a healthy, thriving society.