Competition is natural. As a species, there was a time when we needed a competitive instinct to survive: to save us from getting eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger over the next person, or to mate with the ‘fittest’ (biologically) partner so our genes live on the best they can. This is purely from a biological perspective, and Darwin would argue is the real origin and true essence of competition.
Everyone can see competition in society. A myriad of social situations: dating, school, work, sport, even our economic system, is modelled on it. It is everywhere in almost everything we encounter. The idea of being ‘better’ than other people, is what will see you to success.
As people who have gone through school, into university, and out into the ‘job market’ (we hate that phrase) it’s something we know all too well. Being ‘top of the class’ at school is still a thing; having the highest exam marks over others (something some organisations award for); the fight for places over others at university; rankings for universities - all trying to outdo each other; leaving university and entering the world as a graduate, a place you are told is extremely competitive because ‘everyone has a degree’ and you need to ‘set yourself apart’. You get yourself a job and, in some cases, it doesn’t stop there: competing for a promotion, higher salaries, being noticed by your boss, all things that people experience day to day at work. This stuff is part of society. It’s ingrained and inbuilt.
What we wonder is whether or not all this is still entirely necessary. Is this idea of competition exhausting young people so much that they aren’t able to focus on doing the things they enjoy and as a result being increasingly unhappy? After all, mental health in young people as a whole isn't in the greatest place. Does competition have something to do with it.
I, personally, am not a believer in competition with other people as a positive force when it comes to something as important as your future. I think the current structure has insidiously pushed us into thinking that it’s necessary for improvement as a society; that without it, we are somehow less. If we are not interested in ‘winning’ we are somehow not working hard enough, not aspiring to the right heights, or being ‘the best we can be’.
However, does this mean that I’m not a believer in being in competition with yourself, for yourself? No. Although perhaps we should call it self-improvement rather than anything else. There are huge benefits to always trying to improve aspects of yourself - whatever it is, and often this will tie in with the where you want to get to as a person, what your goals and aspirations are. This may sometimes involve ‘winning’ and beating other people, but the important thing should be to make sure you are doing it for you and your reasons. You want to win but you want to win for you because of you, not because of someone else. And not for the sensation of beating someone else.
The funny thing about competition against others is that it has the potential to standardise stuff. You go to school, you do the same exams, you go to universities, you get an upper second class degree or better. You get this degree because the perception is if you don’t have one, you won't be able to compete with the rest. You do volunteering at university because everyone gets told that’s what you should do to set yourself apart - but then no-one is set apart.
It’s really hard to navigate this. Mainly because it doesn’t really make sense.
There are so many conflicting messages that we’re all bombarded with:
‘Be an individual’,
‘We want to see someone different’,
‘What sets you apart?’
‘We only accept applicants with a 2:1 degree or higher’,
‘You need at least 300 UCAS point to get apply for this course’,
‘Due to the volume of applications we won’t be able to give you any feedback’
‘Your CV must be in this format’
and that’s without the stuff that isn’t explicit - filtering applications based on standardised criteria - keywords, format, spelling mistakes - and sometimes not even being read by a person.
Competition against others removes individuality which is exactly what employers say they are looking for. Graduates are being forced into having to give employers the same experience while being told they need to give a different one.
You can only celebrate individuality if you treat people as individuals, educate people as individuals, and employ people as individuals.
This is all often coined in the term ‘playing the game’, which is often an accepted thing to be seen to be doing at university and beyond. Sometimes even at school.
But there is a danger here.
If you play a ‘game’ you end up seeing important things, things that should be considered and worked out in accordance to your values, as a game. There’s a real danger that this devalues them and leads to people making bad choices. We all know the people that try too hard to ‘win’ - who care more about that than how they treat people, or come across. You already know that you don’t want to be this person - but unfortunately the nature of school, university and the graduate job market has the tendency to channel people into thinking that you have to do this to ‘succeed’.
But don’t despair. The important thing is to realise that you can’t worry that what you really want to do won't fit into the 'game'. That the travelling you want to do, or that play you want to write, that bike-building course you want to go on, or those experiences you want to have won’t hold you in good stead because you’re not ‘playing the game’, that it will put you at a disadvantage with others. It wont. If you slow down, do those things when the passion is there, if you stray from the normal way of doing it all, you allow your individuality to shine through; even if it’s going against what you've been told to do, and people will respond. Why? Because they’re individuals too. And nothing is more eye-catching than when something’s different and genuine.
So when you’re thinking about the next step, try to recognise the competition and pay it no attention. Don’t ‘play the game’ - live and do the things you want to do. When you feel you need to do them. Do the best you can do, for you and because of you.
Because that’s who you’ll answer to in the end.
‘I am in competition with no one. I have no desire to play the game better than anyone else. I am simply trying to be a better person than I was yesterday’ - Unknown