I played soccer in college, which means I spent hours every day running around Ohio fields, kicking balls at my friends. Looking back, I mostly remember the laughter and camaraderie—it was basically the adult version of recess.
It wasn't always sunshine and roses, though.
Competition was the water we drank. As much as I loved my teammates, I would always compare who got the most playing time or had more shots on goal. I'm ashamed to admit it (especially on the internet where it will haunt me forever), but even if we won the game, I would be upset if a teammate outperformed me. My mental health and relationships suffered, which in turn affected our team dynamic—not to mention our ability to win.
Even now, years later, I find this inner competitive mindset seeping into my work life. And as you can imagine, pitting myself against my coworkers isn't good for anyone.
Competition isn't all bad
Don't get me wrong: competition can be stimulating and sometimes even fun. It gives me that extra push to do things I didn't know I was capable of. For example, completing my first half marathon with my life partner helped me stay motivated. Any time he lasted an extra mile during training or worked out an extra day one week, the competition lit a fire under me. If he could do it, well gosh darn, so could I.
Healthy competition can be good; it's just not everything. I've learned that I need to curb my competitive edge when it begins to affect my relationships, my mental health, or my work.
When I notice that I'm becoming detrimentally competitive at work, here's how I check myself:
I get out of my head. Instead of spiraling into negative thoughts, I take a step away and go for a walk or cuddle my cat. Tackling the issue is important, but not if I'm already deep down the rabbit hole.
I get to the root of my hyper-competitiveness. I ask myself, why do I feel the need to win for this project? Understanding the enemy (my current hang-up) makes it a lot easier to figure out actionable strategies for getting over it.
I talk myself up. Often, my competitive edge is rooted in feelings that I'm not good enough. If that's the case (which I would have learned from step 1 above), I spend time thinking about the wins—big and small—I've had recently and what I'm contributing to the specific project at hand.
In my last job, a coworker and I were each supposed to come up with copy and graphics for a marketing campaign. I felt this huge pressure to do better than her and ensure that my work was chosen over hers.
It didn't take long before the project pressures began to affect my mental health—it was causing me a huge amount of anxiety, so I went through the steps outlined above.
I took a long walk.
I realized my hyper-competitiveness was rooted in thinking it meant I was bad at my job if my copy and graphics weren't chosen.
I thought about how they'd selected me as one of the project contributors because of the excellent work I'd done on similar projects in the past.
In reality, the whole reason my coworker and I were working individually was so we could come together and combine our ideas. It wasn't about who was better; it was about being our best, together.
I don't love comparing myself to Jamie Tartt, but...
Do you watch Ted Lasso? I've rewired my brain to recognize that my coworkers' success is my success, too—much like Jamie Tartt, who evolved from only caring about himself to prioritizing teamwork and camaraderie. Once I stopped comparing how many minutes I played, not only was I happier, but I also played better. Instead of trying to outplay my teammates, I was finding ways to help them play their best game, which led to more wins for us all.
Now, in my work environment at Zapier, I choose to do the same thing: support and cheer on my teammates. I'm surrounded by brilliant writers who constantly inspire me with their word magic. Each time we work on something together (or they edit my work), I learn something and become a better writer.
This runs true for businesses, too. I was recently talking to my partner, who owns a small business in the travel space. When he sees his market competitors doing well, he purposefully chooses to see it as a positive. His mindset is "their success means customers like what we're all selling." He chooses to change the narrative and figure out how he can learn from his successful competitors.
Read more about how you can learn from your competitors' success.
So, my advice: if you find yourself feeling competitive at work, pause for a moment and revel in your coworkers' wins. Here are some concrete steps you can take:
1. Start by sending them a message telling them how amazing they are. Be specific! Obviously, hearing you're amazing is great, but be sure to tell them exactly what they did that was helpful or inspiring or whatever else.
2. Share their win in public spaces, too. I always like to start with a DM, but if you know the person doesn't mind public attention, praise them somewhere else too. That might mean a message in a team Slack channel or a shout-out at your next meeting.
3. Actively ask their advice on projects where you're stuck. Instead of pitting yourself against them, reach out for help. That way, their wins make you better—which makes the whole team better.
Cheering on your coworkers makes work (and life!) better and leads to more wins for everybody—including you.