By William Devine
Reprinted from Priorities Magazine, May 2000
Search for the trend, event or icon that captures the essence of the rather unusual economy we’re having, and you quickly find yourself hip deep in worthy nominees.
One set of candidates for what you could call the Gomez Addams Prize in Economics is the growing collection of companies that go public without ever having turned a profit. These firms deserve consideration because of the illogical appeal of their house-of-cards style.
Another candidate is the Kennedy Library Foundation’s agreement to let Hasbro, Inc. partner G.I. Joe with a JFK action figure dressed in PT-109 fatigues. This deal has Gomez written allover it, given how it blends questionable taste with an apparent desire to make Jesse Ventura jealous.
My current frontrunner, however, is the story behind Seagate Technology’s new disk drive. The Cheetah X15, says its product manager, puts Seagate “at least one, and maybe two” quarters ahead of its rivals because the new drive reads data so fast. How fast? It can read the entire works of Shakespeare in less than a quarter second.
Is a disk drive that reads Romeo and Juliet in 1/160th of a second a good and necessary thing? That’s a superb question, but that’s not why the story of the new Cheetah tops my list of unnatural economic trends. The new drive interests me because of how its creators view it.
They see their work–this remarkable, lightning-in-a-bottle-type piece of equipment–solely in terms of how it measures up to other people’s work: it puts us one, and maybe two, quarters ahead of other disk drive makers. No talk of their work’s rewards–the sense of accomplishment it brings, how it helps customers, or how much income it will generate. No sign of inspiration. No hint of what interesting possibilities the future now holds. The only thing that matters to these people is how they stack up against the other guys.
Their reaction underscores an emerging trend in the new economy. This trend is not as splashy a news item as a red-ink IPO or a JFK doll deal, but in its own way it’s All-Unnatural, and it threatens to make a broad and lasting impact on how we live. More and more of us seem hooked on comparing ourselves to each other. We’re built to be joyful, talented, unique individuals, but instead we’re becoming habitual competitors.
Some people believe that competing is a good thing. They feel that our standard of living would not advance without the mano-a-mano face-off. In some cases they bank on it–a West Coast investment firm recently paid $712.5 million for part of a company that televises Formula One grand prix auto-racing events and makes CD-ROM games based on the races. Surprising numbers of people see truth writ large in how the Rams respond to fourth-and-goal at the nine on Sundays. A middle-aged real estate executive once told me how rushing to net after hitting a short lob in a doubles match validated one of his philosophies of life. Such folks celebrate competitiveness as part of the American way of life. They see it as part of what made us who we are today.
Look closely at accomplished people, however, and you see that the deification of competitiveness is the work of hasty minds. I suspect, for example, that Einstein did not achieve his discoveries by arising each day and telling himself, “I’m determined to have a better day than Aristotle ever had.”
I suspect that Sting did not create his most recent record album while thinking, “I’m going to write songs that are a lot better than Stevie Wonder’s.” In fact, Sting invited Mr. Wonder to play harmonica on the album, and it won two Grammy awards. Study any inspired work and you see that genius, contribution to others and true accomplishment flow not from playing me-against-them, but from someone valuing and cultivating both his talents and those of others.
Look closely at people who live a competitive code, by contrast, and you see how dangerous a habit competing can be. Years ago a man named Mack bought 25 acres for $13 million. A few months later, despite lagging demand in the property market, an insurance company offered him $26 million for it. Mack declined, slow market notwithstanding, because he wanted to build buildings on the land, which was in his hometown, and win the town’s Developer of the Year Award. Mack built the buildings, the property market crashed, his lender foreclosed on the project and the distraction of it all cost him his marriage. He won the award, too, and one wonders what he thinks when he looks at that plaque.
At about the same time, a few miles down the road, a man named Eric took over a loss-riddled technology company. He expanded the firm’s business overseas. He redirected its engineering efforts. Within four years income soared, the company’s stock was on a roll and Eric set his sights on overtaking the industry leader. He rented the billboards along the highway next to the rival firm’s headquarters and filled them month after month with ads that berated his rival. One ad read, “Caution: Dinosaur Crossing.”
When a slowing economy threatened to hinder his assault on his opponent, Eric drove his company to ever-higher revenue levels by booking nonexistent sales. He predicted that his firm would soon be a billion-dollar company. After two years of falsifying revenues, Eric sold most of his company stock. Six months later the company admitted in a quarterly report that it was actually losing money, not making it. Shortly thereafter the board of directors was told that the company had claimed more than $250 million in fictitious revenue during the previous forty-two months. They fired Eric on the spot, and everyone braced for securities fraud charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission.
When you compete, you frequently overlook yourself as well as those you could serve. What vision could I express? What work would fulfill me? How could I improve my customers’ lives? You tend to neglect these concerns. Instead, you live in comparison to colleagues, friends, teachers, lovers, people profiled in the newspaper, and amounts of money. Life becomes narrow and limited because you forfeit what you could accomplish if you dropped all the comparisons and instead focused on thinking outside your box. Innovation and creativity cease. Common sense flees. You become boring in your narrowness.
The popularity of competition masks the fact that living by comparison is a fearful way to live–you think that you are inadequate or that something’s wrong with you as you are. It’s also a lazy way to live. In essence, you copy off someone else’s paper for a living, which means that you tend to make news in a way that you wish you hadn’t. You also tend to lose money. If you happen to win, your win tends to arrive accompanied by an unsettled feeling which, when explored, turns out to be the realization that this so-called win is not meaningful to you, and that you’ve set your sights way too low.
Are you fated to be a habitual competitor? Kicking the habit is difficult because we receive such extensive training in how to compete. Learning how to evolve beyond that mindset, though, is essential if you wish to move your self- expression, contributions and income to new levels. These practices can help.
1. Cut back on grist for the mill. Meaningless reference points aid and abet the competitive mindset, so limit their entry into your life. Cancel subscriptions to magazines and newspapers that track how many millions Paul Allen has made since breakfast. Steer conversational companions away from droning on about how many houses Madonna owns. Practice letting go of others’ opinions about you. If your weekly tennis or golf game puts you in a competitive mood for days thereafter, find a new pastime.
2. Speak differently. Frame your thoughts with words such as “achieve” and “ accomplish.” Discontinue use of “win,” “lose,” “competitive,” “go to battle” and anything else that makes you and your colleagues sound like the Los Angeles Lakers or the Fifth Infantry.
3. Expand your horizon. What experience or project would you find so interesting that you would pursue it regardless of where it led you? That’s a door to walk through, if you find yourself looking for a way out of a competitive box. Note that this experience or project may not in fact turn out to be work that fulfills you, but may instead be a place from which fulfilling work will become apparent to you.
4. Serve your customers. How do you want to contribute to your customers? Knowing the answer to this question in detail pays big dividends. Being able to articulate it will help you make job choices, organize your days and solve management problems. It will also help you turn prospects into customers.
5. Collaborate. Working side by side in veiled one-upsmanship is out. Find people who want to serve and grow in the same way that you do, then find ways to work with them.
6. Develop new yardsticks. There’s always someone who makes more money than you. Don’t assess your progress purely in terms of dollars. Instead measure your work by how much you helped a customer or an organization grow or by how much your capabilities have grown. A steady focus on these yardsticks improves your chances of being given more money when you ask for it.
7. Build self-esteem from more than one base. A disappointing day doesn’t rock you when you can see yourself in more than one light. Health and fitness is an excellent source of self-esteem. If they haven’t been strengths of yours in the past, perhaps now is the time to start.
8. Take time to celebrate. You don’t need a limo, a live band, or even an addition to your G.I. Joe collection. Often, just some time in the sunshine will do, if you think about it.
People who compete as a way of life often forget to take the opportunity to inquire into and work up to their own standards of living. They follow the pack and leave no time for joy. Their work tends to border on a trivial pursuit.
Dare to be different.