What Race Are You Running?

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us look at competition in a more meaningful way. It is hard, at least in the United States, to feel as though one can be successful without comparing oneself to everyone else. Our entire society is based around consumption and markets, creating daily competitions and providing us with a million opportunities to purchase shiny new trophies as emblems of our success. The markets we live within have driven human ingenuity forward, given us phones that replace a thousand products in a 2.5 X 5 inch rectangle in our pocket, and have risen the living standards for people across the globe, but our markets have also put us in a place where purchasing power and wealth are the standards we use to measure the value and success of people. This can be very dangerous, especially since competition is not always the best way to unify a society or bring meaning to most individuals. Holiday writes,

 

“Only you know the race you’re running. That is, unless your ego decides the only way you have value is if you’re better than, have more than, everyone everywhere. More urgently, each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means that we’re the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet, and as a result, squander our very potential and purpose.”

 

The competition of the markets in our lives make it seem like we are all racing against each other all  the time. I feel this when I check the stats for my blog, when I post a run to Strava, and when someone I know pulls up next to me in a brand new car. I often feel that I am doing well or not doing well based on how I look relative to others, which is dangerous because it is something I do not control. I cannot compare my blog to people who are professional bloggers and have the time and energy to put all of their focus into their blog. I cannot compare my running to friends of mine who have the time to do multiple workouts every day with a coach who can help them run really fast. And I do not know if the person in the new car next to me is just borrowing the car from a family member, paid for it outright, or is leasing a new car they really can’t afford. In my examples above, each of us is in a different race, and it is a mistake to think that I am somehow competing against all of them in these areas that really do not matter at the end of the day.

 

A while back I wrote about the pitfalls of using money and wealth as our default measurement for success. Financial success does not always translate into a well rounded and truly successful life. There are many factors that contribute to someone’s wealth, and very often those factors don’t really have anything to do with the hard work, value, or skills of a person. Trying to outrun that person and achieve greater wealth than them might be a mistake, because you are running a different race, and you might be competing in an entirely different sport. Assuming that everyone is just like us, that they have had the same experience as us, the same advantages and obstacles in their lives, and experience the same desires and goals as us is a mistake if we are trying to compete with them to have more things or more of what ever it is we decide makes someone successful. At the end of the day we can use elements of competition to encourage us to make good decisions like eating healthy, writing every day, and working hard to be productive, but we should not do these things simply to be better than everyone else and show our dominance over them.

Human Nature

In his book Return on Character Fred Kiel addresses human nature and how it relates to business, success, and relationships.  Kiel focuses on basic moral behaviors and attributes that humans display, and he explains that while morality may manifest and be presented in different manners based on culture, there are some key moral ideas and principles that humans seem to show across the globe.  He bumps up agains the idea of a universal human nature bestowed upon us at birth versus the idea that culture and our nurturing shape what we describe as our nature and common behaviors.

 

Kiel quotes Steven Pinker who wrote in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature to express his ideas of nature and how that impacts our lives in business, “Thus, while conflict is a human universal, so is conflict resolution. Together with all their nasty and brutish motives,  all people display a host of kinder gentler ones.” Kiel is suggesting that we have a set of common human behaviors that can be interpreted as human nature, and he is positing those behaviors in a semi positive light.  He uses the passage in his book to explain that human nature is complex and that modern action and behavior cannot simply be explained away as human nature, especially when we have contradicting behaviors that we all share and display.

 

The idea behind Return on Character is that companies that are very forward in thinking in terms of their moral activity within society; the positive treatment of their employees, and the integrity of their leadership, perform better than companies that do not have the same positive values.  For a long time the business world has been regarded as cutthroat and we have valued individuals who can boast about their success even at the expense of the environment, the health of others, and the true wellbeing of the companies they lead.  By accepting that human nature does not simply boil down to conflict and competition, we can see that business and human interactions within a business space can go beyond the typical vision which has produced a bellicose view of the work world. Just as it can be human nature to compete and fight, we can build compassion and assistance. Kiel argues throughout his book that those who integrate better moral goals as part of their company do better because it helps the company foster better relationships internally and externally.

Working Together

Carolyn Chute wrote a letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, which is a collection of letters from creative artists, independent film actors, and writers and poets. In her letter Chute writes about coming together and finding true value in everyone.  Chute writes, “Another nice thing to try is forgetting everything you learned in public school.  Especially the competition part — the “there are winners and losers” part.  try to think in terms of working together.  EVERYBODY has an A+.”  What she is explaining with this quote is that public schools get us in a mindset of constantly comparing ourselves to others and competing in certain situations to see who can have the best grades and prove themselves to be special.  The problem with this style of competition and proving our self worth through school work is that it excludes some students based on their personality or skills. Chute continues, “Everyone’s A+ isn’t visible or marketable or reflected in their possessions, appearance, or social graces.” What she is speaking of is true from grade school through college, into the business world, and all the way to parenting.
The school situation that Chute referenced is a reflection of how we judge people in our society, and how we chose to evaluate the successes and failures of others.  In society we tend to judge people based on their financial success, how big their home is, and what type of car they drive.  We assume that the greater they are in these areas, the happier they must be, and the more successful their relationships and health must also be.  The school system builds this in by putting us in situations where everyone hides their failures, and hangs their A+s above their desk for all to see.  And what is worse according to Chute, “School recognizes only those things you can WIN at. or at the things you can do quietly at a desk.”  In much the same way, society only judges people based on an individual’s financial “wins”.
Judging a student as successful based solely on their ability to complete their multiplication tables or score well on a vocabulary test misses out on what makes that student unique, and does not reveal the student’s personality, character, or interpersonal skills.  Judging them on a few categories that are easily visible and simple to compare against others does not give us a full understanding of the value of the student.  What Chute does in her brief paragraph is help us realize that we fall into the same pitfall in society when we judge others based on their financial status and material gains.  Comparing outward financial projections is an easy way to compare our value against others, but it certainly is not the right way, accurate way, or meaningful way to determine who has been successful or lived a valuable life.  What Chute explains is that we can not approach the world from such an individualistic perspective because we must all be connected in order to build a better planet and establish society together.  Each one of us has special skills and abilities, and we should all be working to highlight the strengths of others as opposed to working to make our own skills stand out.