If You're Scared of Competition, the World Will Eat You Alive
Competition is a lot like diet: It's objectively crucial to the outcome of your life, but people who talk about it too much are fucking insufferable.
If a teenager asked me for a word of advice about surviving adulthood, it would be this:
"That doesn't mean anything," they'd probably reply. "A 'word of advice' doesn't literally mean one word, you dumb piece of shit."
To which I would say, fine, here's the longer version:
"The well-meaning adults in your life have lied to you. This is a world of competition, whether you acknowledge it or not. You're not just competing for money but for relationships, status and all of the other good things in life. You don't have to be an asshole to win... but you do have to compete."
This was never really made clear to me as a nerdy, non-sports teen. People who say this kind of shit are the reality show contestants who proclaim they're, "Not here to make friends," they're the Wolf of Wall Street sharks who'll celebrate raiding an elderly couple's retirement fund to buy a fourth yacht, they're the pick-up artists who describe dating in creepy economist terms ("You must demonstrate that you are a high-value male by showing dominance over rival suitors!").
But I've watched bad people consistently rise to the top precisely because they embrace the game that the rest of us peace-loving hippies find distasteful. I know this triggers a whole bunch of objections in the mind of any decent person, so allow me to address them now, in countdown list form:
#8. "What makes you think we don't know about competition? Everyone reading this has gotten steamrolled by it since birth."
It's true that most of us refer to modern capitalism as a ruthless nightmare, just search Twitter for the phrase "It's a doggy dog world":
But the reaction to this is often, "Let's refuse to compete" rather than, "Let's win the competition" and that's the worst possible approach. Here, let's check Twitter again:
Now, I absolutely agree with this tweet! Being a workaholic can result in a lonely life and an early grave, I've seen A Christmas Carol. But,
…if you apply for a job that A) you happen to qualify for B) leaves plenty of free time C) makes you feel safe D) has generous paid sick days and E) pays enough for you to afford self-care (good diet, healthcare, travel, hobbies) you will find that you are one of literally 5,000 people who applied for that position.
Only one of you will get it.
You are in a competition.
Or, let's say you have decided to intentionally do as little as possible at your current job in the name of work-life balance or just out of a defiance of modern "grind culture." This post is 96% upvoted on Reddit:
The "fuck 'em" attitude is fine, and even healthy... right up until you are up for a job that lots of other people also want. If any of those candidates embraced the grind harder than you did, you'll probably lose. No matter how low you think you are on the ladder, there's always somebody below you who wants what you have. And they won't take days off.
You don't have to like it, you just have to be aware of it. In fact, I suspect some of you are extremely angry right now because I’ve left out all sorts of complicating factors and injustices. Keep reading.
This post is sponsored by my latest novel, you can get it here.
#7. "You're acting like we're in a perfectly fair system that rewards those who work hardest! We hate the grind because farm workers get a pittance while middle-managers make six figures answering like three emails a day!"
Where did I ever say that this competition was fair? Even rich finance bros with "Survival of the Fittest" tattoos will whine that they can't get any action on Tinder unless they lie about their height. Part of having a competition mindset - maybe the most important part - is understanding all of the ways in which the competition is unfair (including acknowledging that you have advantages others don't).
For example, the reason those corporate middle managers have inflated salaries compared to the work they do is that, while they jockey with each other for position, they also realize their class is in competition with other classes and take steps to protect it. They're the ones upholding the idea that you need a $150,000 college degree to do a task that a novice could learn in two months. The system is riddled with inefficiencies but those inefficiencies are there because of competition, specifically because of various groups trying to rig the game.
Of course you should do everything you can to make the world more fair, anyone familiar with my work knows I support that. But in the meantime, you have to compete, there's no way around it. If the unfairness of the competition makes you want to just drop out, that's totally understandable but please know that dropping out only means that you lose and somebody else wins. The game itself remains unaffected.
#6. "This is just propaganda perpetuating capitalism! This greedy 'dog-eat-dog' mindset is what's destroying the world!"
I get it, I do. Let’s try a hypothetical, though:
Imagine you're a young, kind-hearted aspiring poet. You move to an idyllic island nation that has overthrown capitalism altogether. There are no billionaires, no petty personal greed or ruthless striving.
But a couple of months in, you feel a creeping angst. You've been extremely productive writing poetry, but no one seems to enjoy it. You hand out free copies and hold open readings (for the good of the community) but they're sparsely attended. Meanwhile, your friend Jeff gets standing-room-only crowds for his poetry readings, which involve a lot more graphic descriptions of sex acts.
One day, while you're chilling on a hillside and composing a poem about all of this, the guy who runs the free public dining hall approaches. This exchange ensues:
Dining Hall Guy: "Hey, we need you in the kitchen to help peel potatoes for breakfast tomorrow."
You: "I'm writing a poem. I'm hosting a reading tonight. It's free, for the good of the community."
DHG: "No, the community needs you in the kitchen. We're short-handed and everyone else is busy cleaning up the water leak in the free library."
You: "But I'm not a potato peeler, I'm a poet! The whole reason I left society behind was so I could pursue my dreams instead of doing menial labor!"
DHG: "It's not menial. People need to eat, including you. If you want to do what brings the most benefit to the community, you need to put down your quill and head to the kitchen."
You: "But Jeff gets to write poetry full time!"
DHG: "Right, because lots and lots of people enjoy Jeff's poetry, to the point that it's clear the community benefits more from his poetry than from whatever he could offer in the kitchen. The last time you had a poetry reading, only two people showed up and it's because they went to the wrong tent by accident. Here's the news: Everyone here would prefer to be writing poetry, or playing video games, or just nothing at all. But the things the people in this community need and the things the people in this community want to produce are not the same, so we all have to sacrifice to make them balance out. It's selfish for you to continue writing poetry that the community does not want and to refuse to do the work the community needs. And this community cannot survive if the citizens are selfish."
Yep, even in this capitalism-free paradise, you are faced with two choices: Find a way to compete with your rival poets, or give up and peel potatoes. It is, in fact, a doggy dog world.
#5. "In that situation, I'd rather peel potatoes than become some kind of cutthroat competitor!"
Sure, let's go with that. You relegate your poetry to a hobby and devote yourself to unskilled labor for the good of the community. You'll find your satisfaction elsewhere, from the love of a good woman and a great circle of friends. Life is more than work, right?
Good news - you soon find a lovely woman with a great personality and a kind heart. You really vibe with her. The only problem is, she has a boyfriend. Even worse, she seems to be friends with like six more dudes who really kinda seem to be just floating around in case she breaks it off with the guy she's with. The mere suggestion that this is a "competition" turns your stomach. The thought of examining her other suitors and honestly evaluating how you measure up, or considering what you might have to change in order to "win", seems hopelessly cynical. So, you back off... and find all of the other women you’re attracted to are in the same situation. So, you're sleeping alone.
Meanwhile, you've made a couple of friends, but one of them is always busy with their work (painting houses, for the good of the community) and the other has tons of other friends. He's charismatic and funny, everybody loves him, so you're lucky to even get an hour one-on-one before somebody else pops in. There is a limited number of hours in a day and that number cannot be expanded. You realize that if your goal is to be the "best" friend with the deepest connection, several other people who also want that are going to lose.
This is when it hits you: Regardless of the system, even the most altruistic soul wants specific good things in their life and the supply of those things is always badly outstripped by demand. You escaped capitalism, consumerism and governments, you even escaped your own shallow pettiness and greed. But you cannot escape competition.
#4. "So I can't be happy unless I turn into a hyper-aggressive, backstabbing shithead?"
I'm not saying that at all; in fact, having lots of prosocial behaviors (being good at cooperation, communication, supporting others) will help you succeed in all sorts of areas of life. Remember, the Wolf of Wall Street guy wound up in jail. The "I'm not here to make friends" jerk never wins the reality show competition. Most people wouldn’t hire or date somebody who is openly undermining their perceived rivals. Everyone hates the athlete who gets caught cheating.
It turns out that the people I mentioned in my intro are usually not that great at competing, because they have a gross, simplistic idea of what it takes to win. Anyone who acts like a dick in the name of competition was probably just looking for an excuse.
#3. "So what does 'competing' even look like, if not that?"
If you're not achieving what you want in life, stop blaming the system and start honestly comparing yourself to the people you are competing with. How do you measure up to the successful ones? To the failures? What do you need to change about yourself?
"But lots of the people who have what I want got it by inheriting a bunch of money!" So? Vote to raise their taxes, then forget about them - if their unfair advantage makes you so bitter that you just give up, it just means they win. Find examples who did it the hard way and see what you can emulate.
If that sounds obvious, A) It definitely wasn't obvious to me until I was like 42 years old and B) my social media is flooded with people who keep getting flattened by competition they never saw coming. I refuse to believe we're doing a good job of teaching this.
When I look around, I see Incels who rage that their lack of dates is due to something broken about the world, rather than the fact that they only desire the most attractive 10% of women and can't figure out why they're losing to guys who aren't bitter weirdos. I see teens who think they'll make a living on Twitch or YouTube while offering nothing that literally 200,000 other channels aren't doing better. I see people who think it's disgusting to view the world as a marketplace full of transactions but somehow think it's healthy to sit around all day fantasizing about beheading their landlord.
There is nothing more valuable than the ability to frankly (and even harshly) assess what you bring to the table and how it benefits the people you want to spend your life with. I'm not talking about the nihilistic doomer self-loathing that's so in fashion these days - that's just another form of narcissism. It's "Here's what I need to improve" not "Loudly hating myself somehow makes me a good person."
#2. "Everyone should have access to healthcare and affordable housing! We shouldn't have to fight each other over scraps!"
I agree! When those things come up for a vote, vote for them. Canvas your neighborhood, work the phones, donate to organizations pushing for change. But when you do that, you'll find you're competing against other activists pushing for the opposite. To win, you'll have to beat them.
I guess you could instead just make plans to move to another country with less inequality or research a commune you can join. In both cases, they're likely inundated with people looking to move there and, in order to get one of their limited slots, you will have to - say it with me - compete.
If you're one of the radical types who believe the system won't be fair until we overthrow global capitalism with violence, well, shit, that's the harshest competition of all. You'll be competing with the capitalists for resources, recruits and weapons. Your opponents control the nukes, so I suspect such a war would leave like five billion people dead by the time society rebuilds. If you think that kind of competition - to see who can kill who the fastest - is better than what we have now, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.
Meanwhile, the groups who don't want us to take their power have worked very hard to promote "Let's just stop working and chill!" as the ultimate form of protest. I see memes like this every single day on Instagram:
I know it’s just a joke, a way of venting about the grind. But this venting isn’t expressed as, "These long work hours are preventing me from caring for my disabled neighbor" or "My sky-high rent is preventing me from donating to socialist activism" but rather, "This is all preventing me from pursuing my dream of doing nothing whatsoever." In a competitive world, it's hard to imagine a more self-destructive idea.
If your tribe's motto is, "We need to build a more fair world" then I'm on board. But you won't achieve that sitting on a porch. Ask the union organizers how much work it took to establish the 40-hour workweek. You can compete in the system we have, or compete even harder to get it changed. But you have to compete either way.
#1. "Why should I listen to you? Don't you sit at home and write elaborate butt jokes for way too much money?"
I said at the top that I give this advice specifically because nobody gave it to me. I was a nerdy kid, I was bad at sports and avoided other kinds of competition because the thought of it made me sick to my stomach. The idea of losing was bad but the thought of beating somebody else was almost worse.
Then, I went off to a university and was baffled to find certain people in my broadcast journalism program treating me like shit, undermining me and generally acting weird. I had no context for it and wouldn't until much later: They, correctly, saw me as competition. There were limited internships and limited jobs to get with them. Meanwhile, I was this wide-eyed kid who'd popped out of a cornfield, jumping into every project like a raccoon at a buffet.
If anyone had walked up and said, "You are my competition, and I intend to win," I'd have thought they were joking. We're not finance sharks! We work in media! We're here to uplift minds and expand people's horizons or whatever!
I didn't learn. Twenty years later, I was running a massive website (Cracked.com, for those who are completely new here) and watching traffic and revenue collapse. If you'd told me we were losing a competition, I'd have snickered and said, "We're not 'in competition,' unless we're competing against boredom and sadness, which we soundly defeat with each reader's smile! I mean, who are we competing with? The Onion and College Humor? We cooperate with them all the time! We're huge fans!"
But the competition, it turned out, was Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms that were intent on sucking all of the ad dollars from content-generating sites. If I'd thought of it that way, I'd have realized we were in a fight to the death with companies that combined have a market cap of something like three trillion dollars (literally three trillion, I realize it sounds like a wacky fake number I just made up). I'd have figured out we were in a competition that we were 100% going to lose and immediately told everyone to run for their lives.
Instead, I found myself sitting shell-shocked on a conference call full of friends whose lives were upended by a disaster I didn't see coming. That's because, up until then, I had been thinking that if we just did good work, the fans would find us and eventually everything would work out. If I'd realized that we were in an unwinnable fight, I'd have anticipated what our bosses were about to do.
Today, I write novels full time (my most recent is called Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick). I wake up every day knowing that I'm in a competition, not with other authors, but with Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitch and any number of other platforms designed to convert leisure time into ad dollars. That's why this blog/newsletter exists; surviving as an author means having a way to pry people away from social media long enough to hopefully buy a book (the latest one is here, you can find links to all of them here).
Either it will work or it won’t, but there's nothing noble about refusing to see it as a competition. If other successful people tell you I'm full of shit, look closely at how they got to where they are. Think about how someone else could be there instead, and why they're not. Here’s an end table with a huge dick.
You should collect all your essays into a book. Or someone should do it for you. Your writing in the last decade has had a huge impact on my life. The power of inception. In a practical sense you helped me make big steps in the 'competition' and your article encouraging 'completing a project' contributed to some of my biggest life changes. Thank you for your words.
I transitioned into teaching after I left the sales world for 3 years (hated the grind lol) but now I’m a licensed stem and Spanish teacher, all because of the grind. I think one thing your article could add is that finding the correct goal to grind towards is so much more important than how you grind. I teach my kids “ganas” (doing the things you don’t want to do, but know you must do) It takes less ganas to grind when you enjoy what you do!