Why competitive people are often dumb and boring

People who work hard are typically motivated by either their performance (i.e., they want to look good) or their mastery (i.e., they like being good at their craft). Most of us pursue a mix of different goals.

It would seem like performance goals are harmless. What is wrong with wanting to get good grades in school, or having a good salary? Nothing is wrong with these goals, except that they can backfire.

  • Performance-oriented people often develop performance-avoidance goals: they want to avoid looking bad.

    When I was a student at the University of Toronto, many competitive students looked for the easiest classes they could find. If you focus on looking good, you will avoid challenges where you might look bad.

    A professional suffering from performance-avoidance goals may avoid taking on risky projects or jobs. Scientists preoccupied by their performance will often avoid challenging projects, preferring to follow the same tracks over decades. A programmer worried about looking bad might avoid trying out a new programming language.

    In short, performance-avoidance goals may limit your ambition.

    Performance-avoidance goals may also lead you to focus narrowly. Why waste time learning about calligraphy when you could practice for your calculus test?

    You effectively narrow down your life to whatever is most boring or safest.

  • Performance goals are hard on morale. At some point, you will fail. Maybe you wanted to enter this highly competitive school, or you wanted to get this prestigious job… and instead you will have to be satisfied with less than you hoped for.

    It is almost unavoidable because there will always be pressure to set the bar higher, and higher.

    People with performance goals are more likely to crash.

    I have never been to South Korea, but I hear that kids kill themselves over bad results at school. That is one extreme. Most crashes are not so intense or visible… but they are common nevertheless. They sometimes take unexplained forms.

    A favorite example of mine is mathematics. I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of the population can be good at mathematics. Of course, not everyone starts on an equal footing, and some people need to work harder. But mathematics is fun. All young kids like mathematics. What turn people away from mathematics is the fear of failure.

I believe we should be especially carefully about setting performance goals for kids. It is especially damaging for kids to limit their ambition, play it safe and burn out. You want kids who are unafraid to try their luck at many things… you want kids to have high morale.

What is the alternative to performance goals? You can focus on growing your skills, mostly forgetting about performance. Ignore selective venues. Forget about beating others… avoid competition if you can… Focus all your attention on doing better and more interesting work.

People who are obsessive about honing their skills are never boring. They also tend to be generous. If your goal is to get better… you have no reason not to help others… especially if it can serve as an excuse to improve your own skills further.

Burning out is less likely when you are focused on mastery… maybe because setbacks are much less likely.

Some will object that performance and competition matter a great deal. If you are a martial art expert and someone is trying to kill you, focusing on improving your skills might not be optimal. But throughout most of your life, you will not be in grave danger. You can afford a few bad grades. You can afford to be passed on for promotion. The truth is that if you are really good at what you do, you will probably do ok most of time without ever having to compete. Oh! And you will probably become a more interesting person.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “Why competitive people are often dumb and boring”

  1. I love the observation that “People who are obsessive about honing their skills are never boring. They also tend to be generous.” This is very true. When people are not generous it is a warning sign for me that they are probably operating with some unhealthy level of fear. If I find myself not wanting to be generous, I try and recognize the fear behind that ungenerous impulse. And then I force myself to recognize why it would be better to be generous.

  2. “When others are doing something like you are, let that activity go because that means you don’t have to do it! If they are stealing your ideas, ripping off your moves, knocking off your style, and they are doing it well, thank them. You’ve just learned that that assignment is something you don’t need to do because someone else can do it. This is scary because you are giving up things you do well, and you might think that after surrendering all the good stuff, there won’t be anything excellent left for you. Trust me, there is more to you than that. But it will take all your life to find it. All, as in all your days. And all, as in all your ceaseless effort. Your greatest job is shedding what you don’t have to do.”
    — Kevin Kelly, What You Don’t Have To Do

  3. Daniel, you are becoming my favorite blogger.

    I have been a performance oriented person for much of my life. In the past few years I have realized that my obsession with high performance is mostly my want to impress authorities in disguise. In schools I wanted to impress my teachers and my parents and to some extent also my classmates. In the university, I wanted to impress my professor and other senior people that I would occasionally meet.

    Needless to say, with this realization comes the realization that this way of living is just damn stupid. I’m now in a PhD program (to which I went mostly because I wanted to impress people by becoming a PhD) and I have promised to myself that this is the last “performance oriented” goal that I’m going to pursue. I somewhat like what I’m studying, but I have realized that academia – unless you’re a tenured professor – is a horrible place to study or research anything out of pure interest. The system is build for the performance oriented people.

  4. I completely agree that competitive people are boring as hell.

    BUT there may be people who disagree that competition and mastery can be separated so cleanly. For many, competition energizes their training and is seen as a *means* to the end of gaining mastery.

    The ultimate goal is mastery. But the road comes through competitive challenges. And for them, giving up on competition is the same as giving up on improving themselves or their craft.

    Now, I’d totally agree this is reliance on extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic, and seems pretty poor compared to the intrinsic motivation of wanting to improve at something for the love of the thing itself. But that is what works for them.

  5. @Phil Jones

    Sure. There is nothing wrong with performance-orientation combined with mastery goals… as long as you can avoid the pitfalls that I have given.

    Sadly, I have met too many people who have given up on what are otherwise attainable goals because they have “crashed”. These crashes are often due the pressure of performance.

    I am especially worried about younger folks… crashing when you are 16 is just not a good thing.

    It is also important to keep in mind that you definitively can become good at things without the pressure from performance goals.

  6. I am old enough not to worry about looking uninteresting or uncool.

    Good competition is good, bad competition is bad. And there is no really good way to distinguish between these extremes.

  7. “The truth is that if you are really good at what you do, you will probably do ok most of time without ever having to compete.”

    …And if you aren’t, for any reason, then everyone around will ask you rhetorically “If you’re so smart then why you failed?!…”. And the conclusion you’ll likely draw – listen up, and… do what they say! Or just agree to be “that idiot”, who’s constantly in need of more time…

    Seriously, is there any way to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic goal setting: when to care and when to not?

    I guess, the reason why the things are as they are is just because most of the people don’t want to take the risk.
    And it’s because if you fail, then even if it’s just mere “bad look”, it’s still equivalent to death, from isolation.

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