There are three ways to “win" a marathon:
- You finish the race, proving to yourself that you can do it.
- You beat your best previous time, setting a “personal record".
- You come in first place, proving to everyone you can run faster than others.
When you start running, finishing a marathon is a great goal. Accomplishing that goal is a legitimate victory.
Once you know you can do it, getting better is the obvious next step. Every time you beat your previous time, you declare victory.
At a certain point, you face a decision: is becoming #1 the goal, or are you running for some other reason? If competition becomes the focus, coming in second is a failure, even if you set a personal record. No one competes in the Olympics hoping to win a silver medal.
Let’s extend the metaphor into other areas. Take business. “Winning" at business could look like:
- Starting your own venture that can support itself indefinitely.
- Growing the company to a new level of revenue, profit, or customers served.
- Dominating your competitors in revenue, profit, or market share.
These are three very different goals. Accomplishing each of them, in their own way, represents a very real victory for the people pursuing them.
Let’s examine this breakdown in more general terms:
- Developing the capacity to perform.
- Experiencing growth in your ability to perform.
- Establishing mastery in performance compared to others.
Capacity, growth, mastery. Here’s what that looks like in practical terms:
- Figuring out how to do something new you previously weren’t capable of doing.
- Leveling up your abilities, so you can do even more cool things.
- Performing measurably better than others in competition.
Again, all are legitimate goals, but each end result calls for different strategies to accomplish the objective.
Here’s the common failure mode in this line of thinking: choosing one of these objectives for yourself, then forgetting that other valid objectives exist, assuming other accomplishments “don’t count."
Competitively-oriented people think “winning" only means out-performing other people. If you don’t do that, you haven’t really won anything, right?
Growth-oriented people think competition is meaningless unless you win against yourself, and people who aren’t measuring are dabbling. If you win a race, but don’t improve, who cares? If you’re not measuring your progress, what’s the point?
Capacity-oriented people think developing capacity is great, but undervalue just how motivating measurement and competition can be. Once you get the results you’re looking for, why bother continuing to improve?
Here’s how to avoid these failure modes:
- When you’re learning something new, focus on building capacity vs. growth or mastery, and use skill acquisition methods designed to develop capacity as quickly as possible.
- Once you’ve reached a basic level of proficiency, begin measuring progress in a more sophisticated way. Use the growth impulse to keep improving to your personal point of diminishing returns.
- If you choose to compete with others, focus on competing with people who have chosen the same objective. Avoid verbal or mental posturing (“I can do better than that", “that’s not very impressive", etc) when evaluating the efforts of people who aren’t competing with you. They don’t have the same goals you have.
Be clear about what you’re trying to do, then do it. Judge the success of your efforts by whether or not they help you achieve the desired objective.
Ignore everything else.