I was reading this the other day and, while I agree with some of the things Shawn Binder mentioned, ultimately I think his advice works best for those who haven’t engaged in much healthy competition in their lives or, for whatever reason, aren’t able to. Certainly those reasons exist but I want to talk about what I believe gets the most success in any field minus, perhaps, charitable giving.
In the early 2000s, when I was 23, I went to work for the Federal government doing an incredibly difficult job with almost no experience. I was very young, believed I was special, and got canned out of my first office for being a cynical individualist within the first month. That experience scarred me, badly, and in my next office I was meek and extremely careful. Ironically, this also made me not very good at my job. I spent the next four months wondering if I was going to get fired completely and end up working at Starbuck’s like a lot of my peers were at that age. All the other people in my office wore suits to work while I got by with khakis and a button down. They had product in their hair and wore cologne. They worked extra hours, leaving only when the work was done. I did none of these things and it wasn’t because I was lazy. It was because I didn’t see the point. I felt like they were a pack of ambitious animals, materialistic and shallow.
Then she came along.
She was a five foot red headed woman with an Elvira/Pixiegirl hair cut, a matching and sometimes loud green, red, and gold wardrobe, and an absolute way of inspiring those around her. She was only two years older than I was and she became my boss. She did two things with me in the first two months. She pointed out that all the work I was doing was good but told me she didn’t feel like I had pride in it and said I didn’t know how to present myself to others. She told me she was going to show me how to interact with people, something I thought I already knew how to do. I didn’t. What I soon learned was that the most important way to improve yourself and your work was to see who was best at your job and compete with them. It was analogous to going to prison and picking a fight with the biggest guy there on your first day. She wanted me to raise the bar for myself and raise it quickly.
So, that week, I went out and spent too much money on updating my terrible grad school wardrobe which I could absolutely afford to do and simply had not done. I got a real haircut, not just me hitting my head with the clippers, and I shaved every day and polished my shoes. That may not seem like much, that may seem basic, but to me, at the time, it was an enormous change. When I returned to work I felt like a new man and what’s more people started to treat me like a new man.
Red took me to all the different departments our office worked with and introduced me. She talked me up. She created expectations for me to live up to. Over the course of the next few months I got much better at my job and over the next six months I became the subject matter expert on my account. Other departments called me for solutions, my managers came to me to fix problems and fix them I did. And, after a year of competing with the expectations that Red had set I realized that I’d actually been competing with Red all along. By the time I was 26 I was making over six figures, I was respected, and I had become better at her job than Red ever was. Even better? She was glad that it had happened. It was what she’d hoped would happen. I still remember, years after the fact, meeting with the original office that had booted me out. No one even recognized me. They couldn’t recognize the way I looked, the way I carried myself, or connect my knowledge base with my cleanly shaven face. It was glorious.
Now, let me share a little self analysis here lest this all seem like a guy wearing a suit smirking his ass off at you because that’s not who I am. When I was in high school I played varsity basketball and competed hard though I was never a star. When I was in college I competed hard and had a B average GPA. In my core courses, where I could compete with people like me and knew what I wanted to do, I had a 3.9 and the most highly respected and most complete thesis on campus. In grad school I had a 3.9 from a top 20 school in a subject I had a real passion for. I knew how to compete. I loved to compete so what happened to me when I went into the workforce?
I forgot that there are only two expressions of competition that matter:
- Compete on competence.
- Compete for results.
So, when I got into the workplace, I was scared. I didn’t trust myself. I was intimidated by all these people that knew what they were doing and were dressed like they cared about how they looked which was way better than me. I pre-rejected them so that I wouldn’t have to be compared to them, so that I could avoid failure. So that they wouldn’t beat me. That, gentle reader, is a recipe for absolute incompetent failure and a crippled personality. Compete, know your goal, get your knowledge base together and build the pieces until you know what you’re doing. Improve until you’re able to critically and accurately analyze the best performers around you and do better than they have. By compete for results I mean make your job a personal goal. I don’t mean work yourself to death but make it a goal that is for you at least while you’re doing it. You also have to be the kind of person who will be listened to so practice meeting people and small talk. These things aren’t shallow, they’re important. Work is about work and getting things done well is good for everyone around you. Dress and act like someone who has the answers even if you’re still getting them. Eventually these will match up and you’ll know when it does.
Whatever your field, compete. Strive to be the best at what you do. That doesn’t mean that you dislike the people you compete against and I would never advocate hurting anyone to get ahead. That’s not competing, that’s immoral. But you have to compete. Make a bet with someone in your office that you can do the most X in X amount of time. Talk friendly trash to your friends to get them going. Raise the bar and push them and yourself. And then, once you’ve got it figured out and are doing well, find that skinny 23 year old English Lit major in his Target khakis and wrinkly button down and show him the way. I promise that he’ll always remember you.
Thanks, Red, you saved my life.