Competition Crossroads





Competition Crossroads

At work we tend to compare and compete with others, instead of comparing and competing with ourselves.

‘Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful . . . that’s what matters to me.’

—Steve Jobs

We had just passed the crossroads at Haji Ali. We were edging closer to the ashram, where I was now over two hours late for my meeting. There was no point in panicking; controlling the traffic was beyond my influence. ‘Look at the motorbikes and cars and cab drivers. Getting stuck in traffic can make people really angry,’ I said over a cacophony of hooting and swearing by other drivers around us. ‘Everyone wants to get ahead of each other, and when they cannot, they get angry.’

   ‘It is like my workplace,’ Harry intervened. ‘As I said, I need to be friendly with people at my workplace, because we need to complete projects together, but there is also this air of competition. How can I get rid of that?’ He paused for a moment to think. ‘Actually, I cannot help but compete. If I don’t do that then I will never get the promotion I want. I am not volunteering for my company, I have bills to pay!’ he laughed.

  ‘I understand your dilemma. This issue is not just unique to the working world. It’s found in all spheres of life, whether it is between students, professionals, couples or even monks! Competition is a mindset that we have to redefine.’

I began explaining to Harry:

  ‘Many years ago, when I was in college, I remember auditioning to sing at our annual social gathering. It wasn’t a big role, but I had been encouraged by my friends to take part as they felt I had a good voice. I walked out on to the stage with the spotlight glaring down on me and three judges ready to give me a score. I heard rumours that I was likely to get the part, but I didn’t look too much into it. The microphone was at the centre of the stage. I held it and sang the hit Bollywood song of that summer. Remember, at that point I wasn’t a monk yet! The music faded in from the speakers and I started singing.

   ‘“Stop, stop, stop . . .” one of the engineering professors, who was also a judge, said, raising his hand. “Do you have something stuck in your throat? Have some water and start again.”

   ‘I was confused, my throat was fine, but I sipped some water to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. The music faded in again. I sang half the song, but they stopped me halfway with disappointed looks on their faces.

   ‘It just wasn’t my day today, I thought, but I had tried my best. A little disheartened, I returned home ready to focus on studying again. It was only a week later that I found out what had really happened.

   ‘The sound engineer who controlled my microphone came up to me in the college bathroom and said, “I felt really bad that you couldn’t get the part last week.”

   ‘“Why do you have to feel bad?” I asked, washing away the soap from my hands. I hardly knew this person.

   ‘“Well . . . the person who got the part paid me to adjust the setting so that your audition sounded terrible. It’s been playing on my conscience all week,” he said, looking at the floor.

‘“What?” I said in shock.

‘“I’m sorry. If you want, I can report this to the judges and see what can be done . . .” he said, grovelling.

‘“No, no, it’s all right. I haven’t got the time anyway. But thanks for telling me,” I said as I dried my hands with paper towels. He then walked out of the bathroom.

   ‘I was in disbelief. Why would someone sabotage my audition? It wasn’t anything significant. There were no monetary rewards, trophies or extra marks. Since studying was my main priority, I decided not to take it up with the judges nor to confront the boy who had got the part. Having witnessed the ugly side of his competitive nature, I did become more suspicious of him.

What could have driven him to be so competitive? I thought as I walked back into the classroom.

Jealousy or Envy

‘One reason I thought of was that he was, possibly, envious of me. When one harbours ill feelings towards others wanting to be like them or better than them but does not act on those feelings, it is called jealousy. Although the feeling eats one up from the inside, one still has the self-control to not harm the other person. However, when one does act on those feelings, jealously turns into envy. And envy is the root cause of being competitive with others in a way where one does not mind going to any extent to take their place.

Uncontrolled Ambition

‘Another reason I could think of was that people want to be the best, sometimes at any cost. When there are limited resources and many takers, competition is natural. This is found in all domains of life, from music to sport and even among other species. Competition is a tendency that occurs in nearly every ecosystem in nature.

‘But human beings are not just another species. They have the ability to cooperate and subscribe to higher values such as harmony, loyalty and trust. Just as within natural ecosystems competition is greater within the same species, within humans competition is fierce within the same company or the same field of action. We compete with people who have the same skills or outlook in life as us. An engineer competes with another engineer, a musician with another musician and a doctor with another doctor. When another person’s skills have no bearing on our life, we rarely feel threatened. But if someone can outperform us by doing better in what we aspire to do, the base tendencies of competition can settle in.


Every sport has an element of competition to it and there is a joy in pushing yourself to the limit. But when the stakes are high, the prestige and prize of winning may completely overshadow the ethic of ‘doing your best’, and some players may even play dirty to win. Whether it is over-exaggerating injuries in a football tournament or tampering with the ball to make it swing more in flight in a cricket match, players have been seen putting their hard-earned reputation and even their sports career on the line simply for some cheap, short-term gains.


Companies will almost always compete to grab the biggest market share and be the best in the industry, unless they have a monopoly in a particular sector. After all, a capitalist society is based on the premise of increasing profits and having more for oneself. And that’s fine, as long as such competition is driven by sheer ambition. But when ambition crosses the line of ethics and turns into greed, even reputed businesses can get involved with scandals as they vie for the largest piece of the pie.


Rather than contesting an election based on merit, politicians may sometimes be seen spreading lies to sway voters, suppressing voters on polling days, threatening opponents or even assassinating a candidate! And the root cause is unethical competition.


‘Although competition in the arena of sports, business or politics may be a distant reality for many, workplace politics and competition is something they may have very closely experienced. Gossip, back-stabbing, spreading lies and not cooperating with co-workers on purpose can be forms of unhealthy competition to get to the top. I am reminded of an extreme episode of office politics—my friend Jaymin’s story.

‘Jaymin worked as a photographer for a leading fashion magazine which was a global brand. In their Mumbai office, every photographer had a team, including a person to handle lighting, costumes and a stylist. Jaymin felt that the team worked well together; everyone played their part to produce incredible work. That was only until he found out what the stylist was up to. On the outside, she seemed very cooperative and friendly, but on the inside she harboured deep envy, wanting to replace him as the lead photographer.

‘After a few months of working together, Jaymin started noticing some odd patterns in her behaviour. If a shoot was scheduled, she would deliberately come late. If he wanted to style the model one way, she would ignore his request and dress them a different way. But the worst was still yet to come.

‘Another day, another shoot. Jaymin was at his desk editing some pictures he had just taken when, out of the blue, an office boy came up to Jaymin and said,

“Sir, the HR lady wants to see you.”

‘“What about?” Jaymin asked.

‘“I’m not sure, sir,” the office boy replied.

‘It was nothing. The HR lady just wanted Jaymin to fill out some documents for his payslips. However, the odd thing was that when he returned to his computer, the files that he was working on had been deleted. Hours of work wiped off his hard drive. Jaymin rushed to the IT department to try and recover them, to no avail. They were lost—permanently.

‘Over the course of a few months, Jaymin’s photo backup had mysteriously disappeared four times. He either needed a new laptop or someone had hacked his password and was deliberately sabotaging his work.

‘He decided to set a trap to see who it was. He asked the IT department to point the CCTV camera towards his laptop. They agreed, excited by the fact that this was as close as they would come to playing undercover detectives. After a big shoot, he purposely left his laptop open and then rushed to the CCTV screens at the IT support. They had the popcorn out and were ready to catch the criminal. It was a stake-out. A few minutes after Jaymin left his desk, not to his surprise, the stylist logged on to his laptop and started deleting his work. She had been caught red-handed! Surely, she would be fired.

‘Jaymin went straight to the HR manager with a video recording of what the stylist was doing. However, the twist in the tale was that the HR manager and the stylist were in this together. They wanted to prove that he was inefficient, lazy and didn’t do his work on time. They were both jealous of the autonomy and resources he had been given by the director. Jaymin was a trusted member of the team who had been given the privilege of managing his own schedule. But that had made this duo envious. Why did they have to come in for work at a fixed time when Jaymin could waltz in as he pleased? they thought. Both of them conspired against him: the HR manager out of frustration that Jaymin did not have to report or listen to her and the stylist out of ambition to take his position.

‘They both reported their false story to the director, who called Jaymin in for a meeting. Even though Jaymin had proof that he was completing his work on time, he decided to resign from his position. He wanted to start his own studio anyway and did not prefer to work in such a toxic environment. The director pleaded for him to stay, but it was of no use.

‘As Jaymin was packing up his things at his desk, he thought of copying all the photographs he had taken so that he could use them as a portfolio for his future work. But the bitterness of the duo was so strong that they had deleted his entire portfolio when Jaymin was meeting with the director! Years of hard work lost in a flash—all because of envy and uncontrolled ambition.

‘Jaymin’s story highlights unhealthy competition, which makes one sacrifice one’s principles and values, to externally get ahead.’

‘Wow, what a story. It’s not like that at my workplace,’ Harry said. ‘Well, it’s not that extreme anyway. As stressful as my work can get, I do feel I have a good team.’

‘Yes, Jaymin’s situation was unique, and it may not get that bad for most people,’ I said.

‘No one should ever do what the stylist did. But if we don’t compete at work, won’t we be left behind?’ Harry asked with some confusion.

‘There is no question of not competing! If you want to grow, you have to compete,’ I replied.

Healthy Competition

‘The only difference is whom are you competing with,’ I added. ‘People with a closed mindset want to grow by beating others in their field. Open-minded people, on the other hand, grow by developing themselves. They know that nobody is their competition. They are their own competition. Every day they keep striving to become better versions of themselves, even if the growth is only a tiny fragment. They feel uncomfortable if they remain the same as they were yesterday. The actor Matthew McConaughey spoke about this principle in his 2014 Oscar acceptance speech.’

‘Oh, yes. I have seen it on YouTube,’ Harry replied.

Since the car was still at a halt, I pulled out my phone and played the short video.

The words of the American actor echoed around the car: ‘And to my hero. That’s who I chase. Now when I was fifteen years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say, “Who’s your hero?” And I said, “I don’t know, I gotta think about that. Give me a couple of weeks.” I come back two weeks later, this person comes up and says, “Who’s your hero?” I said, “I thought about it. You know who it is? It’s me in ten years.” So I turned twenty-five. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, “So, are you a hero?” And I was like, “Not even close. No, no, no.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because my hero’s me at thirty-five.” So, you see, every day, every week, every month and every year of my life, my hero’s always ten years away. I’m never gonna be my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not, and that’s just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.

As the video ended, I put my phone back in my pocket and shared my reflection, ‘We should imbibe this thought pattern of self-competition, rather than feeling insecure about others going ahead. We should be striving to do our very best to realize our dreams about our future selves. Not only will this attitude keep our mind free from envy and insecurity but it will also help us reach our fullest potential, bringing immense success and a deep sense of satisfaction.’

A young boy learning the traditional Kathak dance was regularly missing his steps and stumbling during practice. Frustrated, he came to his teacher and asked, ‘When will I be able to dance finely like your other students? When will I be able to keep up with the beats and perform every move with grace?’

The teacher replied, ‘When you stop looking at your fellow students during the practice. Remember, you’re not in competition with them. You’re in competition with yourself. Your goal is to simply be better than what you were yesterday, not better than the other boys and girls in the class.’

Whether in dancing, playing a sport, in business or anything in life, this ideology brings self-excellence. And we see this ideology in play at Apple Inc.

Only if you live in a cave somewhere in the Gobi Desert would you not know that Apple is one of the most successful companies of the modern era. In 2018 it was ranked the ninth-richest company in the world, jumping up the list in the previous decade with the launch of the popular iPhone. Have you ever bought an iPhone from an Apple Store on the day of its launch? You’re greeted by hundreds of staff, all in matching uniforms, who clap and cheer loudly as you purchase their newest product. Although I have never seen this, my friends tell me it’s like a party. People become hysterical. But what is it that makes Apple so innovative that people keep coming back to them? The answer is found in the culture given by their leadership.

The late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, believed that competing with others was a distraction from your own inner creativity. To not strive for originality would have been disastrous for Apple. If we compare ourselves with others too much, we succumb to ordinariness. We can start blindly imitating others and even lose our essence. In the worst-case scenario, we becoming boring! Steve Jobs was notorious for paying careful attention to detail in all his products. He wanted to change the world, not just copy the next best company to increase his stock price. He wanted to express himself fully, not just follow the expressions of others. He wanted to compare himself to what he had done in the past, not just with Bill Gates!

‘So are you trying to say that comparison with others is always bad?’ Harry interrupted.

‘No,’ I replied. ‘If we do have to compare ourselves with others, we should compare positive attitudes. That person’s attitude to tirelessly keep working or grinding at their skills is inspiring. I want that same attitude. Let me learn from them and in turn help them in any way I can. Let us mutually grow. That is how a an open-minded person thinks.’

‘That sounds great. But when competitive people around you engage in dirty politics to drag you down and grab the deal, should you just keep quiet and continue to work on? Look at what the stylist did to Jaymin,’ Harry objected.

‘There will always be those who play dirty politics at the workplace,’ I replied. ‘This seems to be in every office, like moisture in the air. Wherever there are human beings, you will find two types of people: those who work in honest ways, living with integrity, and those who don’t. Of course, this is a generalization. Nobody has a perfect moral compass, neither is anyone completely morally bankrupt. Even if you leave your job to join another company, there will be people engaging in politics there as well. It may be a little less or a little more, and may be of a different flavour. However, we must learn how to manage demanding situations at the workplace in a clean way. There are a few books written by experienced professionals that explain, in great detail, the subject of dealing with workplace politics. I highly recommend that you read one of those books. The bottom line, however, is, rather than being political, it is better to constantly work hard on self-improvement to achieve excellence. In extreme cases like Jaymin’s, when it is impossible to stay surrounded by the negativity of bosses and colleagues, it is better to move on. Only if you have another work option, of course.’


  • There are two causes of unhealthy competition, being envious of someone or uncontrolled ambition.
  • We compete with people who have the same skills or outlook in life as us. When another person’s skills have no bearing on our life, we rarely feel threatened.
  • Competition is found in all spheres of life. Some examples include sports, business, politics and the workplace.
  • Jaymin’s story is an extreme case-study of unhealthy competition.
  • Healthy competition is about competing with ourselves rather than others to become a better version of ourselves.
  • There will always be workplace politics but we should learn how to manage it in a clean way.




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