Are You Too Competitive?

“Man has risen so far above all other species that he competes in ways unique in nature. He fights by means of complicated weapons; he fights for ends remote in time.” – Charles A Lindbergh (Autobiography of Values, 1978)
Hollywood would have you believe that successful businessmen are competitive creatures who fight their way to the top. And there are plenty of best-selling business books that support that view.

To further support this view, I can offer numerous tales of lying and cheating, backstabbing and neglect, greed, and even a case or two of downright cruelty.

But I don’t believe that all that nasty behavior is good business. In fact, I don’t think it’s good at all. It’s done. And generally horrible people sometimes succeed in business. But what works best — when it works — is something else.

Let me explain by putting forward a postulate. Bad behavior limits your potential. Good behavior enhances it. Furthermore, competitive business practices are generally self-destructive. Cooperation is the true key to long-term success.

I can tell you from personal experience that in the jewelry business, the art business, the contest and sweepstakes business, the astrology business, the academic-book-publishing business, and many others — sharing ideas with your competitors works much better than trying to take advantage of them to further your own ends.

This principle is also true when it comes to the internal management of business. One of the mistakes Steven R. Covey (the “Seven Habits” guy) sees some entrepreneurs make is trying to get their people to compete inside the company. “They think this will enhance productivity,” he says, “but what it really does is create conflicts and interdepartmental rivalry.”

He’s absolutely right about that. I know. I have done it both ways. My earliest instinct was to set good people against one another, hoping it would drive them to achieve more. Instead, what I got was a lot of negative, unproductive behaviors — managers withholding vital information from one another, taking potshots at each other, and spending a lot of energy beating people down instead of making better products and selling them more effectively.

I recently returned from a day-long “roundtable” of top executives in the financial publishing industry. Twenty-four executives, representing most of the most successful business in the market, sat around a table in a small London hotel and told one another many of their best secrets. Why did we do it? Because most of us are old enough to know that:

* Most of the important business secrets — in marketing, sales, motivation, management, and so on — don’t need to be coveted because they can’t be copied exactly. In every business, they need to be reinvented to fit and then executed. In so doing, they become distinct.

* Usually, you will do better if your competitors do well. Success creates success. Markets expand when good ideas are adapted by all. Great marketing ideas are meant to be copied. They create more demand, increase the market, and provide dividends for everyone.

* Most of your best secrets will never be copied anyway — even if you beg your peers to copy them. That’s because only you really understand how powerful they are. And even when your colleague does “get it,” he’ll have a hellish time getting the people in his business to understand it, let alone implement it.

* An exchange of ideas ultimately benefits everyone.

I’m going to write a book on this subject. It’s too big to deal with in a single ETR message. But if the premise makes any sense to you, you’ll want to start thinking about your own competitive instincts by mulling over the following questions:

1. Are you motivated primarily by the desire to do better than someone else?

2. Are you suspicious of your competitors?

3. Are you suspicious of your colleagues?

4. Do you secretly enjoy it when a competitor fails?

5. Do you like to see your peers fail too?

If you answered “yes” more than once, you are probably overly competitive. I know it doesn’t feel that way. You see yourself as “realistic.” You suspect that I am naïve. In future messages, I’ll attempt to prove to you that you are wrong and that your feelings, fears, and beliefs are slowing your progress and stunting your future.

If you answered “no” to all five questions, you don’t have a “competitive problem.” That doesn’t mean you are destined to succeed. You still need to work hard and engage in all the get-ahead behaviors. But at least you won’t waste any time and energy trying to slow other people down when you should be pushing forward with your plan.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]