Competition is bad for you


"Competition is an ideology - the ideology - that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it - even though the more we compete, the less we gain." - Peter Thiel, Zero to One

The thing all business students know and (supposedly) love. The thing capitalism is supposedly built upon. The thing you rely on to get that coveted job, raise, bonus, perk...

Competition: It's Everywhere

In Business? Check.

Amongst friends? Check.

In School? Check x 1000000.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, recently released his book Zero to One. In Chapter 4 "The Ideology of Competition," Thiel discusses the prevalence of competition (and its side effects) in the business world, as well as in education:

"Our educational system both drives and reflects our obsession with competition. Grades themselves allow precise measurement of each student's competitiveness; pupils with the highest marks receive status and credentials. We teach every young person the same subjects in mostly the same ways, irrespective of individual talents and preferences. Students who don't learn best by sitting at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who excel on conventional measures like tests and assignments end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality." 

Sound familiar? Read on...

"And it gets worse as students ascend to higher levels of the tournament. Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?" 

That's a good question, Peter. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

The Big Shiny Job

In the case of many business students, it seems to be all for that big shiny job at the end of the tunnel - the one with the paycheque with too many zeros to count that promises a lifetime of domestic happiness (and paid-off student debt).

While I'm not saying being an investment banker or a management consultant is dishonourable, I am asking why an overwhelming number of bright business students take these routes. Surely being a consultant was never a childhood dream. Investment banking was likely not in your vocabulary for the first ten years of your life. What did you want to do then? More importantly, what do you really want to do now?!

If you really do want the big shiny job, you may want to ask yourself why. Did you get caught up in the craziness of competition? In my first year of business school, it was difficult to avoid. Everyday, I'd walk into class hearing the same questions:

"What are you recruiting for?"

"Have any interviews lined up?"

Or, the incessant focus on grades...

"I haven't contributed all week. How am I going to get into Bain with these grades?" 

It's insane, and almost impossible to avoid. When you say you're not participating in recruiting season, most people's eyes widen as they say "Ohh..." with a bleak smile to boot. With such an overwhelming expectation from your equally bright peers, it's difficult to even think otherwise, and easy to get swept up by the sea of green.

Is it really so bad?

Well, do you really want to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to become a conformist and "go with the flow"? Do you want to live your life climbing the corporate ladder, competing for every gain in your life like it's life or death? Do you want to spend your nights worrying about whether or not you'll beat your co-worker for the next raise? Do you want to give up control of your life by placing it in some employer's hands?

If so, then I guess it's not so bad.

I sure as hell don't want to, though.



Peter Thiel's Zero to One (Page 35-36, Chapter 4 "The Ideology of Competition")