My partner and I love rock climbing at our local indoor gym. It’s a great way for us to be active together, despite different approaches to fitness—I like the gym, he gets exercise in through his job. We also like to play occasional rounds of golf together in the summer.
Climbing Against the Course
It’s not immediately obvious, by what these two activities have in common is the fact that they are not innately competitive.
Sure, golf courses can be competitive places! And at the climbing gym, you can certainly look around and see other climbers trying to one-up each other, or engaging in a bit of friendly trash talk (a personal favorite jab: “dude, what are you waiting for? Just climb higher!”). Putting a few bucks down on a round of golf might inspire the players to try a bit harder, just as climbing a hard route that your partner can’t quite master can add an edge to your workout.
Letting Go of Competition
But, at the end of the day, those competitions aren’t the real point. In golf, as in climbing, you’re really playing against the course, and against your own previous performance. I’m working to adopt this as a metaphor for work and life as well. Let me explain.
Climbing gyms employ route setters who make the routes, set the problems, and grade the difficulty. In each route, there is usually at least one “crux”—a difficult move that requires either strength, flexibility, imagination, or an un-obvious body position to get past. The crux is where most people fall off the wall. Golf is the same way. They hire course designers who purposefully put the water feature right in your way, grade the green so that it’s faster than it looks, and set par and handicap for the hole.
In a way, it’s easier to focus on competing with others than it is to focus on getting better yourself. In a direct competition, you can say, “I won.” Other people provide an objective measure. Whereas if you’re playing against the course or against your previous performance, you’re never finished. You have to be willing to say, “Ok, that climb was a little better. Time to try a harder grade.” You have to be willing to fall off the wall on a more difficult route.
This is true in work and life as well. If you always measure yourself against others, you miss out on the opportunity to define success for yourself, to improve a bit every day, and to tackle increasingly harder problems.
More and more, I am learning that life is about playing against the course. It’s about tackling the problems that are laid out before us, and to get better over time. To use a cliche, I think that rising tides really do lift all boats.
So how does this apply to work? Well, if you’re a leader, it’s your job to help your team figure out the best ways to solve the problems before them, and to create the conditions for them to best work together. This will often mean removing elements of competition from the team dynamic. Sales teams often have a degree of competition in their structure — and that can be a good thing — but if the culture is about getting ahead of teammates, instead of success in the market, there are likely to be some downstream issues (stealing leads, undermining colleagues, etc.).
If you’re an individual contributor, it’s all about figuring out the crux of your role, and then developing the skills you need to conquer it. What resources can you pull in to help? Can you watch how other people have mastered this problem, and then emulate their approach? Do you need to get stronger in a particular area of your role? Trying to go at it alone is a recipe for frustration.
I’ve started to redefine success for myself. Success isn’t about winning a competition, or about being the best at something—though those may be good indicators that I’m on the right track. To me, success is about training myself to solve increasingly complex problems. It’s about having the courage to fall off the wall, shake out my arms, and try again. It’s about building strength, flexibility, and resilience. To conquer one crux, and then set my sights on the next.
Most importantly, I think that success is wholeheartedly cheering for and supporting others who are on their own missions to get better. Life isn’t a zero-sum game, and we’re not competing for slices of a finite pie. There are enough problems to solve in the world to go around.