Don’t listen to all the naysayers out there: we all need to maintain a competitive edge if we are going to survive in this dog-eat-dog world. Anyone that tells you otherwise has probably just given up.
That job, career, house, or partner you want; it’s either you or some other chump. Right?
Okay, you got me. I don’t really believe that competing with our fellow woman is necessary. It doesn’t give us an edge so much as makes us edgy.
What exactly do I mean by having ‘competitive edge’?
I’m sure you don’t need a definition but it’s essentially about being more (and perhaps even the most) effective at whatever you’re trying to do. How it looks will vary. Having a competitive edge at swimming looks different to having a competitive edge at a speed dating event, for example.
This post is for you if you believe, even secretly, that ‘giving up’ worrying means kissing your ambition goodbye.
Competitive energy is like a highly sexed lover: good for a time, but ultimately wears you down
One can’t deny that the energy produced by a competitive mindset is useful for getting a job done. It is a mobilizing force. You are on fight mode.
But being in a high stress state can backfire too – as news anchor and writer of the brilliant and fun book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, Dan Harris, demonstrated stunningly effectively when he had a panic attack on national TV. Live.
Harris, an ambitious high achiever, had adopted the belief from his father that ‘the price of security is insecurity’. Imagine the stress of having that as a belief? The belief undoubtedly led him to worry excessively*, to be constantly living into the future, unable to enjoy his sizable successes.
(*A small amount of anxiety is ok; it can help to focus the mind. It’s replaying the same scenario for the 17th time you might want to question.)
Harris describes in the book how he found a way to maintain his edge without stressing.
Three things that give you competitive edge (without competing)
There are alternatives to pitching ourselves against others, being underhanded, and resorting to foul play to secure our advancement. These alternatives work much better in fact.
Let’s get to it.
This might be the most difficult one to wrap your head around.
A lot of us equate acceptance with giving up; a form of unproductive passivity that leads us to lose.
But here’s the secret about acceptance.
It takes any reactionary time out of the equation, so you can just go straight to responding.
This makes you more effective. It is the Acceptance Paradox.
Say you lose out on that promotion to a colleague, who is also your mate.
Non acceptance might have you stressed out throughout the process. It’ll have you unable to feel goodwill towards your friend, who you like. It’ll have you put in a few calls to see what strings you can pull to turn this around.
Accepting the situation would call you to do quite different actions. Primarily, you’ll consider what the most effective response is. Which might be nothing.
Truth is, non acceptance has you over a barrel – the barrel being your untamed thoughts.
Acceptance has you calmer and more equipped to select a response.
This is obviously easier said than done. So how do you do it?
The thing that helped Dan – the only thing that I have ever found effective – is practicing mindfulness. Which takes us onto number 2.
This word makes everyone roll their eyes. Until they embrace it that is, and realise the profound and very tangible benefits they experience in their life, after not long.
Harris explains the moment he finally understood that the stress and anxiety he’d feel whenever he’d perceive a threat to his position wasn’t of itself making him try harder. It was just guaranteeing him a miserable experience.
“I used to think pressing the bruise kept me on my toes. Now I realized those moments mostly just made me unhappy.”
After trying unsuccessfully to self medicate his stresses away, he finally learned to observe his monkey mind, get a distance from it, and create some mind space. He was surprised to find that this served his competitive edge. And his sanity.
“Once you get the hang of it, the practice can create just enough space in your head so that when you get angry or annoyed, you are less likely to act on it.”
3. Moving the goalpost
Acceptance and mindfulness are perfect ways of maintaining your edge in your chosen field of work. The base circumstance being that you have selected a field in which you do get to exercise your signature strengths.
It is a lot harder to develop a competitive edge in a field that is so far removed from what you enjoy doing, and what you are good at.
And so sometimes, improving your competitive edge happens when you recognize that you aren’t going to become successful in the work you are doing, and you need to get out and try something else.
There is a difference between giving up in the face of challenges, to rerouting as your self-awareness increases.
You often find with very successful people (at least high profile ones) that they have figured out earlier where what they are naturally good at/enjoy doing, and what the world needs/wants intersect. And they develop their strengths early on, inevitably leading to mastery.
It is never too late to align your work with your signature strengths. It’s probably pretty essential to happiness. It can be done inside of an existing job or, if you are relatively free in your personal circumstances, you can create your own job in which you draw on them.
Relatedly, what will definitely give you the edge is improving your ability for focus and deep work. To do that, I suggest cutting down drastically on social media consumption and anything else that fractures and competes for your attention throughout the day.
Meditation is what helps here, because it trains you to return the mind to a single focus (your breath). Here is a beginners one you can try.
I think we can all recognise that being calm and not getting swept up in our thoughts and feelings is totally invaluable in life. It cannot fail to give you a competitive edge.
Try these practices on. They’re more sustainable than your old stress tactics.