Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Why competitive people are often dumb and boring

People who work hard are typically motivated by either their performance (i.e., they want to look good) or their mastery (i.e., they like being good at their craft). Most of us pursue a mix of different goals. It would seem like performance goals are harmless. What is wrong with wanting to get good grades in school, or having a good salary? Nothing is wrong with these goals, except that they can backfire.

  • Performance-oriented people often develop performance-avoidance goals: they want to avoid looking bad.

When I was a student at the University of Toronto, many competitive students looked for the easiest classes they could find. If you focus on looking good, you will avoid challenges where you might look bad. A professional suffering from performance-avoidance goals may avoid taking on risky projects or jobs. Scientists preoccupied by their performance will often avoid challenging projects, preferring to follow the same tracks over decades. A programmer worried about looking bad might avoid trying out a new programming language.

In short, performance-avoidance goals may limit your ambition.

Performance-avoidance goals may also lead you to focus narrowly. Why waste time learning about calligraphy when you could practice for your calculus test?

You effectively narrow down your life to whatever is most boring or safest.- Performance goals are hard on morale. At some point, you will fail. Maybe you wanted to enter this highly competitive school, or you wanted to get this prestigious job… and instead you will have to be satisfied with less than you hoped for.

It is almost unavoidable because there will always be pressure to set the bar higher, and higher. People with performance goals are more likely to crash.

I have never been to South Korea, but I hear that kids kill themselves over bad results at school. That is one extreme. Most crashes are not so intense or visible… but they are common nevertheless. They sometimes take unexplained forms. A favorite example of mine is mathematics. I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of the population can be good at mathematics. Of course, not everyone starts on an equal footing, and some people need to work harder. But mathematics is fun. All young kids like mathematics. What turn people away from mathematics is the fear of failure.

I believe we should be especially carefully about setting performance goals for kids. It is especially damaging for kids to limit their ambition, play it safe and burn out. You want kids who are unafraid to try their luck at many things… you want kids to have high morale.

What is the alternative to performance goals? You can focus on growing your skills, mostly forgetting about performance. Ignore selective venues. Forget about beating others… avoid competition if you can… Focus all your attention on doing better and more interesting work.

People who are obsessive about honing their skills are never boring. They also tend to be generous. If your goal is to get better… you have no reason not to help others… especially if it can serve as an excuse to improve your own skills further.

Burning out is less likely when you are focused on mastery… maybe because setbacks are much less likely.

Some will object that performance and competition matter a great deal. If you are a martial art expert and someone is trying to kill you, focusing on improving your skills might not be optimal. But throughout most of your life, you will not be in grave danger. You can afford a few bad grades. You can afford to be passed on for promotion. The truth is that if you are really good at what you do, you will probably do ok most of time without ever having to compete. Oh! And you will probably become a more interesting person.