Ego and Competition

The ego is like a really high maintenance toddler. It’s self-centered, overly sensitive and it requires frequent placation. It’s penchant for aggression and self-deception has earned it a top spot on the hit list of most religions worldwide.

And its true that no matter how modest the pursuit, success is apt to go to one’s head: I ran at a college in a small conference where there wasn’t exceptional depth or competitive drive within the talent pool. I had some respectable performances in high school and rolled into university with the expectation of being the top runner and I filled the bill relatively unimpeded. In the small pond that I occupied, I would feel the temptation, both internally and externally to become slightly deluded with the idea of being the best. On one hand, stepping out and believing myself, a notoriously unathletic kid well into high school, afforded me a lot of great opportunities including scholarships and cross-country travel. Running was the first common ground with people that I now consider my dearest friends. On the other hand, the same ego that drove me to compete at times also kept me from achieving higher.


This isn’t a personal success story but rather an anecdotal segue into examining the complex relationship between ego and performance.

With running as the primary example used here, thinking too local can keep you from setting appropriate goals and sufficiently challenging yourself. Though it may seem vain and selfish from one perspective, it is important to understand how your success can inspire those around you to rise to the occasion.

Wherever you fall in the pack, remember that there are always people ahead of you and behind you. If you want to know what you are actually capable of, I think it is important to broaden your competitive horizons. Gauge your success on a universal scale but use your local sphere/league to keep you from becoming overwhelmed and inert.

These principles are universally applicable to any area where there is competition, be it art, science, work and employment, etc. According to Leon Festinger’s social comparison process, there exists a fundamental drive to understand and define one’s abilities, using comparison with other individuals as the gauge. Subsequent research suggests that the degree to which one is competitive is, as you might expect, highly correlated this aforementioned social comparison process.

According to one study, “each individual simultaneously belongs to a multitude of nonexclusive social categories (e.g., a female, an African American, a lawyer, a Catholic, a New Yorker, an American, and so on), to which they self-categorize depending on the situation… [they] therefore may generate very different social comparison outcomes depending on the particular social category fault line made salient by the specific background environment in which the comparison takes place.” (Garcias, et al.)

For runners, those social categories may be “recreational runner” versus a “serious runner”, or a “local runner” versus a “collegiate athlete”. The report goes on to say that in-group motivation increased when “outperformed by an out-group competitor than by another in-group member” and, pertinent to this topic “that social comparison is a necessary precondition for this effect (Lount & Phillips, 2007). Moreover, the organizational literature suggests that adding a reference outgroup helps eliminate free riding within a group, as in-group members’ competitiveness increases, leading them to perform better (Bornstein & Erev, 1994; Bornstein, Erev, & Rosen, 1990; Erev, Bornstein, & Galili, 1993).” That means that upward-oriented comparison can not only benefit the individual but also the social category (e.g. running moms) that co-identify with it!

Fake it ’til you make it

We’re often advised to suppress our egos, to be humble and modest. While I agree with this principle many levels, for those seeking exceptionalism I think there is a place for moderated pride and even self-deception. The familiar adage “fake it ’til you make it” applies to selling your abilities, real or imaginary, to your peers, your employers, and, perhaps above all, to yourself. I believe that the biggest divider between those who exceed and those who settle is that the latter ‘know’ their limits and abide them without question while the former have a ego-imposed ignorance, or at the very least a smirking contempt, for said limits.

Putting reigns on your ego

It’s important to remember that your ego seeks affirmation. If it finds a place in the world that it is getting stroked to its satisfaction, it is apt to stay there. If you find yourself as the big fish, just remember that for all those except the super-elite, there is a bigger pond to graduate into. If you find yourself in a position where you are stagnating in your development, start competing beyond your ability. In theory, everyone has a place where they top out, where they have fully realized themselves in a particular field and they have nothing else to show but I would wager that you know few, if any, people that can claim that distinction.

The oft-quoted Steve Prefontaine spoke of “honoring the talent” in regards to giving it your all. Talents and passions are fundamental to individuality and, in my mind, honoring them is tantamount to affirming life. The end goal is whatever you want it to be: your success gives others an inspiring narrative to model. It can enhance the culture of whatever place, whatever league, whatever sphere you are participating in. I’m not one for prescribing a worldview, but unless you feel called to be a full-blown Yogi then love your ego and learn how to use it as a tool with your success and the subsequent betterment of your community!

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