Life is Not a Competition, But You Can Still Win At It

In this post: Eight strategies I’ve found in my research for how to apply the mentality that life is not a competition to win at life.


My not-so-much younger self would tell you the idea that “life is not a competition” is hippy-dippy loser talk.

I’m a lifelong athlete. I got the best grades. And I threw tantrums anytime I lost at Monopoly.

Darwin said it’s “survival of the fittest,” right? And I didn’t just wanted to survive; I wanted to thrive. So that meant being a winner.

But then I took a time-out (i.e., pretired). I relaxed enough to pull my head out of my butt, and changed my mind on what it means to “win at life.”

Here’s my new definition:

Winning at life is putting on the best performance I can given my situation so that when my show’s over I feel like I had a blast, others are grateful for it, and my performance continues to echo and inspire.

Good things started happening as soon as I implemented this new game plan. Now, I’m healthier, wealthier, and happier than ever.

And since life is not a competition, I have no problem sharing with you my can’t-lose strategies and wishing you great success.

Can't lose when you differentiate so you're the only competition
You can’t lose when you find areas where you’re the only competitor.

1. Play games you can’t lose.

The more authentic you are, the less competition you’re going to have.

Naval Ravikant, Naval Podcast

Winning at life is inevitable if I compete in areas where I’m the only one. Business folk call this The Blue Ocean Strategy. But it applies just as well in life.

Easier said than done. The challenge has been first, understanding my unique “jagged profiles” of strengths, weaknesses, interests, and values, then, second, finding where it fits.

What’s easier, I’ve found, is knowing when I’m in the wrong spot.

Because if you’re in the wrong spot, you lose.

If you lose your job, relationship, or your mind, or you feel lost, you’re in the wrong place playing the wrong game.

The right games are those you can’t lose.

Stop and smell the flowers
When you do what you want to do, not what you want the results of, you can stop to smell the flowers along the way.

2. Score fewer goals.

“When you sign up to run a marathon, you don’t want a taxi to take you to the finish line.” 

Derek Sivers, Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur

Goals help set a direction. That’s good. And scoring goals feels fantastic. Yay.

But what do you do after you score?

Shoot for another goal? Then shoot for another and another until I fail, give up, or run out of time?

That doesn’t sound like winning at life.

I prefer this alternative:

  1. Pick a goal. “I want to run a marathon.”
  2. Think of the systems, values, and skills needed to reach it. “I need to join a running group, get a coach to improve my stride, and value my long-term health over short-term rewards.”
  3. Forget the goal and do step two for the fun of it. “I’ve come to love getting outside and going for runs and how my body feels afterward.”

Do what you want to do, not what you want the results of. Odds are you’ll score by accident. Either that or, like me, you’ll stumble into playing different games you’d hadn’t previously considered.

The best way I’ve found to set and pursue the right goals “for the fun of it” has been having a personal mission statement.

3. Shoot for what you can’t beat people at.

I’ve learned that values, not goals, are the best way to set my direction and keep score in life.

Avoid competitive values.

Shooting for values that are measured relative to others—like popularity, image, power, acceptance, and respect—is a loser move.

Nobody can win forever if they keep score that way.

Shoot for values you don’t need to beat anyone to attain.

Here are some values recommended by Abraham Maslow, the famed hierarchy of needs creator who dedicated his life to figuring out how to achieve “self-actualization” and “transcendence”:

  • Perfection. Struggle to master.
  • Justice. Make it right.
  • Simplicity. Get to the essence of things.
  • Truth. Stay open-minded and curious.
  • Uniqueness. Be your best possible self.
  • Playfulness. You can’t win at life without playing.

Pick one or two.

Given my blog is called The Unconventional Route, you can probably guess which value I’m shooting toward.

When sh*t happens, suck it up and deal with it.
Even when you get in some sh*t and it’s not your fault, it’s your responsibility to deal with it.

4. Suck it up and keep swinging.

The game of life is like playing golf on a par infinity hole.

Given your circumstances, you try to pick the right club from your bag, aim as best you can, and swing.

Once the ball’s in the air, it’s out of your control. If a sudden gust of wind carries your otherwise perfect shot into a bunker, boohoo. If a crocodile emerges from the water hazard and sits on your ball, too bad for you.

Not everything’s your fault, but everything’s your responsibility.

So whatever happens, you have to suck it up and play the ball as it lies.

Moaning, “Why did this happen?” doesn’t help. All I can do ask myself, “What can I do about it?”, pick a club, and keep swinging.

5. Beat competition with cooperation.

We can accomplish more by asking each other for help, finding and fixing our weaknesses, and teaming up to take on bigger challenges.

But don’t we need competition for motivation?

Nah.

Using competition for motivation is like swinging a bat at a beehive and running for it in order to get exercise. It’s dangerous and gets you going for the wrong reasons.

More rewarding (and less dangerous) motivation comes from finding a calling that ignites a “rage to master” under your butt.

For me, that comes from writing to try to convince other people to break from the ruts of their routines and get on their own unconventional routes. I don’t need to compete with anyone at it, never need external motivation to do it, and am always eager to collaborate with fellow creators who have similar missions.

Contagious can't-lose mindset for winning at life
People respect unanxious types who do their own thing.

6. Attract respect rather than chase it.

“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

Lao Tzu

Since living like life’s not a competition, it’s mattered less what other people think of me and how they’re doing in their game. My mistakes aren’t embarrassing, but useful lessons. And my social anxiety has faded.

This has freed up the energy to be more creative, explore further, and take more risks.

And I’ve noticed a funny thing start to happen as I’ve kept at it:

People recognize and respect what I’m doing.

Ironically, this is what others who view life as a competition so anxiously chase after. But respect comes naturally to those who don’t fight over it.

Now, I’m not suggesting anyone completely stop giving a crap about what other people think. Only psychopaths have zero social anxiety.

Just worry a lot less. Do so by re-focusing on the one person we tend to give the cold shoulder…

7. Only seek to impress one person.

“A healthy feeling of inferiority is not something that comes from comparing oneself to others, but from one’s comparison with one’s self.”

Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, The Courage to Be Disliked

To win at life without competing, the only person I’m most concerned with impressing is myself.

Not my present self.

Current Me is too easy to please with ice cream, beer, and bikini pictures on Instagram. 

Not my past self.

Pinterest wisdom says, “My only competition is the person I was yesterday.” The problem with this is that when our win streaks inevitably end, we risk falling down a deep spiral into Loserville.

My future self.

If what I’m doing will make my future self say, “Way to go, Past Me,” I know I’ve done well.

To get started impressing your future self, try this thought exercise:

Imagine you had an Instagram account followed by 10,000 Future Yous from all moments in your future between now and your death. What could you do and then post about to get the most likes?

Nobody impatient ever accomplished anything noteworthy (…but they probably didn’t die of thirst running through the desert either).

8. Play the long game.

“The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”

Fritjof Nansen

Our most pernicious adversary in the game of life is impatience.

Competing with impatience is slow and boring. It feels better to get quick and easy wins elsewhere. But every time I settle for simple victories, I fall farther behind in the bigger battle for something substantial.

To overcome impatience, I’m doing two things:

First, stop worrying about where I’m at.

As David Epstein writes in his book, Range, “You probably don’t even know where exactly you’re going, so feeling behind doesn’t help.”

Second, start worrying about living a good story.

As Donald Miller outlines in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

You’re the character. And you can edit the story as you go. But you only get one story to tell. Take your time to make it a good one.

The Can’t-Lose Approach to Win at Life

To recap:

  • Play your own game and make it something you want to do, not what you want the results of.
  • Cooperate when possible and forget about the spectators.
  • Remember that the only person you need to impress is your future self.
  • Play the long game that tells a great story, aiming for values.
  • And keep swinging regardless of your situation.

I believe that if you accept that life’s not a competition and follow these can’t-lose strategies, you’ll have a great chance of winning at life.


Thanks to Francisco, Luis, and Blair for their input!


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2 thoughts on “Life is Not a Competition, But You Can Still Win At It”

  1. everything in life is a competition-from finding employment to looking for a life partner. sadly, by far the most critical factor for men when it comes to success in life is being tall & physically attractive, losing the genetic lottery is one of the worst possible curses and it’s brutal to understand that you are simply not good enough due to factors entirely beyond your control so are destine to be single, alone & unwanted.

    Reply
    • Hmm… You’re right that life could indeed be tougher if you’re born super short and super ugly. But are you sure there are no short and ugly people who are winning at life with jobs and partners they love?

      Reply

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