689: Competitive Nature

Very recently — as in just a few weeks as in episode 674, we talked about the meta-analysis of studies finding that there was zero relationship between competition and performance. And almost immediately, I heard from a number of people pointing to studies that showed that individuals doing everything from participating in a grip strength exercise to bicycling competition did better when they were competing against others than they did when competing against themselves or the clock.

I’m not going to be the one to say that all research, or even all meta-analytical efforts, are perfect. That’s one of the things that’s awesome about science – we’re all constantly testing new things, learning new things, and finding ways to measure the same question in multiple different ways. And I’m also not going to be the one to say that there’s a particular right or wrong answer here.

What I will say is that while I was researching this question a little further, I came across the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing and an interview with the co-author Ashley Merryman. What I found really intriguing in that interview was this quote:

The goal of the book was not to say, “There’s one competitive style that’s the ‘top dog,’ and the only way to win is to become that prototype.” We all have different competitive styles, and we’re helping to figure out how to recognize the style that best suits you […] My co-author, Po Bronson, and I are good examples of two opposite competitive styles. Po prefers fast competition, whereas I’m good at long-range competition. I’m trained as a litigator, and in six months, I can work you into the ground. It’s important to identify what parts of competition you’re good at and what parts will be challenging.


When people say they’re “not competitive,” they’re worried that, to be competitive, they have to be cut-throat and aggressive and that they need to cheat. Research shows that none of this is true—the best competitors respect their opponents. Competition is about motivation, passion, and pushing yourself. It’s good to pick your battles—if it’s just a parking space, let it go. Knowing which competitions are worthwhile doesn’t mean you’re not competitive. It’s a gift I wish we all had.