In Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, we follow the lives of two magicians Robert Angier and Alfred Borden played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale respectively.
We get introduced to them as two young men who want to make it big in the showbiz of magic until something goes terribly wrong which causes them to become dreadful rivals of each other.
This ruthless competition causes both of them to become obsessed with each other. What is the secret of the other? What is their trick? Can it be surpassed? Needless to say, this obsession doesn’t bode well for either of them.
The most common advice on competition is two-fold: “competition is for losers” and “compete with your past self.” Both sound great but aren’t always super helpful. Let me elaborate.
Your ultimate goal is to become a monopoly and get out of the rat race. That is what the first adage is all about. This essentially means: don’t play others’ games. Do things differently. Create your own game.
This is good advice but you don’t always have the luxury to create your own rules, especially when you are only trying to get promoted before your (rival) friend.
The second adage is about having a growth mindset. Competing with others can be stressful and in fact degrade our performance. We should instead measure ourselves against our past selves and see how far we have come. This will definitely give us a sense of accomplishment. Also, we should measure ourselves against our future ideal self. This will give us a sense of purpose.
While this is a good textbook advice, human beings aren’t wired that way. We are social animals. While we love to help those in need we also to love to compete and win.
Competition gives us a framework to measure ourselves against others. It tells us where we stand in the world, how far ahead or behind we are from those similar to us.
This sense of competitiveness acts like a stressor that motivates businesses to innovate, athletes to break records, investors to make more money. Competition pushes humanity forward.
But, like all stressors, too much of it is harmful.
While competition helps us measure ourselves against others, if we measure ourselves — our career, our wealth, our status, or success — solely relative to others, we’re plagued by a never-ending feeling of inadequacy, incompetence, and poverty.
Humans tend to do better with acute rather than with chronic stressors. Too much competitiveness results in chronic obsession which is not very different from the plot line of The Prestige. It never ends well.
There will always be someone who is smarter, luckier, more popular, better looking than you. If your only yardstick is comparing with others, nothing you do will ever feel that great.
Chronic obsession leads to chronic depression.
We need a sense of competitiveness, but in the right dose. Too little and we become flaccid. Too much and we don’t feel happy or fulfilled.
We should be motivated by opportunity but not plagued by FOMO.
When a colleague gets a promotion (they don’t deserve), it’s good to be motivated to game the system to your advantage but it’s foolish to obsess over it. And the difference is very subtle.
This is when having an internal yardstick comes handy. While measuring yourself against the world tells you where you stand, measuring yourself against your own standards advises what you should do about it.
Do you really need that promotion or do you just want it because your colleague got it? What is the price you have to pay for that? Is it really worth working 100-hour weeks and squeezing every penny out of your career potential?
If you are doing good according to your standards, you don’t really have to do anything even if everybody around you is becoming more successful or making more money.
In The Prestige, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden had opposite traits. Angier was a showman while Borden was a craftsman. They had ample opportunities to compete and learn from each other. But they obsessed only with beating the other. There was no internal yardstick, only extreme competitiveness.
A person whose sense of competitiveness has gone into an overdrive is blinded by FOMO. They lack the peripheral vision to look at the big picture and make strategic decisions. No matter how good they are, no matter how much they achieve, it’ll never be enough.
The sense of competitiveness is innate in us. But it’s a double-edged sword. While it can help us grow, too much of it can hurt us as well. It’s an animal instinct. We cannot solely depend on it to make decisions. We have to balance it out with an internal yardstick — the human supervision necessarily to control the animal in us.