I spent most of my twenties as a professional auditioneror what most people refer to as an actor.  On a daily basis, I’d go to multiple casting calls. Upon arrival, the receptionist would send me to a dimly lit room filled with chairs occupied by women with a similar physical description to myself. Then, after what sometimes felt like an eternity of tension, a production assistant would usher me into the casting room where I’d somehow sell my abilities in a few lines of dialogue. No pressure.

I always bought into the traditional idea that the entertainment industry was cutthroat, so when I decided to change careers at age thirty to pursue advertising, I was still acclimatized to the dog-eat-dog mindset. I figured I’d need to retire my competitive spirit and work cohesively with others towards campaign delivery and quarterly goals. At this point, I still saw things through a singular lens. I had a limited view of the acting world, where everyone was vying for one job. Then, moving onto the ad world, I had updated my approach to being a team player. But as I eventually learned, things weren’t quite that cut and dry.

We often categorize our environments as either ruthless, where we mentally suit up for battle, or as collaborative, where we act jointly with others. We also tend to view the people around us as either friends or foes. A black and white approach can help ensure a primal sense of safety, as we suss out threats or danger. But, this siloed view of opposition can lead to blind spots, or even a missed opportunity to give our best performance. In fact, for most of us, competition is a running theme throughout our whole lives. Whether it’s growing up with siblings, playing team sports, competing for a promotion, going head to head with others is a constant part of being human. And that’s not a bad thing. In healthy doses, competition keeps us alert and helps us attain our most notable goals. 

A big factor in the way we measure up the competition is the social comparison we embrace with one another. We see others succeed at something we want to do and it drives us to achieve those same results, or better. The U.S.’s first successful venture to the moon was rooted in seeing the Soviets fly to orbit first. Observing their success, America decided it could do better. But in other cases, social comparison can be detrimental. During the cola wars of the eighties, in an effort to beat out Pepsi for the top slot, Coca-Cola sweetened their recipe and called it “New Coke.” It completely flopped, resulting in Pepsi sales briefly skyrocketing. As damage control, Coca-Cola was forced to apologize to the 400,000 customers who wrote letters of complaint and rebranded their original recipe to “Coca-Cola Classic.” Whether they lead us astray or aid in success, social comparisons give us a perceived context in our accomplishments.

We also tend to view the people around us as either friends or foes.

Wherever you view yourself as a “competitor” or “collaborator,” the key to finding a balance may be checking in with yourself periodically. By asking yourself, “Am I losing opportunities to connect because I’m competing too much? or Am I being exploited because I’m cooperating too much?”, can help course correct and create a stable equilibrium. This can help serve our careers over the long term. Adam Galinsky, author of Friend and Foe: Balancing Competition and Collaboration explains, “We’re always cooperating, we’re always competing, and we should recognize that tension and also ask ourselves if we’re finding the right balance.” Simply asking yourself these questions can give you a sense of power and self-awareness to navigate the subtle and not-so-subtle signs with more confidence.

Broaden your horizons

Though the world tends to view competition in a generally positive light, the social comparison game can have toxic consequences when taken too far. Most of us have endured the frustration of seeing someone further ahead of us in an industry where we’ve worked hard. Then, that person or company becomes the focal point of what we need to surpass in order to consider ourselves successful. But, this tunnel vision thinking can actually limit results and prevent you from seeing the big picture. Entrepreneur Marie Forleo explains we have to take a broad view and stop thinking small. “Don’t look at one competitoryou want to look at what’s happening in your entire industry,” she explains. “Ask yourself how you can look outside of the box so you can innovate.” That means spending the majority of your time on your own work and focusing on specific competitors.

Keep a negotiation diary

When I entered the shiny, new world of advertising, I had a notebook on me at all times to keep track of tasks, and what I’d pitched in meetings. This was primarily a way of adjusting and learning about my new surroundings. But looking back at a year’s worth of notes, I realized not only had I been cooperating with colleagues to reach goals, but I was competing with them as well. We each pitched ideas during weekly meetings where only a few were acted on. We also went head to head for promotions and bigger assignments, while we all worked towards the same end goal. Keeping a written record of my initiatives also helped me examine my daily actions and decipher what my next career move should be.

Through hindsight, I’ve also realized the many collaborative moments in my former acting career. I frequently networked with fellow performers I met in the audition waiting room. We connected each other with agents, classes, and even exchanged our favorite plays and books on acting. Then, in the casting room, we often worked as scene partners to bring life to a script and help the director see the talents we both had to offer. This made me realize the inaccuracy in my stark view of competitive situations.

Both rivalry and squad goals are a part of everyone’s lives.

My journey has made me realize how often I’d categorized competition and collaboration as two separate mindsets and missed an important point. Both rivalry and squad goals are a part of everyone’s lives. Though competition can make us uncomfortable when we don’t get desired results, we can turn disappointment into motivation to do better next time. For those of us who worry about getting too caught up in the rat race, we can look for ways to cooperate and be of service to restore a sense of equilibrium. If we embrace the productive parts of the competition and still work together, we may find that inner stability and balance it takes to be the best.

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  • Jennifer O'Callaghan

    Jennifer O'Callaghan is a Toronto-based journalist. She mentors young professionals and entrepreneurs on creativity and self-empowerment and has a background in broadcasting and theatre. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.