The Lonely Diplomat: on competition
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Our diplomatic lives can be
dominated by competition.
What can this do to us?
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Recently, I was running along the beautiful harbour here in Wellington on a gorgeous spring morning. The sun was shining – and finally had some warmth to it – and the wind was calm: A rare morning. I was only too pleased to be outside and exercising. I was about four kilometres into my run and did a quick status check.
Feet? Doing their thing without any niggles or complaints.
Legs? Strong and feeling good.
Gait? Not too long, not too short.
Breathing? Yep. Still breathing.
Tunes? Excellently matched to my mood and tempo.
In that moment, life was good. I settled in and looked forward to the next six kilometres.
No sooner had I thought this than a I saw a shadow on the path next to me. The shadow drew parallel to mine and then I saw the owner of the shadow running next to me for the barest of moments. He then powered past me with the kind of easy stride that all runners desire.
Within a moment, he was 20 metres ahead of me. I picked up my pace and started running harder. He rounded a headland and went out of sight. I worked to maintain this faster pace. I still had music in my ears, but I wasn’t listening to it. When I saw him again, he was 100 metres ahead of me. Then 200 metres. Then he was out of sight.
I lost myself for a kilometre or so in thoughts of not being good enough, fit enough or fast enough. I felt like a hack who embarrassingly shuffled around the running paths of Wellington.
Then I caught myself. I chuckled. I was letting my competitive streak pull me away from being me.
I quickly thought to myself, there’s a blog post in this!
* * * * *
Competition rules our lives. The feelings that arise when we scroll through our social media feeds quickly confirms this. We see perfection on our screens and then compare that to our lived experience and how we feel about ourselves.
We compare ourselves to others in our communities – sometimes our colleagues and their families if we live on a compound or small diplomatic/expat community – where we are in the world.
What about in our workplaces? Do we feel that we are losing at life if our lived reality does not look like what we’re seeing on our phones and all around us at work?
For diplomats and those living the diplomatic life
The organisational cultures in our employing agencies can be ruled by competition and our willingness to compete with one another for the prize – status, recognition, postings, promotions, opportunities.
I’ve written extensively about competition – indeed, a whole chapter is devoted to the topic – in my book ‘The Lonely Diplomat: Reconnecting to yourself and the world around you’. I won’t repeat it all here [I’d prefer that you bought the book! Details in the 'further reading' section below], but I will say that competition is ubiquitous and relentless around diplomacy. It’s part of the very air we breathe.
Our employing agencies rely on the competition and our willingness to compete. Indeed, our employing agencies have to compete with other government agencies for budgets and influence within the wider government and bureaucracy.
This competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some rivalry can inspire us to do great things with fewer resources in shorter amounts of time. But it can easily spiral out of control and be damaging to us and our workplaces. Much of my work is predicated on how this relentless competition affects us. We want to be seen. We want to be talked about in the right way, for the right reasons. We want to be seen as the person who can do it all, who delivers the impossible in the shortest amount of time and the greatest of ease. We want to be the safest pair of hands in a crisis. We want to be chosen. We want to get every promotion we seek, every posting we want and offered every opportunity to prove our mettle against others.
To achieve all this, we work longer and harder than anyone else, because that’s just how it needs to happen. We work through the illnesses and the injuries. We miss social events. We make and break commitments because something more urgent and important came up. We delay our time off to rest and relax until things quieten down again. Sleep becomes something we do when we’re dead.
Perception is reality in hyper-competitive environments. We work hard to build and maintain our own brand, and – consciously or unconsciously – can damage the positive perceptions of others through gossip or a well-timed comment.
Why do we do this? We can work in places that have a pronounced scarcity operational culture. Time, money, people, attention and credit are all finite resources. This mindset can seep into much of what we do and how we view our work. There’s only so much money, attention, recognition, success or whatever else is desirable to go around.
Ironically, when we operate from a place of lack one resource that is not scarce is blame. There’s usually a lot of blame to go around if anything didn’t go to plan, irrespective of the reason. A scarcity mindset, adopted for whatever reason, can lead organisations – and those who work in them – to some dark places from which it is difficult to return.
Keep scarcity in mind as we continue.
We can also compete for competition’s sake. Or we compete because everyone else is.
For me, I like to know that I’ve got what it takes. What ‘it’ is exactly, I’m not sure. It’s everything from being smart enough to say intelligent things during a meeting to being able to handle more and more responsibility without showing any ill effects.
I know that this relentless competition in our workplaces and within ourselves can’t possibly end well for so many of us. It moves us towards the corruption of the concept of resilience (an issue I’ve explored in other posts – see the ‘Want to know more?’ section below). I think that we can get so caught up in the competition and the desire to prove ourselves worthy enough – or more worthy than everyone else – that we forget that it doesn’t have to be like this.
What are we to do?
Let’s return to my run.
After a kilometre or so, I realised that I had freely given myself – given my power – to a random stranger who was a better runner than me. However, he did look to be about 20 years younger than me. I reminded myself that for someone of my age, I’m in superb physical fitness and can routinely run 10km a few times a week without significant aftereffects (I can get out of bed the next day).
Also, I had no idea about his story. He overtook me somewhere in my first four kilometres. I had no idea of how far he’d run, or how far he intended to go. He may have been doing a time trial or sprints. I had no idea.
What was most curious was my response. When I realised that I’d essentially shut out the world, thrown away my great mood and put my head down to prove something to a random stranger who probably wasn’t paying me any attention, I pulled myself out of that spiral before I injured myself or put myself into a bad mood that lasted all day.
I couldn’t control the other runner or what he thought of me. But I could control my response to him.
I decided to step back into my power, reclaim my mood, wished him well and enjoy the rest of my run. And then I planned this post when I got home.
I feel that the more we try to prove ourselves to those who don’t know us – or know only part of us – the more we put ourselves at risk. We risk living out of integrity with ourselves and what we hold most dear (‘Integrity’ being the concept when our values, intentions and words, thoughts and actions completely align). We risk selling ourselves out to prove that we’re worthy. We hustle for acceptance. We hustle for the validation. We hustle to be seen.
We just hustle because everyone else is hustling. If we don’t hustle, we lose. We’re irrelevant.
We are playing a game in which the rules constantly change, which we have the slimmest chance of winning, just because everyone else does it and ‘this is how it’s done around here’.
When competition is allowed to go unchecked, everyone who’s playing loses.
So the question becomes: Why are we playing this game?
To answer this question, I want to share this quote from Dr Maya Angelou:
‘If you don’t like something, change it.
If you can’t change it, change yourself.’
There’s an alternative: You can choose to not compete.
You can choose to get clear on why you’re working in this kind of environment, what it’s doing to you and what it's doing to those most important to you. You can choose to not play a game that you cannot possibly win. You can choose to be in integrity within yourself. You can stay in your own lane. You can choose to work in areas that interest you, not where you think will get you further or get you noticed. You can work towards your employer’s strategic objectives in your way, not in the way you feel you must because everyone else is doing it.
You can choose to move away from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance. While there’s a limit to budget, time and resources, there’s no limit to your attitude to problems. There’s no limit to how you show up in the world, ready to do your bit. There’s no limit to the support you give others. There’s no limit on the amount of success and credit to go around.
You can choose collaboration over competition. But choose authentic collaboration, not competitive collaboration where you seek to be the best at collaborating, so it looks good on your résumé. Choose the type of collaboration that uplifts and supports others. Critically, receive it when others uplift and support you.
These may be hard choices at first. In fact, it will be hard at first. You may miss out on opportunities. You may miss out on promotions or postings. But you could have missed out on them anyway if you’d chosen to be and do what you thought others expected you to be and do.
You can also choose to leave and explore other career options if you feel that the price of such a competitive game is too high for you. This doesn’t mean that you can’t hack it or aren’t resilient enough. You’ve made a choice for you and those most important to you that your integrity and how you live, work and make a contribution to society is worth more than competing in a game where you’re most likely going to lose, even when you ‘win’.
You can choose my coaching services to help you with these decisions. I promise that living in integrity within yourself is a much better prize than the endless and exhausting hustling for approval you may be doing now.
I’ll be returning to the theme of competition and what it does to us and our workplaces in coming posts.
For now, think back to the last time you were overtaken by someone running/driving faster than you. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel?
Now, think about when you were passed over for a promotion, posting or a once-in-a-career opportunity? Did you feel the same range of emotions? Did you think that same types of thoughts? What did you resolve to do?
Think about how you respond to the competition that’s all around you. What’s it done – and doing – to you and how you live your diplomatic life?
Want to know more?
Alison Earl, ‘Tripowerment: The why, the will, and the way of breakthrough change’ (alisonearl.com)
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.
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