§ Is Competition For Losers?

§ 2021-09-27

A common believe in the startup scene is that competition is for losers and that one always should setup shop in a "blue ocean" rather than a "red ocean."

There are countless famous proponents like Peter Thiel arguing publicly about the virtues of positioning oneself in a competitionless market rather than trying to fight for scarce resources.

But "is competition really for losers?", I asked myself when swimming in one of the croweded and fast-paced lanes of a public pool today.

See, for the first time in months, this morning I visited a public swimming pool again. Given that during the pandemic those only had limited availability, my summer consisted mostly swimming in many of the nice lakes around Berlin. Now that fall and winter are around the corner, today I thought: Why not train indoor again.

If you've ever swum freestyle in the fast lane of a public swimming pool, you probably know your fellow swimmers aren't joking around. They're usually super fit, have amazing technique and they absolutely don't shy back from overtaking you mid-lane. They don't do it for a prize or praise. They just do it. To train I guess.

To me, just the hecticness of that situation makes swimming and training quite intense. Just a few strokes after entering the lane, I start keeping an eye on my back and I start to feel anxious to get overpassed.

However, other than a competitive zero sum game would suggest, I actually don't get sad about losing to others in the pool. Instead, being passed by others makes me want to improve my technique and breathing. They motivate me. So logically afterwards, I ended up thinking about the concept of competition.

In many of my previous jobs, competition has been a complete turn-off. It's when I feel that I don't want to engage in aggression and extra effort just to reach a goal that usually requires less engagement. In those moments, I feel that competition is wasteful and for losers.

And in many startup self-help books, like Peter Thiel's famous "Zero to One", that line of thinking is thoroughly confirmed. But is it universally true that "competition is for losers"?

A nice theoretic resolution to the anecdote would be to introduce and define the different kind of theoretic games. Through simplifiying the swimmers to a length, speed and comparing them to the physical properties of the pool - surely we could find an optimal strategy, e.g. one that minimizes overtaking and maximizes the distance swum.

However, exactly that thought would require assuming that all actors fundamentally behaved completely rational to either increase their economic status or gain some form of homogenious utility. But specifically in the swim lane, I'd argue that everyone's motivations are so fastly different that a simplifying model could only poorly capture everybody's real intents. It wouldn't produce an effective strategy.

It's because I, for example, liked today's hectic "vibe" as it allowed me to have a more intense training. Other swimmers could have had similar intention or their's could have been totally uncorrelated. For me, it was to swim faster and to compare my fitness. Next time it may already be different. And why not - there's entirely nothing at stake either.

I'll admit; closing this essay now with a logical conclusion about what I've learned is difficult. But I'll say this: "competition is for losers" is an unnecessary broad generalization and it's most definitely not universally true (who would have guessed). Rather, today's experience suggests that some competition is worth and fun engaging with.