A Zero-Sum Game: The Best Way to Produce Professionals?

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Shawn Kent Hayashi formerly worked for an organisation whose CEO was keen to increase competition between its workers. While this was a good idea in theory, Hayashi describes in her article for Forbes 1 how this ‘created a culture of back stabbing’ within the organisation and a lack of trust within the leadership team. The CEO not only created a toxic working environment and reduced productivity, but this eventually led to the loss of several talented employees.

This is not unusual. Competition, if implemented incorrectly, can do more harm than good. It promotes an environment where ideas and opinions are held back. Individuals are often forced to struggle alone, and a solution to a problem may be withheld until the individual feels they may be credited with the idea.

Another concern regarding competition is that it encourages ‘competitors’ to compare themselves to others. Marymount University, Virginia, attempts to discourage this among their students for a number of reasons 2. Firstly, they believe the habit of comparing oneself to others may tempt students to ‘lose focus on what’s important such as your goals and career aspirations’. Students can become so fixated on achieving the highest grades or achieving the same as others that they lose sight of the bigger picture. Often, however, the reality is that education is not a fair competition. No two students have the same background, few take exactly the same subjects and even fewer learn in exactly the same way – so not only is comparing oneself to others counterintuitive, it is also incredibly destructive. This argument is beginning to find its way into the admissions process for universities, especially in the United Kingdom where many believe elitism remains prevalent in the universities where many students are competing for the same places. A notable example of this is the University of Oxford, where figures have shown that more than 60% of students attended private or grammar schools 3. The assumption regarding independent schools is that its students generally receive a better education than state school students. So how can such a competition possibly be fair?

Marymount University goes on to add that such comparison ‘takes away your peace of mind and happiness’ and may even lead to mental illnesses, such as depression. Dr Gregg Henriques, Director of the Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology at James Madison University, examined the emerging factors behind the student mental health crisis in an article for Psychology Today 4. Among other reasons, he believes that this crisis is largely due to the ‘intense academic pressure to succeed’ which is not helped by many students initially seeing a reduction in the grades they are achieving and appearing to struggle relative to their peers.With the number of students disclosing mental illnesses higher than ever before, this is clearly a major cause for concern which is not helped by a student culture of comparison

So competition is inherently bad, right?

Not quite.

Joshua Neubert, founder of the Institute of Competition Sciences 5, argues that there are many positives to be taken from comparing ourselves to others. He believes that comparison to other students means that students can ‘appreciate the academic skills of others’ as well as giving a benchmark for their own improvement. After all, our idea of education means constantly striving to better oneself and our academic ability, often yielding great results.

As well as this, competition builds many vital skills and qualities, such as resilience, a growth mindset and communication. Neubert also argues that if done correctly, competition can actually build our team working abilities. Working with others and striving to achieve a positive outcome in a challenging task forces us to rely on others, as well as their strengths and the skills they can bring to a team situation.

The issue with competition is that by its very nature, it is a zero-sum game; one person will always lose while another gains. This brings us back to the article by Marymount University and their concerns over students’ peace of mind and mental health. We as humans learn by repetition and past experience and so, if we put 100% into ‘competing’ (whether this be examinations, university or job applications) but we are continually faced with rejection, we may believe that we are worthless or simply not good enough. While this is a perfectly human reaction, a more useful response to failure appears to be to reflect on why this failure has occurred and how one could better prepare going forward.

Competition is vital in productivity and plays a major role in politics, international relations and even sports. It allows us to learn from the expertise of others and to set goals for our own improvement, as well as giving us the space to build resilience so that if we fail, we have the strength to pick ourselves back up. In our current understanding of competition, however, it can be especially easy to become disheartened and despondent. Our culture of negative comparison of ourselves to others is not only unhealthy, but can lead to serious mental illnesses. Competition is an incredibly useful tool in the learning process, but it is important to remember that it is by no means the antithesis of collaboration.

This article was specialist edited by Katrina Wesencraft and copy-edited by Lucy Silcock



  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/09/11/competition-or-collaboration-which-will-help-your-team-produce-the-best-results/
  2. https://learn.marymount.edu/blog/no-comparisons-why-college-students-shouldnt-compare-themselves-to-their-peers
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/oxford-university-cambridge-state-school-socially-inclusive-ethnicity-sunday-times-guide-david-lammy-a8551036.html
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201402/what-is-causing-the-college-student-mental-health-crisis
  5. https://www.competitionsciences.org/2016/07/04/10-ways-competitions-enhance-learning/

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