Life’s Not a Contest, So Why Are We Competing?

Real talk on professional competition from three inspiring women.

 minute read

Andrea Karr

I’m not sure if it’s something innate to my personality (I’m a Virgo, after all) or a side effect of how I was raised, but I’ve always been a competitive person. It’s taken me 32 years to realize that comparing myself to other people, and using my insecurities to push myself harder, is the key to greater anxiety—not greater happiness. Still, I occasionally find myself looking at another woman and thinking: “She’s way more successful than me. I should be traveling more, getting more assignments and making more money.” 

It’s toxic behavior…but maybe you’ve caught yourself thinking along the same lines. We live in a world of cutthroat university applications, job interview processes, and pro-level social feeds, and it’s easy to become entangled in a storm of comparison. That’s why I turned to three successful women to learn their secrets to dealing with professional competition.

Christen Delaney, founder and designer at CAM Jewelry

Christen Delaney worked in advertising for one year and one day, but she always knew the corporate world wasn’t for her. “I came from a studio art background,” she says. “The goal was to figure out what I could do that melded those two things together.” In 2014, she forged a new path for herself in sustainable jewelry design, launching a business in Los Angeles where she continues to create talismans inspired by nature, ritual and energy. 

While Delaney thinks it’s natural to compare ourselves to others and to occasionally feel down if we don’t think we measure up, she prefers to compete against one person only: herself. “It’s like I constantly have an idea that I’m chasing after rather than seeing what everyone around me is doing. I’ve never found that to be helpful.” Here’s her advice for maintaining a positive outlook in your search for success and fulfillment: 

Avoid the scarcity mindset

“If you view competition through the lens of scarcity, that’s going to be tough because it means there’s one spot. If you don’t get that one spot, you’re done. But if you’re only competing with yourself, then you’re constantly bettering yourself. There are a zillion things to go after. It’s never the end of the line.”

Find the path that fits

“Just because you’re chasing something, doesn’t mean it’s the right fit. Sometimes it’s our egos chasing it. It takes a lot of self-reflection and discernment to figure out the difference. If you’re hitting a lot of roadblocks, I would look at that. It might mean that you’re trying to be successful in something that isn’t a natural fit for you… like trying to force a square peg in a round hole.”

Build a community

“Five or six years ago, I started going to an all-women’s camping event. Now it’s 800 women. It’s integrated me very strongly into a community of makers, businesswomen… a lot of them are also moms. I try to support their businesses by being a patron or shouting them out on Instagram whenever possible.”

Emily Mills; Photo by Julia Park Photography

Emily Mills, Founder of How She Hustles 

Emily Mills is in a unique position to talk about women and competition because she has devoted the past 10 years of her life to raising women up, connecting them and helping their voices be heard. Through the women’s network she created, How She Hustles, she’s hosted over 20 sold-out events, created a video series about diverse women entrepreneurs called Startup & Slay and even led a roundtable with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss economic opportunities and entrepreneurship for black women.  

One of Mills’ biggest goals is to bring diverse women together to share opportunities. “I’m really conscious of when I invite people into places and spaces,” she says. “It’s not always the people who have the biggest, shiniest social media profile or have the stack of awards on their office wall. It may be the person who doesn’t think that I see their courage or their value.” 

For Mills, life doesn’t have to be one big contest. Instead, she would rather work to understand the lived experiences of a wide range of people and give those people the opportunities to achieve their goals. Here’s what she’s learned about competition and success throughout her career:

Your time will come

“I’m learning more and more that there’s a time and a place for everything. I’m really big on faith. My grandfather was a pastor and I think I carry a lot of his spirit with me. Everything in due time. I feel like everybody has a turn and a place at the table, and if you don’t, you build your own.”

If you mess up, apologize

“Apologies are always helpful if they’re needed—say if there is ever a point where you feel like you’re competing with someone or someone is competing with you and there’s bad blood. I think it can be such an important step. I am trying more and more to make that conscious effort to be explicit because I think it goes a long way and I don’t want to have any regrets.”

It's not just about you

A lot of competition, I think, comes from women not taking the opportunity to recognize other people. I am happy to celebrate other women because, especially for black women and women of colour, we need as many success stories as we can get. If I feel like someone is competing with me or has bad energy, I really need to stop, check myself and ask, ‘What is the bigger win for all of us?’ If that means I have to put my personal feelings aside and recognize and celebrate that person for what they’re doing for women, especially women of diverse backgrounds, then I just have to suck it up, put on my big girl panties and do it.”

Masha Maltsava, from her Instagram

Masha Maltsava, Commercial and Editorial Photographer

When Masha Maltsava moved from Belarus to California 10 years ago, she had a passion for fashion and photography—but no formal training. She decided to try her hand at wedding photography and gave herself three months to see if she could make a living. “I photographed about 45 weddings in my first year,” she recalls. “I crushed it.” But she found the work repetitive and wanted to see if she could make her way into commercial photography, so she took a trip to NYC and fell in love with the city’s energy. Fast forward nine years and she’s worked with brands like Estée Lauder, Michael Kors and Nordstrom and had her images published in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and GQ

“I think being a freelancer/entrepreneur in New York City is a competitive sport on its own,” says Maltsava, yet she loves being surrounded by other ambitious people because it pushes her to be a better version of herself. “If you’re not the most hardworking, energetic, kindest, there will be another person who is better than you and will be there to get your job.” Here’s her advice for standing out above the rest (without stepping over other people to do it):

Work with the best

“I learned photography through mentorship and working for other female photographers, first in San Diego and then New York. In the beginning, I interned and I went to as many photographers as I could and offered to work with them for free in exchange for learning. Up to this day, if I’m trying to get to a certain place, I try to find the best person in the field and see what can I offer them before I ask for anything. In that sense, you start building a relationship with somebody and then they’re way more willing to help you.”

Focus on how you make others feel

“The first time I shot with Carolyn Murphy, I’d only been in photography for three years and I was so intimidated. But she makes everyone around her feel as if they’re the most important person on set. I keep using that tool I learned from her. When I’m shooting with someone, I try to make them feel like they’re the only person in the room. I try to fall in love with one feature or quality of that person and try to make them see it from my perspective. The minute you find that one thing about them and show them the first couple photos that they love, they will instantly open up and give you even more of that thing.”

Change your attitude toward competition

“I read this somewhere the other day: the only difference between a weed and a flower is a judgment. You can let competition destroy you completely and cause jealousy, envy, anxiety, sadness, depression and feelings of unworthiness. Or you can use competition as a tool to help you grow, connect with others and be better. I’ve never seen competition as a negative thing. Instead, I always saw it as a tool helping me learn.”

Though Delaney, Mills and Maltsava work in different industries and cities—and each have their own unique life experiences—they all have a healthy approach to competition. They are proof that even if you work in a competitive industry, you don’t have to let it diminish your self-worth or harm your relationships with others. Instead of constantly measuring yourself against other people’s achievements or stepping over other women to achieve your goals, focus on your unique strengths (while working to improve your weaknesses), stay humble and build a network of likeminded women that will see you through self-doubt. 

Want more tips from strong women who have forged successful career paths? Catch Part II, where three women in the beauty industry—a magazine editor, PR pro and makeup artist—talk about their attitudes toward professional competition and how they set themselves apart.

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