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When competition leads to burnout

An excerpt from the book "Burning Out Won't Get You There: Cultivating Wellbeing to Successfully Lead Social Change"

Photo by O12 on Unsplash
Photo by O12 on Unsplash

How can we, as changemakers, make use of unity to sustain ourselves first and work after? To answer this question, we must first look at the mental models of competitiveness and accomplishment that we’re often captured in.

The majority of us are being raised in a culture where competition and achievement are considered the basic elements of success. We are measured by grades and numbers, salaries, and materialistic accomplishments. We are rewarded for our achievements and rebuked or punished for our failures, and we are judged for our results instead of efforts, intentions, and processes. We are exposed to judgmental terminologies of “good,” “bad,” “excellent,” “fail,” and “sucks.”

We are scored on a bell curve scale, meaning we are constantly compared to others, and while we’re “climbing the corporate ladder” –as referenced by hierarchal organizations – we almost inevitably embrace the approach of climbing on top of others, instead of going with them.

Our primetime television is flooded with singing, cooking, and surviving competitions and championships, and we’ve made pitching contestants off TV shows into a new brand of sports. Like it or not, we have strongly embedded the culture of competitiveness and achievement into our everyday work and life.

Working in the field of social change is not free of some aspects of this competitive culture, despite the inherent intention of acting for the common good. Although collaboration and systems perspectives are frequently demonstrated in this field of practice, it’s inevitable that we will be affected by the institutional structure we are often bound to and from the mental models themselves.

I do not believe that people in this field – especially leaders, entrepreneurs, and change agents who work hard to create positive social outcomes – are behaving in a competitive way from an anti-social motivation. People want and need to financially sustain themselves, and it’s common to think or to be convinced that the only way to create financial sustainability is to “defeat” your “competitors” in the same field to get the advantage. It requires out-of-the-box thinking about how to collaborate with other entrepreneurs, for example, and remain unique and profitable.

It also takes courage to lead and work in cooperation with others and trust that no one will “steal” your customers. The mind shift is very deep here, due to the ingrained mental models of competitiveness.

Yet it is greatly needed, since even if competition might benefit us on a small scale, it will critically harm us in the long run due to the stress and burnout it may cause.

Think about how exhausting it is to focus your energies on competing with other changemakers and constantly trying to “be the best out there,” when, in fact, the reality is that there are many “bests” out there. We’re fighting others, we’re fighting the reality, and we’re fighting our self-image instead of focusing on fighting the real sustainability challenges happening in the world.


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This was an excerpt from “Burning Out Won’t Get You There”. The book is available on Amazon worldwide, both in print and as an ebook.

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