175 comments

It’s Not a Contest

conferenceA few weeks ago, I was in downtown Denver at the conference center, as one of the parent volunteers for the elementary school’s Robotics Club. We were there to watch an international robotics competition, where students from around the world had brought along robots they had built to be squared off against each other in various events. We stepped off the school bus and made our way though the various bridges and corridors of the gleaming glass facility. When we arrived outside the right ballroom, we were greeted by one of the teachers from our school district. He addressed our group of 40 kids:

“OK guys, before we go in, I wanted to remind you of one thing. There are two types of people in the world today: those who create technology, and those who consume it. Only one of those groups gets to cash the check, the other has to write it. Apple Computer didn’t get to be the richest company in the world by buying a bunch of phones – they had to do the hard work to develop those phones. 

So when you go into this room, I want you to look at the teams and where they are from. You’ll notice most of them are from Asia. Because over there, they take this stuff – science, technology, engineering, and math – much more seriously than we do. The kids your age are already starting calculus, and they program their own robots and do events like this every weekend. They are way ahead of us, and in a global world, it’s blah blah blah…”

At this point I tuned out, because I could see where the guy was going and I think he was missing the bigger picture. But I was happy to add his little speech to my collection of stories about the common theme of artificially imposed competitive worry. These scary little talks pop up in all areas of life, and with them we are creating a dog-eat-dog world in the middle of a very comfortable and well-appointed dog food factory.

You’ll see this phenomenon in varying degrees in the school system: At one end of it, my own family has become curious about the hippy free-for-all concept of Unschooling, while traditional schooling methods are more rigorous. And the trend seems to intensify in the Northeastern United States, where many of the wealthier residents are afflicted with Ivy League Preschool Syndrome). Further East, the Indian and Asian cultures value education highly, but often under a very strict regime of long hours, reduced leisure, rote memorization and a focus on competition.

Unfortunately this phenomenon does not end on graduation day. The nature of large-scale capitalism is competition and survival of the fittest, which I believe can be a good thing overall*. But when you apply constant competition on the level of individual humans in a win-lose battle, the results are not nearly as good.

Most of us seem to come pre-packaged with a desire for more. If something is good, more of it must be better. A 4-cylinder car provides amazing transportation options, so people naturally try to get more of that amazement by buying 8-cylinder trucks. A few square feet of interior space is a very useful form of shelter, so given the resources some of us will amass tens of thousands of these square feet.

But the phenomenon of more extends even further than material conveniences. It leaks right into the way we live our lives and perceive our value as human beings. If you enjoy your job, you may find yourself advancing relentlessly until you become the CEO. If you own a business, you might find yourself growing it just because the customers and the money are there and you don’t want to waste the opportunity. But what if higher status and higher income were not the things you really needed to achieve a happier life? You would end up trading precious time and life for something that really delivers no value to you, because you had enough in the first place.

Some people call this tendency mindless accumulation. This bad habit is built right into us, as you may have seen in the recent psychological study described in the New York Times. In that rather amazing experiment, researchers found that people were willing to endure annoying noises for far too long, just to accumulate chunks of chocolate that they knew they would never be able to enjoy. This tendency was more prevalent among high-achieving and high earning people like you.

You might think that a fake self-discipline guru like Mr. Money Mustache would be immune to this effect, but unfortunately this is not the case. I still get little thrills every time I earn an extra chunk of unnecessary money, and strive irrationally hard to avoid the pain of losing any of it. People with an even stronger version of this tendency will tend to work in unsatisfying jobs much longer than they need to. Several MMM readers have shared stories in the past about reaching multimillionaire status and yet still feeling compelled to accumulate more. And just to prove they are not that unusual, a 30-year-old described the addictive process that led him to be unsatisfied with a $3.6 million annual bonus. He used the very appropriate term “Wealth Addiction” to describe his condition. The underlying brain chemicals probably function in just the same way as many other compulsive habits.

I find that the tendency to mindlessly heap more onto our plates even occurs with life experiences. I had a very happy life even back in 2011 before starting this blog. As it took off in subsequent years, more opportunities popped up as more wonderful people were brought into my life through the magic of the Internet. There were chances to go on more trips, speak at schools and conferences, meet people for lunches and dinners, write books and make videos. This all sounds like very fancy stuff – the type of opportunities one should not squander, because they are not offered to everyone. But at the same time, every activity you add to an already-full life means that something has to fall out the other side (unless you can cut out sleep, which unfortunately is not an effective strategy). So I feel opportunities slipping away every day. I see how much more I could get done if only I would work harder and become more efficient at everything.

But then I calm down and remind myself, just as I am reminding you today, that it is not a contestLife is not a contest, and we get more out of it by cooperating wholeheartedly with each other rather than beating each other’s asses at everything.

The young students should be encouraged to become scientists and engineers if they love the field as I did, but being artsy and creative, insightful and broad-thinking, or optimistic and good with people are equally valuable and rewarding skills. After all, Apple didn’t revolutionize the world of technology by adding more features and buttons than its Korean competitors – it did so by paring things down to a simpler and more human form.

Companies don’t pay the highest salaries to those who can memorize the most arcane technical details or work the most hours – those dollars tend to go to those who can inspire and influence the most people. But you can take any strategy that works for you, since making the highest salary should not be anyone’s goal anyway.

And you and I, as well as our kids, won’t attain the widest smile on our deathbeds by racking up the largest bank balance or longest list of countries visited. This achievement will probably be earned through a more balanced life. Slow down and take the time to look around you. If you are a chronic lifetime overachiever, give yourself permission to accomplish a bit less. You might just find you are living a bit more.

 

* Because it weeds out the natural tendency of entrenched power to become complacent and start behaving like old royalty. The fat cats of a big old conglomerate can bribe and lobby for a while, but when deprived of their revenue stream by a younger, nimbler competitor that better serves the needs of customers, the eventual flushing of the toilet is inevitable. Healthy business competition has been happening for quite a while now, and I’m thankful for it.

  • Emmjae January 27, 2014, 11:56 am

    It’s a shame about that teacher, he totally missed the mark, and the opportunity. IMHO, he was forgetting his audience–elementary school kids! My daughter, 11, participated in Lego Robotics this fall/winter, following her big brother’s footsteps. Theirs was a newly-formed team of all 6th grade novices, and their robot could not compete at the level of the other teams. But they came home with one of the most coveted “prizes” at the First Lego League competitions, the Core Values Award.
    (From the website:The FLL Core Values are the cornerstones of the FLL program. They are among the fundamental elements that distinguish FLL from other programs of its kind. By embracing the Core Values, participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.)

    Even though their team was mocked at times by other participants for the simplicity of their robot, our kids had a blast. At one point,the teams go behind closed doors without their mentors to be evaluated on how they work together. They are tasked with the “build the highest structure that will support a marshmallow with these limited materials” challenges. I learned that my daughter reminded her friends that “it’s not only about how high we build it, but how we work together.” : )

    So, MMM, please don’t give up on Robotics. That teacher was a dud. The program is one that *can* teach the very values you hold dear. They call it “coopertition” which is a bit cringy, but the kids really get it.

  • Amber January 27, 2014, 12:44 pm

    So Good! I have always felt uncomfortable with the whole idea of competition and remember dreading school activities revolving around it.

    I still feel the competition game being played whenever I tell someone I am a stay-at-home wife/mom/human. It is evident by the reactions I get and the reaction I used to have when I wrestled with sharing other accomplishments I had made recently. I am finally not only at peace, *but enthused* when I share what I do everyday, and it took letting go of the need to achieve more accolades rather than genuine happiness.

    I really do appreciate all of your work to share great articles like this with us. They are most inspiring.

  • Leslie January 27, 2014, 12:47 pm

    What the teacher missed is that even the people developing the products have setbacks and failures. Creativity is all about failure in that experimentation leads to unexpected and unwanted results sometimes. Apple is a case in point. In the 1990s they almost went out of business. After Steve Jobs returned they got their mojo back, thankfully. If the school system started to teach kids to take risks that could lead to some failures I think the parents would be a bit distressed.

  • Kokuanani January 27, 2014, 12:56 pm

    MMM, I made a comment on your recent article on “what I would do if $100K fell into my lap, specifically on the lack of giving to charity. Since that time I’ve been thinking of you and possible ways to contribute. I’m sorry that this isn’t on that self-same thread, but thought you’d have more of a chance of reading this if it’s here.

    As many people [and you] mentioned, one doesn’t have to donate money to be “charitable.” I was thinking about the riches you have, and how to share them in a way that’s compatible with your lifestyle and philosophy.

    You have time, skills, and money. In addition to your “money management” skills, you have skills in various aspects of construction. I was wondering if you’d ever thought about organized ways to pass these skills on?

    We know from your writing what a benefit these skills have been to you, and we also know that in today’s “competitive” school environment, and with today’s rushed [and perhaps inexperienced] parents, kids don’t have the opportunity to hang around the garage while dad [or mom] tunes up the car, builds cabinets, or many other chores. [I’m thinking of my own childhood in the 50’s when I DID get to do this.]

    I’ll bet there’d be an avalanche of responses if you offered a weekend “class” at which kids [and perhaps their parents] could learn these skills, and even more important, learn how to learn further.

    Such an arrangement could have many benefits: awakening kids to the fun and creative rush of building something; sparking their interest in perfecting, and someday utilizing these skills; using these skills to help others.

    There are many variations of this, from starting a community garden or one at a school or family care center, repairing items at your kid’s school, helping those who are elderly with similar projects, etc. Just start thinking and they jump out at you.

    This is not to diminish the contribution you make in sharing your insights about money, and inspiring others. It’s just that there are many more of your skills that need sharing, and with so much free time . . .

    Seriously: thank you, and hope this provides some food for thought.

    • DC January 29, 2014, 3:20 pm

      Translation: “Nice try with the (free) blog that influences millions. But you still have way more free time and money than you should, and don’t know what to do with yourself. Here are some ideas about what you should do. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you should do with your unhurried life.”

      Kok’s comment seems to be that insidious form of complaint dressed up as helpfulness.

  • Jordan January 27, 2014, 1:06 pm

    I have had to think about this post for a while before I really liked it. Of course I agree with the points about always having to accumulate more and more as being completely pointless. But the introduction and title, about not having competition, didn’t resonate with me right away. I do think it is important for kids to realize that there is a winner and loser in some situations. For example, I think it is completely ridiculous that there are some sports leagues where the score isn’t kept. I think a kid needs to know that in some situations, in order for there to be a winner there has to be a loser. Much like how I want to teach my children that in order for us to have meat to eat, something had to die. But I dont think MMM is talking about the types of situations where winning and losing is glaringly obvious (if yes, please correct me). There are infinitely more situations in life where the winner/loser line is blurred because there are thousands of different ways to win. When we narrow down the definition of winning and losing, I think it is incredibly stifling for creativity and ingenuity, and I think that is precisely what school systems and society in general is doing.

  • Refinerr January 27, 2014, 1:39 pm

    Very thought provoking! I remember a boy grabbing test scores out of my hand in the 5th grade because he wanted to see how much he had beaten me. Once a girl came up to me and told me she was going to be valedictorian so deal with it.

    My parents always told me to do my best so I didn’t even know what they were talking about. There was no competition in my house – you just got good grades so you could go to college on scholarship because your parents couldn’t afford it (at least mine couldn’t)!

    Those kids didn’t know these things until their parents told them. I went straight home, looked up what a “valedictorian” was and beat them in every endeavor from that point forward. Why? Because it spread to me even though my parents didn’t care.

  • Steve January 27, 2014, 1:39 pm

    I guess the way I’d think of this is: We’re not playing a zero sum game here. There really IS plenty of abundance, and it’s there for everyone. Yes, I speak as one of those evil one percenters. But my mind is fresh with memories from nearly 30 years ago, as a young 20-something living in a cockroach infested apartment in Boston and driving around in a nasty assed Chevy Caprice with a red velour ceiling I had to staple up so it wouldn’t fall on me while driving.

    I always thought, “I don’t have to compete” with anyone but myself. “Just keep getting better.” Materially, it’s been a great ride. Spiritually, I still have a long way to go. But one thing I’ve always known is that my WINNING doesn’t mean someone else has to LOSE — and vice-versa. It’s so easy to get ‘lost’ when living in a place like the SF Bay Area. But this one point about winning and losing is essential. I look forward to teaching this one to our young daughter. Meanwhile, thanks for teaching us.

  • Steven January 27, 2014, 2:03 pm

    I think I was more amazed at the NYtimes article and realized I took a Left Turn when I should have parasailed off the interpass on to the passing semi truck, then got into the Hummer on the top shelf, only to jump on to the oncoming helicopter mid flight. Sacrifice Big and Win Big.

  • Dee January 27, 2014, 3:23 pm

    I really love this post. It made me think of the Obits I read in the paper. I never thought I’d like to read them but it really brings things in balance for me sometimes. You never read that John Doe died with 2 million in the bank and he used to drive a late model Porsche and had a collection of designer watches. Instead you read that John Doe had a loving family, friends and maybe enjoyed doing crossword puzzles in pen.

  • Marcus January 27, 2014, 5:19 pm

    Excellent article and full of wisdom re being happier with less.

    My 2 cents to this discussion:

    Re happiness: One of my happiest times in life was right after gaining my degree while job-hunting, aka being totally under-employed working in all sort of jobs to keep me afloat (cleaning, waiting tables, gardening for the ‘rich’, etc.). With an amazing set of friends and room mates, who shared everything, including stories and laughter, I consider these financially stressed and insecure times as one of my happiest.
    I should have been concerned a bout my future and my finances, but my friends and future wife just wouldn’t allow it.

    Re education, competition and happiness: I today work in the tertiary education sector and see competition in all forms and facets today. Students who want to score a ‘top job’ with the ‘top employers’ (aka ‘household names’ even known to your broke uncle Bob telling people you ‘have made it’) are asked to participate in all sorts of competitions during studies to make the cut. The one who score the ‘top jobs’ are often brilliant, energetic, self-driven, very competitive, and high-achieving.
    They often end up in jobs, where they need to follow ‘the norm’ as per company policy and compete once again.
    Via our alumni network I get to meet some of them years after they scored the ‘top jobs’ and in my observation they have become one of two types of people: 1) total ‘wankers’ (excuse my French) who believe they are better than the rest of us, since they work as […] for […], earn $[…] per annum, drive a brand new […], and live in […]; or 2) unhappy, overworked, totally stressed out, asking whether there is more to life than working as […] for […].

    Being a father, I’d rather have my son in a job/ career, where he can pursue his own goals, find his own niche, and be a creative, happy and content person.

    But it’s the old story: What’s a better story to tell your so-called “friends”? My son is working for [household name] or my son is happy and content? I have made my choice and I hope you too make a conscious choice before you expose your kids to too much pressure and competition.

  • JJ January 27, 2014, 5:42 pm

    Whiny ass blog posts about the public school system are freaking awful. Pull your kid out already… or be positive and encouraging… your choice. But for gawd sake man. QUIT WHINING.

  • JJ January 27, 2014, 5:43 pm

    Whiny ass blog posts about the public school system are freaking awful. Pull your kid out already… or be positive and encouraging about the school he’s attending… your choice. But for gawd sake man. QUIT WHINING.

    • Jimbo January 27, 2014, 6:48 pm

      Good news is : YOU are not whining. Right.

    • Clint January 29, 2014, 11:03 am

      As your readership grows, MMM, and as you get busier and busier with personal projects and other things that make you happy, consider adding a “flag this comment” button as a little helper.

  • JJ January 27, 2014, 5:57 pm

    Also, I realize that this is your blog and you’ll do what you want with it, but wouldn’t it make more sense to create a different blog for the whole unschooling topic… if that’s a path you’re going to go down? I realize you have to have a non-conformist streak to be anti-consumerism and also to unschool. But that’s about the only thing the two things have in common.

  • Frugal in DC January 27, 2014, 6:09 pm

    Right after reading this awesome post in my RSS reader, coincidentally the post just below it began with this great quote by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield: “If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster.” Here’s the link to the rest of the post from Brain Pickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/27/chris-hadfield-astronauts-guide-to-life/ . And what do you know, Col. Hadfield even has a mustache. :) His book sounds great, I added it to my never-ending list of books to read. I highly recommend Brain Pickings too, it’s like crack for book nerds.

    Cheers and don’t sweat the book, videos, etc. Enjoy your time with your family, you’ll never get that time back.

  • k January 27, 2014, 6:45 pm

    “There are two types of people in the world today: those who create technology, and those who consume it. Only one of those groups gets to cash the check, the other has to write it.”
    Those who create technology=tech savvy, mostly gen X and boomers. Those who consume technology= tech dependent, mostly gen Y and gen I (precedes gen Y). No one writes checks any more, so there are none to cash; all money movement is really just metadata transfers, harnessing technologies that were mostly built by boomers & gen X. These kids will have to work with 3 other generations…better work on their “soft” skills first.

    • Mr. Frugal Toque January 28, 2014, 1:44 pm

      Really?
      Can you back that up with some stats that demonstrate that people from generation Y are producing less (or are less educated) than generation X people were at the same age?
      I hear a lot of trash talk about 20-somethings; a lot of anecdotes; but I don’t really see any evidence that the younger generation is somehow lazier or more entitled than their grandparents with their cushy, reliable pensions and secure union jobs.

  • Mark A. January 27, 2014, 7:10 pm

    We like to mythologize that Europeans came to the New World for religious freedom (Plymouth) but, actually, economics (Jamestown) was clearly the bigger driver. MMM mentions natural selection. Well, our ancestors might have naturally-selected the most materialist people of Europe to come here to establish a society based largely around acquisition. There is no question the were ruthless. The wealth addiction article, then, features the hero who sacrifices love, health, and freedom to win the game, fulfill the “prime directive” of the entire value system and is bestowed the keys to the kingdom in the form of vast riches. In the tradition of a true Greek tragedy, however, he finds that he was deceived and that he gave up too much for trinkets. He’s like the Scientologist who gives all to the church, earns every rank and claims the prize of ultimate knowledge only to find that they are the ravings of another lost soul. Over the top analogies, yes, but I work with vastly wealthy people every day as a fundraiser for charities and I see as much misery among them as other parts of society. What I see in them after 20 years no longer inspires envy in me as it did. There is nothing at the end of the rainbow but an opportunity to be happy about the choices we made to reach it.

  • travelbug January 27, 2014, 7:20 pm

    We unschool. It’s totally brilliant and suits our family and philosophies. We do feel like we have three heads sometimes, but seeing our children learn for the joy of it, be driven to extend their learning at their own pace and shooting off into tangents they have discovered themselves is amazing to experience. I am grateful we have the choice.
    i loved this post, when you break down the high achieving and driven status I am reflected in your words. Crazy, but a great perspective to re-assess life from again.
    Thanks.

  • Senór CookieDuster January 27, 2014, 8:01 pm

    As an adopter of the MMM credo and father to a 3 year old girl…this article is timely as most are here. Crazed parents trying to live out some form of glory through their kids are ridiculous. I simply want my daughter to be happy, fulfilled and have the greatest gift of all… ” enough”.

  • Charlie Franklin January 27, 2014, 9:44 pm

    My parents didn’t manage money well, which means money (or the lack of it) was a constant source of stress in our house. They didn’t want me to go through that same pain so they constantly stressed how important it was to get a good job and make money.

    That was great advice for a long time… it got me through college and landed me a nice career where I made progressively more money until I could buy anything I needed without worrying about it. But that didn’t stop my pursuit of more.

    It gradually dawned on me that the extra money wasn’t worth the new headaches that came with every new level in the corporate ladder. I’m getting much better about saying no to new “opportunities” that pop up. My new filter is “would I do this if they weren’t going to pay me anything?”. If the answer is no, I usually turn it down.

    It’s a hard mental framework to shake though… possibly because it is so straightforward. “What can I do to make more money” is a much easier question to face than “what really makes me happy”.

  • Jen January 28, 2014, 4:36 am

    Your analysis is correct if the goal in life is indeed maximum happiness but I hate to discount the contributions made by people who have led an unbalanced life in favor of achieving maximum greatness. This article in the Chronicle doesn’t quite capture the flavor of my sentiment, but it’s in the same neighborhood. http://chronicle.com/article/HappinessIts-Discontents/144019/.

    I understand that the pursuit of meaning and fulfillment leads many people to avoid relative comparison, but that doesn’t hold for some of the the truly great people in history. I tend to fall into the balanced life camp, but my husband is most content when he’s working harder, spurred by relative competition of his peers.

  • David McKenna January 28, 2014, 6:59 am

    Well, I’ll have to be the minority opinion on here and disagree. I take exception to:

    If you are a chronic lifetime overachiever, give yourself permission to accomplish a bit less. You might just find you are living a bit more.

    What every person feels as a life they are living to the fullest is obviously up to them, but what do you mean by overachiever? By what definition? That word is usually used jealously by those who haven’t matched what the overachiever has, most of the time because they didn’t put the effort in. By what right can you claim someone has “achieved too much”?

    This whole article makes you sound like an apologist to children who never do the drugery, and often back breaking effort required to achieve goals. Who “lives” more? A concert pianist who practiced 2-3 hours per day for years, acquires great skill, loves music and creates something beautiful in front of others when she plays? Or someone who wanted to do the same, but never put the effort and drill practice in because “that’s for overachievers” and “I’m too busy living” (which for most just means consuming entertainment or socializing).

    Like it or not, these children will have to compete against each other for post secondary education and employment. Whether your child would want to get into a competitive industry, or a competitive university program you may feel is up to them. However, if they haven’t been competing successfully, they will definitely have fewer options when they graduate or start working and lose out.

    You might want to consider this with unschooling. It sounds great, but if your kid thinks they are above the drudgery of school and the mindless hurdles and tasks associated with it, then grades may suffer. If grades suffer, they’ll have less choice of university or employment afterwards.

    • WageSlave January 29, 2014, 10:33 am

      @David McKenna – I agree that young people are bombarded with the realities of our competitive culture… taking a step back, things are sort of starting to look like Huxley’s “Brave New World”, with standardized testing and quotas being the system that puts everyone into their pre-defined, “optimal” niche.

      But, no one is forcing anyone down that path, and surely the point of this blog is to show everyone that other paths exist. Not too long ago there was a series of posts on $50k jobs that don’t require college degrees. And there are plenty of other posts that reaffirm the idea that there are so many ways to “make it” in the world. Obviously there are inspirational college drop-outs like Gates and Jobs… but I’d be willing to bet there’s a fairly significant number of successful people out there who dropped out of/never went to school, or made it through a mediocre school with a lousy GPA. These folks probably don’t hold your typical corporate jobs, and might define “success” or “making it” differently than everyone else… but if they are happy and fulfilled and loving their family, and at least neutral in their impact to society—what’s the problem? Plenty of room (and opportunities) for these types of people in the world.

      I can’t speak for MMM, so the following is only speculation, but I’m guessing that he wants to show his son that there exist many viable paths besides the typical one of college/GPA/corporate job/cutthroat competition. Presumably, his goal as a parent is to help his son figure out which path is best for him in particular, and support him as much as possible in that journey.

    • lentilman January 29, 2014, 2:24 pm

      2-3 hours a day? Ha, that’s more like a warm-up to a real piano student.

      I want to remind you of one thing. There are two types of people in the world today: those who create music, and those who consume it. Only one of those groups gets to cash the check, the other has to write it. Symphony soloists didn’t get to be the richest players in the world by buying a bunch of tunes – they had to do the hard work to develop those melodies.

      So when you go into this room, I want you to look at the musicians and where they are from. You’ll notice most of them are from Asia. Because over there, they take this stuff – piano playing, violin & cello playing – much more seriously than we do. The kids your age are already starting Bach, and they study music theory and do recitals like this every weekend. They are way ahead of us, and in a global world, it’s blah blah blah…

  • mrsf15e January 28, 2014, 8:03 am

    When I began reading your blog last October, I was surprised that you weren’t homeschooling your son, it seems a perfect fit. We homeschool and haven’t looked back. It is extremely flexible, lets the kids be kids, they have so much more time to pursue their individual interests, and you can slow down and soak in the things they really like, or speed up and skim over the things they don’t enjoy as much. Isn’t that what we do as adults? There was a blog post just this morning on a homeschool interview that I thought gave a good perspective for you, so I decided to comment here.
    http://thepioneerwoman.com/homeschooling/2014/01/homeschool-mom-interviews-irishmum/
    And for homeschool math, I highly recommend Teaching Textbooks.
    In response to the unschooling comment, this is your blog and I think talking about your decisions for schooling fits just as well as talking about your home remodel.

  • Ellie January 28, 2014, 8:45 am

    That speech by the so-called ‘educator’ to the robotics students sounds as if he was warning them and making excuses for their future failure to win. What a killjoy.

    I read this post immediately after researching a potential work-related trip to Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia coming up in May. Travel is one of my prime reasons for continuing to work. What could be better than visiting a place I’ve never been and getting much of it paid by my employer?! But, I am aware of the thrill of ticking off another country or two on my travel list. And there is the issue of massive fossil fuel use via airline travel. Anyway, sometimes it seems sort of wrong to enjoy this expensive and energy-consuming activity. Certainly the pleasures of home and the simple life can’t be beat for overall life satisfaction. Yet the wanderlust, the desire to see as much of this fascinating planet as possible, kicks up frequently. A first-world issue of course. Have I become a “competitive traveler”? :)

  • Michael January 28, 2014, 10:05 am

    I needed to read this today. I’m pretty new to the whole early retirement/personal finance thing. I’ve been trying to remind myself that I’ll be just fine, and probably much happier with life if I never make a six-figure salary. I don’t want to be working into my 40s and 50s when that’s what my earning potential would certainly be. But, as you said, there is the nagging in some dark corner of my brain that tells me I need to have more. It’s just not true. I do need more, but not more money–more time with my children, my wife, our families, traveling to wonderful places, cooking great meals. This thought, and this article brings me calm and resolve. Thank you, Mr. Money Mustache. Keep on stachin’.

  • CincyCat January 28, 2014, 3:11 pm

    I admit that I have not read all 114 comments, but I did want to say that the situation you described at the convention center (and not “Ivy League Preschool Syndrome”) is exactly why we do not have our kids in traditional public school. Every single day, your child is hearing subtle or overt messages that reiterate “the common theme of artificially imposed competitive worry.” He is being told to conform to a box (I remember the homework post), or risk censure. This why he wants to stay home with you and not go to school. He’s probably bored out of his mind most of the time.

    I was pleased to see that you are taking a look at other options. I’ve heard of unschooling, but admit that I don’t know much about it. Homeschooling might also be an option, and – depending on the laws in CO – you can do this wherever & whenever you want.

    Our choice for our kids’ education is Montessori, who I really think
    was a genius with how to educate young children and helping them to love learning. Montessori does not have to be expensive. In our neck of the woods, there are public Montessori schools that are tuition free, or parochial/Catholic Montessori schools with minimal tuition compared to independent schools. (However, independent schools have the most freedom & control over their own curricula and classroom environments, and public Montessori schools still must complete state-mandated testing…)

  • WageSlave January 28, 2014, 4:18 pm

    I couldn’t help but think of “Calvinball” – anyone remember that from the Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, Calvin’s self-created game with arbitrary and ever-changing rules? One quite cynical thought is that much of the humor of that comic strip might be lost on a culture that has effectively institutionalized the creativity out of itself.

    Much of this discussion also reminds me of the Early Retirement Extreme post, “Lack of intrinsic motivation will destroy your early retirement”. My observation of life is that some people don’t know any kind of motivation *except* external/competitive. I’ve met people who I think would totally lose their direction if it weren’t for trying to one-up someone or something else.

    This post took me back to when I was around 10 years old or so, and played in the MLB… Midget League Baseball (yes, it was really called that). I remember I simply enjoyed the game, but many of my teammates would be so depressed if we were losing. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the sentiment: I’d try to make suggestions like, “Hey, at least we’re having fun, right?” Or even the classic, “It’s not whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game.” I was basically laughed at, even insulted.

    I generally agree that a capitalist/market-based economy is great for producing wealth… but a side-effect is that resources seem to “follow the money”. The linked NYT article about the guy passing on his $3.6mm bonus is a case in point. The article resonated with me because I work at a high-frequency trading firm. There’s huge money in this, and therefore it draws a lot of top math, science and engineering talent… might this brainpower be better suited towards cancer research or a more “noble” cause? Sometimes I wonder. (Yes, suggesting that makes me a hypocrite. My only consolation is that the pay puts me on an easier path to FIRE, after which I can dedicate more of my time and talent to such “noble” causes.)

  • AA January 28, 2014, 4:49 pm

    “After all, Apple didn’t revolutionize the world of technology by adding more features and buttons than its Korean competitors – it did so by paring things down to a simpler and more human form.”

    Samsung, their Korean competitor, sold 35 million more smartphone units than Apple in 2013 Q4.

  • Kim January 28, 2014, 4:50 pm

    What is your opinion on Amy Chua and her new book “The Triple Package”?

  • C.T. January 28, 2014, 6:37 pm

    So much pressure around kids for STEM. And in my kid’s school district – a highly competitive one in NoVa – it’s intense. So many kids are pressured into doing activities they may not want to and having to stick with them until the college acceptances roll in. there are even quotas at Va colleges about how many students can be accepted from our district, amping up the competition even more.

    I’m choosing not to play. She’s in a public GT school now and that’s good enough.

    I think the biggest challenge is teaching my kid to work on problems and not give up easily. With that mindset and knowing how to pursue a passion, I think she’ll be fine.

  • otis January 28, 2014, 8:54 pm

    how anyone can think competition is a bad thing absolutely amazes me. also, you DON’T want your doctor to know his stuff off the top of his head? That’s what he goes to medical school for and is paid a gross salary. If someone is fixing me I would like for him to be as smart and as capable as possible, not some fucking guy looking shit up on webmd.

  • m- January 28, 2014, 10:11 pm

    hey triple m-

    Can you write a funny post. Something that makes you family laugh.

    Thanks,

    M-

  • C Klass January 29, 2014, 9:25 am

    I admire you, MMM, for refusing to be fearful! When I decided, over a year ago, to quit my well-paid corporate job, I really, really, really had to let go of fear as well. I want more out of my life than to be surrounded by other fearful people all trying to get ahead at any price, in order to pay for a kitchen renovation, or their second car, or their kids’ college education.

    I now work part-time, from home, and still make more than enough to meet my needs, as well as wants, and even luxuries.

    I don’t specifically believe in the advice “do what you love, and the money will follow.” In fact, I’d go so far as to say that’s bullshit. BUT, you can find a way of removing yourself from the fear factory of corporate America, and still find ways of making a living.

  • Elise January 29, 2014, 10:45 am

    Also worth noting that many APAC scientific communities get a really bad global rap for data falsification, and the atmosphere in higher ed there is oppressive in the pressure for cheating. Our system may also be flawed, but their systems have tangible downsides as well. :/ Worse ones, in my opinion. I hope to homeschool/semi-homeschool my kids, in the future!

  • Dave January 29, 2014, 1:32 pm

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I spent some unhappy years buying into the whole idea of competing because “achieving is a good in and of itself,” and when I woke up and realized it didn’t have to be that way my life became monumentally better. Now I take things at my own pace and don’t rush and push to get places. I don’t care whether I am “top of the heap” because I don’t care about heaps. I care about happiness. What really did it for me was failing to reach a particular goal and realizing that I honestly deep down didn’t care one bit because that goal really meant nothing to me to begin with. From then on I listened to myself more carefully and tried to make decisions based on self-knowledge and self-love/care rather than because I felt like I needed to prove anything. Great post MMM!

  • Matt January 30, 2014, 7:08 am

    Competition isn’t a bad thing, it forces us to adapt and become more innovative in our approach. But with that said, it doesn’t mean its the right thing for every situation, getting into a highly effective team environment you can be much more productive and much more effective.

    But when we get into the point where we keep competing to acquire more stuff and using our stuff as means for competing I think we might have gone too far. Keeping up with the Jones’ is just not worth it. The problem is that when we don’t know what we want we simply keep on competing and accumulating shit we don’t need.

  • Mel January 30, 2014, 7:52 am

    “But then I calm down and remind myself, just as I am reminding you today, that it is not a contest. Life is not a contest, and we get more out of it by cooperating wholeheartedly with each other rather than beating each other’s asses at everything.”

    It was funny to me to read this because it’s been on my mind a lot recently – not so much in a financial sense, but in a career one. In my early 20’s I was dead set on making it to Broadway by my late 20’s – 30 at the latest. Well, 30 is a couple of months away and that just won’t be happening. But I’m actually on a track to make it there eventually, if I even want to, and slowing down to enjoy the experiences I actually wanted to along the way has actually made my 20’s incredible.

    I’m good friends with an old co-worker who is 5 years younger than me and 10 steps closer to Broadway than I am and when we caught up to grab a drink together recently, he seemed nearly manic in his desire to get there. And I recognized that I felt that was for so long too and it was just a miserable, panicky, pointless feeling.

  • Sol January 30, 2014, 8:31 am

    You would think such mentality would subside in today’s world where it’s been proven that the leaders of the world are not the ones who can best memorize things. I do think it’s important to consider the fact that culture has a huge impact on why people from places like Asia are encouraged to engage in mindless memorization and dissuaded from asking questions or challenge established facts. I went to school in both Asia, as well as a number of western countries, and I can tell you there’s a vast difference in how teachers interact with students. Generally, in Asia, teachers are revered and can’t be defied, whereas in the US, at least at the college level, professors encourage students to ask questions.

    Not saying I certainly know what the better system is, but the fact that so many students come over to the US to study is very telling.

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful post MMM!

    Sol – frugalsouls.com

  • Lisa E. January 30, 2014, 2:29 pm

    It seems as though the meaning of the word “enough” just doesn’t make sense to many of my peers (myself included sometimes). Instead of chasing what they really want, they chase what would make them look better to their “competition”.

    “It’s not a contest.” Great reminder. I need to remind myself of this every day.

  • Silvercreek Farmer January 30, 2014, 3:20 pm

    Great post! All things in moderation, balance, whatever you want to call it. Sure we get too competitive at times. Many times so much so that the result is wanton waste (athletics for example). But, at the same time, there are a lot of kids out there that need a swift kick in the pants. They have no idea what hard work even looks like. You are where you are because you were competive, and maybe you were not at the top of the heap, but you weren’t at the bottom either. You EARNED the right not to compete if you don’t want to though hard work and (slightly obcessive) dedication.

  • Rob January 31, 2014, 7:52 am

    I don’t know MMM. The teacher’s comment seems spot on to me. The point isn’t to always strive for “more.” Isn’t the point to strive to be the best we can be. Wether that’s in the field of robotics, carpentry, or early retirement, reaching our full potential seems like a worthy aim to me. And haven’t we here in the U.S. moved far from our potential? We were once a country of “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for you country.” That sentiment is but a distant memory today as we fight for free health care, free cell phones, and never ending unemployment benefits. Today, your comment about capitalism at the end of the article seems a more apt description of where we as a country are heading–

    “Because it weeds out the natural tendency of entrenched power to become complacent and start behaving like old royalty. The fat cats of a big old conglomerate can bribe and lobby for a while, but when deprived of their revenue stream by a younger, nimbler competitor that better serves the needs of customers, the eventual flushing of the toilet is inevitable. It has been happening forever, and thank goodness.”

  • Fionna Merciollis January 31, 2014, 11:01 am

    A very thoughtful article indeed. Asking for more is not a bad thing. But the problem starts when the ‘asking for more’ becomes a regular habit and doesn’t stop. This is where ‘greed’ comes in and ruins our lives. Just think what happened to the US economy. It didn’t go down because of some financial mistakes but because of the philosophy of ‘Greed’. On one hand, people are living beyond their means and at the same time companies are selling faulty assets to people and the stock market is creating CDOs on these erroneous stocks. It is greed that is the basic problem with our society, creating a dog eat dog world. So, need of the hour is to draw the line between ‘Wanting for More’ and ‘Greed’.

  • Darrel in Minnesota February 1, 2014, 8:37 am

    I think your post encapsulated what people need to remember in this one sentence (aside from it not being a contest):

    But you can take any strategy that works for you, since making the highest salary should not be anyone’s goal anyway.

    I recently took a position that pays pretty good for my part of the world. After three days, I knew it’d make me miserable. Fortunately, I realized that and the supervisor gave me the option of stepping down to a lower position, which still pays pretty well for this part of the world. My girlfriend was shocked when I told her, “Money isn’t everything” when explaining why I was doing it. But it’s the truth.

    While I may never have a retirement account in the multimillion dollar range, I’d rather be remembered for things other than working 60-hour weeks at something I intensely disliked and piling up money that I couldn’t spend because I’m dead at 70.

    Keep up the excellent work, and ignore the haters. You are performing a valuable service.

  • Cats Eye February 1, 2014, 1:09 pm

    Seriously? You couldn’t make your point without cultural stereotyping Asians? Why the insecurity?

  • David Michael February 2, 2014, 11:34 am

    Bravo! Great insights into the world of education, competition, and life.

    At my age of 77, retired some of the time, and a product of a classic Jesuit education followed by heaps of degrees from famous schools, I have to say that one of the best things that happened to me as I started over at age 65 was attending graduate school to study ESL (English as a Second Language). The highlight during my year in beautiful Vermont living in a dormitory with people of all ages, was playing on the college soccer team. I lacked time during my early college years as I worked to put my way through school. So, in this crazy world of education and life, I was given the opportunity to join my younger team mates in running up and down a field chasing a ball.

    They said at first that I might play five minutes a game to help the youngsters take a break (those in their 20’s and 30’s). But over the course of several games, I got stronger and it seemed the younger ones became weaker and more lame as the season went forward. To make a long story short, I started playing the entire game and finally hit the ball with my head on our last game. That alone was worth the $30,000 I had invested to start my life over once again. I did get my new degree and taught overseas for five years in the Middle East, but when I think of accomplishments, joining the soccer team at age 65 ranks right at the top.

    One of the great things about retirement and reaching the last quarter of life, I get to say and think “who gives a rip” whether I am rich or well educated or have five degrees. Most of the things I appreciate now have little to do with money as we travel about the USA in a 200 sq ft box with wheels (motorhome) and enjoy the beauty and spaces of the American West. Many of my best students as a college teacher were Asian. Yes! And I salute them as several took over my own teaching position at a later date. Indeed, Life is not a contest…it is grand gift to experience and enjoy.

  • David Wendelken February 3, 2014, 12:41 pm

    Persia (Iran), Syria and Egypt used to be technological and manufacturing leaders in the world.

    Then their culture changed and they didn’t continue to progress as they once had. They stagnated. The rest of the world didn’t.”

    If they didn’t have oil and cool stuff their ancestors made to attract tourists, they would be even poorer than they are today.

    World history is full of also-rans.

    Our culture has been morphing into a culture of whiners, losers, and complainypants who expect others to solve their problems for them.

  • Susan March 2, 2014, 7:32 pm

    I taught in South Korea in the mid 90s and witnessed first hand the relentless pressure to compete that students as young as elementary age were under. These days Korea is seen as an ‘economic miracle’ but it has come with a horribly high social cost. South Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the developed world, with suicide being the #1 cause of death among young people. It’s easy to say ‘they are way ahead of us in math, science, blah blah’ and ignore what that means at a deeper level. Depression among young people (people of all ages, actually) is a very serious problem in that country.

  • dutch April 7, 2014, 9:25 am

    I love competition!

    Many of my best performances and growth came out of competition…usually, being beat.

    There is a delicious idea that “trying” and participating is good enough. That it is the journey.

    Find a way to win (or solve a problem, invent a solution etc…) when things are stacked against you; tap that inner fire to move past perceived limits. Youth sports are a great, safe place to learn some of these things. (Also how to fail and lose with grace and rise again).

    But life isnt about winning as the article makes clear. SO, when IS life about winning and when is it not? There must be a mental framework somewhere that lays this out.

  • pizzafiend February 13, 2015, 2:28 pm

    Having moved around way too many times during my childhood (14+schools? I lost track), I wish my parents would’ve considered some form of homeschooling to make up for the gaps and inconsistencies in my education. I’ve been through religious private schools, philosophy based schools and public schools that all varied greatly in funding, staffing, teaching styles, curriculum, etc. I either had to work fast to catch-up with my peers or stay behind because the material was all review. On top of that, it was awful having to be the new kid all.the.time. Needless to say, my experiences greatly impacted me (and yes, I resent my parents for this). But, it gave me first-hand experience one how diverse schools are and that there are a lot of options (some may be more accessible than others. It’s all relative, right?) I’ve been doing a lot of reading as I look into homeschooling and unschooling, trying to figure out all that’s out there. MMM and others curious about unschooling, have you visited http://www.raisingmiro.com/? I guess it’s considered radical unschooling, but they call it worldschooling and sounds totally badass. It’s worth a look, especially if you have teens.

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