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You don’t always have to be number one

In Israel last year, our group of 50 — young leaders in tech — gathered on a beach and split into small groups. A few consultants led us on a team building exercise. They instructed us to build rafts using logs of wood and rope they had provided us. Once we constructed the rafts, we raced the other teams into the water, circled a buoy with the raft, and returned to shore as quickly as we could. The first team to return to shore was declared the winner. To the winner went…the pride of winning a team building exercise on the beach.

Some people took the competition very seriously. They strategized; played drill sergeant; pestered the facilitators to get clarification on the scoring methodology; and expressed joy or dismay at the results, depending.

I found myself not caring. At all. I marveled at how competitive others were getting about an exercise that had zero real consequences other than momentary pride. Yet, I think of myself as a generally competitive person. But the experience crystallized the fact that I am not always competitive all the time.

Some people always want to win. It can be in business, a board game, a sports match, or a team building exercise. Michael Jordan’s father famously said, in reference to Michael’s supposed gambling addiction, that Michael didn’t have a gambling problem. Rather, he had a “competition problem.” Put him in any scenario where there’s a clear winner or loser and Michael can’t stop trying to win.

In the group in Israel, there were many classically successful people, alpha males and females, leaders. For some of them, when the competition light goes on, their emotions soar. It’s not an uncommon trait in business leaders. Chris Sacca tells an anecdote of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick attaining the rank of second in the world in the global Wii tennis leaderboard. It’s not enough for Travis to be atop one of the world’s most valuable tech companies. He must win at everything — even video games.

Not me. I am situationally competitive. I’d like to think I get competitive when the stakes are high, my investment real, and the payoff meaningful to me. Although this is not as colorful a personality as someone who’s limitlessly ruthless — a Larry Ellison-esque archetype the business press loves to cover — I know many successful CEOs who cut a different, more restrained mold.

Of course, I don’t mean to come off too saintly (“I preserve my competitive energies for solving world hunger, thank you very much”). My reptilian, status-conscious brain gets triggered plenty. Indeed, I do care lightly about winning an informal game of pickup basketball, for example. It’s an activity as consequence-free as the raft exercise but I express more care perhaps because I am more skilled at it. I am not particularly good at helping build a raft: I can’t tie knots and generally don’t like to do manual labor. So maybe another lesson is I choose not to care about winning when I am not well positioned to win.

In general, though, one of the most important ways I’ve evolved over the past decade — as I wrote in a post seven years ago — is that I have shrunk the “stuff I care about” box. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win an inane argument. I don’t want to expend energy trying to win at some arbitrary competition I don’t care about. I just don’t care.

Except when I do.


A version of this post originally appeared on Ben Casnocha’s website