This ONE: Competition and the matter of envy, jealousy, peer pressure, and external validation

This week has been a hectic one for me – I burned through several new initiatives while trying to catch up with the latest developments in AI.

What keeps me up at night is my sense of urgency. I am keenly aware that times are changing, and there is an opportunity window that I need to seize. Yes, I am here to compete.

And when we compete, envy, jealousy, and self-doubt often arise. We seek external validation from comparison and other people’s feedback. Today’s issue is my reflection on these topics in a world always in competition.

  • Why comparison is a bad strategy for competition
  • The difference between compare and compete
  • How to embrace competition and peer pressure

This ONE Idea

A drop of water does not compare with the ocean.

Image generated by ChatGPT4

Comparison is a bad strategy for competition

Comparing always tells us bad results

If comparing was the algorithm of a scoring machine, it would almost certainly produce negative scores.

One reason for the negative scores is how we perceive our competence (or the lack of it).  We are our worst judge and like to focus on our flaws.

The other reason is that, realistically, we simply can’t be the best all the time, no matter how good we are. And sometimes, we end up in the bottom 5% in a place. Someone has got to be there.

Comparing hurts more when you are successful

“I was the best student in my school, and now I am a nobody.” This is a common narrative I hear from people who got into top business schools, joined prestigious firms, or newly joined the leadership league.

When you get into a better clan with more awesome people, the chances are you will find yourself a commoner or very much behind. And then what starts as a beautiful growth story feels like a tragedy.

My personal story

I have experienced the damaging pain of comparison myself. Ten years ago, when I joined a unicorn at its peak, I found myself surrounded by ambitious, talented, and hardworking people. Everyone was from the world’s top consulting firms or handpicked top talents from retail giants. I was neither. And I was 32 years old – all the CEOs were in their early 30s and late 20s.

I was constantly amazed by how smart and capable others were. The belief that I wasn’t up to par haunted me for a long time. I felt better when I was given important assignments within the organization and received much positive feedback. But amidst all these, negative comments from one leader destroyed my confidence. This is how fragile I was, relying on external validation for my self-worth.

Fast-forward to today. Many of the non-executives back then, middle-level management like me, have gone on to become country GMs, unicorn CEOs, and leaders in prominent companies.

My takeaway

I wish I had taken a different competition strategy. Comparing was a bad strategy, for sure. I hopelessly tried to become better, only to hear my comparison machine telling me about all my flaws. Self-doubt lurked in my everyday thoughts, burnout was in sight, and a sense of unfulfillment was prominent.

If I knew that I was with future unicorn CEOs, world MNC country GMs, and industry leaders, who would no longer be my competitors, how would I have acted?

I would have wanted to:

  • observe and learn from them as much as I could
  • build close relationships with them for many years to come
  • collaborate with them to create a legacy in our precious time together.

From compare to compete

We are wired to compare.

Comparison can be traced back to our evolutionary history. It was especially useful in a hierarchical clan in those days. We needed to adhere to social norms and gauge our position in the social hierarchy. Comparisons helped us build our self-esteem and make decisions to maximize the resources we could obtain.

Another thing is from a young age, we were socialized to measure our worth based on external markers of success, such as wealth, status, looks, and how much we achieve. So, we compare ourselves to others, to validate our identity and sense of self-worth. A healthy comparison can be useful as a source of motivation and inspiration.

But as much as comparing made sense (and still does in some ways), we no longer live in a clan. We have become socially more mobile than ever before, and the clan mindset is simply too restricting.

We are no longer in an era of competing whose brain is smarter or who is more competent. We are competing on who can collaborate with other people (and AI) to become smarter together.

  • The comparison mindset uses local reference points. (How can I be a better performer on this team?)
  • The competition mindset uses the self as a reference point. (How can I become a better performer every day?)

  • The comparison mindset focuses on the short term. (How can I make this person think I’m good?)
  • True competition sets eyes on the long term. (What can make me more competitive in the future?)

  • The competition mindset focuses on social order and a sense of safety. (Am I in the good books?)
  • The competition mindset focuses on growth and craftsmanship. (How can I get better?)

  • The comparison mindset comes from a belief in scarcity. (We are all fighting for the one trophy)
  • The competition mindset is from a belief in abundance. (We can all win.)

  • The comparison mindset often believes in a hierarchy with centralized authority. (The boss judges who is good and decides how to allocate resources.)
  • The competition mindset believes in value creation. (There will be many witnesses to your value creation, and the decision-makers will have to take their input.)

But how to stop comparing?

I know, I know. Comparing is both an instinct and potentially a habit. To change this mindset, engage the following techniques:


Accept the reality that there will always be someone else who know better at any point in time. Take that as an opportunity to learn, not a terrible news.

Mark Zuckerberg invested loads of money in AI development. Yet, he is considered behind in the game where Nvidia took the world by storm. And Facebook announced a plan to deploy 350,000 Nvidia H100 GPUs by the end of 2024, a commitment that will cost it billions.

This is what Mark Zuckerberg chose to do – build on what Nvidia has created so that he can better compete.


Deep down in our need to be competent is our need to be loved. And somehow we have been conditioned to believe that we were cursed: You will never be loved if you are not competent.

But hey, this is not true.

When I recently talked to a head-hunter and asked her what kind of people employers love, she said, “Those who had failed.”

It’s not that companies love failure. But they love people who have failed, who were incompetent at what they did but could pick themselves up.

It just makes things easier if we accept that we are always incompetent in something and others in something else. And that we can still all be loved. (Not only by our parents, who often are not capable of delivering unconditional love, anyway.)

Remember to love yourself as a constantly evolving being and not judge with a static snapshot of today.

In the personal experience I mentioned above, I used to beat myself up for not having strategic thinking, a core strength of my consulting colleagues. And hey, today, a big part of my thinking operating system is acquired from working with them, not to mention many other things I still carry in my blood.

We do grow up and become a different person.

Remember every time we are stuck in a smallish race with a few people in our proximity: we will be a different person, in a different context, some other day.


When we are not self-assured, we tend to project others as competent. We especially imagine our leaders as omnipotent.

In such a set-up, we put ourselves on the opposite side of the whole world. Others become hell. They look like potential threats, accusers, and prosecutors. But remember, all these are from our perceptions.

Some of my ex-colleagues are my clients today. As I am no longer in a competitive position with them, I can better appreciate not only their wonderful qualities, but also their vulnerability, and the challenges they had to tackle. They were imperfect, just like I was.

An understanding I now carry deeply is:

Nobody has it easy. Not even those who seem to be doing “better.” While they are probably better off in some aspects, they’d struggle with others. Always.

Because struggles and inadequacy are in every human’s experience. Not even Elon Musk is spared of it, being the world’s richest man. Nor is Warren Buffet spared of it – his biggest strength is famously avoiding going where he does not know much about.

Only seeing other people in their light can turn them into allies, mentors, role models, friends, and so much more for us. And through our relationships with them, we learn and grow in a much richer journey.

It is not an easy task. I used to work in the Fintech industry, where there is a term called “Friend-emy” to capture the unique partnerships between two competitive parties who also need to collaborate. Now, as a coach and solo business owner, I must also admit the tension of competition exists.

So how do I deal with this tension?

Take note of the jealousy, envy, or competitiveness that comes up in me, and accept that it is natural.

Ask myself, what can I learn from him/her?

As a result, I pay more attention to the person. I start to see them in their light, instead of through my guarded lens.

Often, I end up liking the person and resonate with what he or she does. The result? I found friends/alliances/mentors/role models.

I celebrate their success. Because if this is a scarce world, their success means I have a chance, too. Or if this is an abundant world, their success will only elevate me.

And then I ask myself, what can I do to support their success? What synergy do we share?

My answer: Learn from others, build real connections, and collaborate for success.

An interesting fact and other thoughts

AI was already here before smartphones became the thing. Its development experienced various AI winters with investors losing interest. AI once looked like a grand failure that was blown up too big. How it got here today as the next disruptor is not through learning. It got here by changing its system of learning. Had that not happened, AI would still be the hidden workhorse in the corporate world today.

It did not just keep learning how to do work. It learned about how to learn, differently.

Taking from this, we also need to learn about how we compete, differently.

How can one prevent a drop of water from ever drying up? By throwing it into the sea.’


Question for you:

What is your reflection on competition vs. comparison?

portrait_Yolanda Yu_YL_r

Empowering Change From Within

Career & Leadership Coach, Start-up Mentor, and two-time Penguin Author, Yolanda has over 20 years’ corporate experience and served leadership positions in world top technology companies such as Alibaba, Visa, and Mastercard.

From software engineer to sales, headhunter, entrepreneur, to business leader in eCommerce and Fintech industries, Yolanda reinvented her career for countless times. She specializes in tailored coaching programs for professionals in the phases of career change and leadership transition.

Yolanda is particularly passionate about equipping technical leaders with leadership skills. She delivers leadership 101 courses through group coaching and 1:1 engagement.