Succeeding Without Competing

Succeeding Without Competing

By Mark Chussil

Look at your life. What’s the sweetest success you have experienced?

Bring up the memory of that event or feat. Savor it. Think of what you did to achieve it; think of how you worked, struggled, and risked; think of how you felt when your goal was finally in your grasp. Re-experience your glory, pride, and joy. Let your heart swell and your face smile.

I had an experience like that a few weeks ago (in 2014, when I wrote this story). It taught me a lesson about competing.

I conducted a couple of webinars for Harvard Business School, where I earned my MBA. When my 35th reunion approached, HBS invited me to deliver a presentation on a subject of my choice.  It’s a serious honor, and of course I said yes.

If you’ve read my essays, you know me as a competitive strategist who’s helped dozens of Fortune 500 companies around the world build their bottom lines. You might not know that I’ve also done work in self-awareness and that I wrote a book called Nice Start: Questions Only You Can Answer to Create the Life Only You Can Live.

The safe choice for my HBS reunion talk would have been competitive strategy. I’ve been work­ing on another book on competitive strategy, so I had plenty of new, provocative material that I knew would deeply challenge conventional wisdom.

But, as excited as I am about that book, I also love Nice Start. That’s what I chose. I put together a mini-workshop called “Nice start! Now what?”

I’ve delivered a lot of speeches and workshops. I’ve spoken on six continents to everyone from MBA students to chief strategy officers. I’ve spoken in venues from the Ciragan Palace to the French Ministry of Health to a bunch of universities to a bunch of companies to a conference at sea aboard the Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve spoken with simultaneous translation, when the audi­ence laughs (if I’m lucky) ten seconds after the joke. I’ve been around.

And I’d never felt as anxious as when I prepared my HBS reunion talk. I didn’t care that my au­dience would be Fortune 500 executives, multi-multi-millionaires, and high-level politicians. I cared that these were people I went to school with. This was show and tell. This was my opportunity to share what, if anything, I’d learned about life over the years.

I poured my heart into my session. I wrote, revised, rehearsed, revised again, rehearsed again. I practiced over and over so I could sound spontane­ous.

The big day came. I think I gave my best talk / workshop ever. People rushed from their seats toward me when it was over. You should have seen the beaming smiles and glowing eyes I saw. You should have felt the beaming smile and glowing eyes I felt.

Their response was more than I’d even hoped. It was a peak experience for me.

Did you notice what I didn’t say about my talk and success? That’s where the lesson about com­peting comes in.

Other people spoke at the reunion. HBS’ dean, for example. Michael Porter, Clayton Christen­sen, Max Bazerman, Francesca Gino, other senior faculty. C-level executives from global companies. What I didn’t say about my talk and success was any­thing about measuring my performance relative to theirs. I didn’t say anything about it because I didn’t give it any thought. Of course I cared about my ratings. But I didn’t set competing with the other presenters as my goal or my measure of success. My goal was to give 100%. Not 90%, not 99%, not 99.9%. One hundred percent.

Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, was famous for demanding that Apple’s products be “in­sanely great.” He didn’t say “insanely better,” which would measure Apple relative to its compe­tition. He said insanely great.

I’m not saying “Nice start! Now what?” was insanely great. I’m also not saying that it wasn’t in­sanely great. I’m saying that it feels different — it feels fantastic — to go for great instead of going for better. I’m saying also that that feeling matters. It’s dreams and vision. It’s fire-in-the-belly motivation. It’s at the heart of why people start companies. It’s also why it’s difficult to maintain that spirit when the company grows beyond the founders.

Go back to your own sweetest success, the one you brought to mind a few hundred words ago. What made it so sweet?

I suggest that doing what makes us successful is not what makes us proud. Doing what makes us proud is what makes us successful.

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