(Un)healthy competition I.

June 21, 2020

The notion of “healthy competition” relates to my experience as both a graduate student and a runner. In fact, there may actually be too many parallels, because I’ve been struggling to write this post for a while! Basically, my issue has been choice-paralysis between two different ideas that I couldn’t seem to mesh together but couldn’t abandon. So, I ultimately stopped trying to force it, and instead created two posts, which are much more digestible.

Post #1:

I wanted to know how other people perceive their own competitiveness in the workplace and in athletics. I used Instagram’s poll feature to gage feelings of graduate students, toxicologists, and runners that follow the PhDistance Instagram account. The questions and results of the two-option questions are below:

Instagram’s poll-feature isn’t the most robust tool, sure, but it works!

Eighty-eight percent of respondents considered themselves competitive. I thought it would be higher, given the pool of people who answered. Moreover, the 12% who said “no” surprised me because they were NCAA competitors, Ph.D. candidates, academics, and current runners.

While the majority (58%) of respondents said they view competition with colleagues as “net positive”, it was more common see this response to competition among teammates (65% said “net positive”).

Perhaps people consider competition a mutually motivating force for group success, and maybe this is easier to digest if the team atmosphere is outside of work? Who knows! As a toxicologist, I’m not exactly outfitted properly to address these questions, empirically. If any psych/soc PhD’s are in the audience today, please stand up!!

However, also as a toxicologist, I am inclined (and find it amusing) to think of competition as a toxin; the mere existence of competition is not bad, but the dosage and context should probably be considered.

“All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

Painting by Quentin Matsys

I was especially curious to see how people responded to feeling “inappropriately competitive with a colleague or teammate.” I plan to explain further in Post II, but here I will admit that observing 70% of respondents said “yes” was validating and made me feel less weird or wrong. I do wish that I had further separated that question by work versus on a team, but I’ll leave that for someone willing to use a more robust polling measure!! 😉 

I predict that poll would indicate more people feel inappropriately competitive at work than on a team. I think maybe it’s more comfortable for people to feel competitive during an athletic endeavor than at work. In either case, I think competition is a good thing, but obviously has to remain “healthy.”

The title of these (fraternal?) twin posts is “(un)healthy competition.” The second post- which contains the idea I was trying to force into this post — expands on what I think keeps competition healthy, and shares some personal stories of when that is lost.

Thanks for reading – stay tuned for the follow up!

Image taken from here.

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Toxicologist & marathon runner

2 thoughts on “(Un)healthy competition I.”

  1. Interesting article on Competition. I liked your comment, “Perhaps people consider competition a mutually motivating force for group success, and maybe this is easier to digest if the team atmosphere is outside of work? ” I feel like in sports there is unlimited upward potential and competition among team mates is truly a mutually motivating force that lifts all ships. In the workplace, there is often limits placed on individuals and teams that prevent or greatly hinder upward mobility which can make competition amongst coworkers both petty and unnecessary. Those who “get ahead” in the workplace are not always those who “perform the best” due to politics, playing favorites, seniority, etc.


  2. Love that you brought our hero Paracelsus into the discussion and drew that parallel regarding competition. Great analogy!


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