The Loser’s Game of Competition

Society praises competition. It teaches us to admire a person’s competitive drive. That is a trap.

Peter Thiel co-founded Paypal in 1998 and has since become a famous venture capitalist. Scott Adams created the Dilbert comic strip. Scott does not sound as rich as Peter. He is not. Still, his estimated net worth of $75 million, unlike his comics, is nothing to laugh at.

Peter has been quoted many times saying, “competition is for losers.” I believe he is right.

Think about the NFL for example. Every season, 32 teams compete for the ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl. Every season, there are 31 losers and 1 winner. Usually it is the Patriots. Hopefully that is over now.

Think about the players. NCAA data showed that in a given year 73,712 out of over 1 million high school football players went on to play in college. Just 254 of them are drafted into the NFL each year. In other words, the chances of a high school senior football player going pro is less than 1 in 1,000. Even if they defy the odds to get there, the average NFL careers lasts 3.3 years and 78% of players go broke within 3 years of retirement. It is worth considering that the mountain might not be worth climbing if only 1 in 1,000 get there and 4 in 5 fall right back to the bottom once they do. Tom Brady may be a winner, but the NFL is a loser’s game. Almost all of the most popular games are.

Peter competed from a young age, got into Stanford, then Stanford Law, then became a lawyer at a prestigious law firm before deciding to quit seven months in. He realized he had been competing in a loser’s game. In the competition to become a partner at the firm, many more would lose than win. He had already come much further than most by getting into the firm in the first place, but remember, the average NFL career lasts 3.3 years. Peter realized he was competing in a loser’s game. More importantly, he realized this was not at all the game that he wanted to play. It was simply the competition he got drawn into by the external pressures which fed his burning desire to compete. Since then, Peter has found his extraordinary success by actively searching for opportunities where there was no competition. He founded PayPal as the first successful online payments company. He went on to invest in monopolies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb and many others. By striving to avoid competition, he has ironically become one of the great founders and investors of our time.

Scott, the cartoonist, also does not believe in the merits of competition. He recommends instead becoming very good (like in the top 25%) at two or more things and putting them together. He said, “In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes.” This is how Scott made himself a success with Dilbert.

It is unnaturally difficult not to play the game that everyone around you is playing. It is difficult too not to compete in the ways that society tells you is good. But competition is for losers. Restaurants don’t make money. Steve Jobs said, “Think different.” Apple does.