One of the most exciting times in our lives as professional women is the jump from school to the workforce. Of course, it’s also one of the most stressful times, not least because we soon realize that there are SO MANY THINGS no one taught us in school. I was 25 by the time I really made that leap, with a couple degrees in hand but minimal knowledge of how to deal with a crazy stressful workplace with confusing office politics. It has only been five years since then and I am still no expert, but I have learned more about myself and my approach to work and life. One of the things that guides me is remembering that: ~* Other people are your friends, not your competition! *~ This means that my relationships with people are more important than my immediate career goals. It means that it’s better to help other people if I am able to. I can’t guarantee that this is the most successful approach, but I think it’s the happiest one.
We all have ambitions and we don’t want anything to get in the way of those goals. And some level of healthy competition probably fuels many of us to do better work. However, remember that other people are not actually in the way of our goals, as much as we can get caught up in thinking that the only way to get ahead is to defeat the competition by any means necessary. And I imagine you might be thinking, “well, obviously, I am not going to be a jerk to other people just to reach my goals.” This seems to be a tough thing for some people to commit to, though, especially when surrounded by other people who have that “get ahead by any means necessary” attitude.
I decided to write this after having multiple conversations with friends lately who had situations with coworkers being ultra-competitive and difficult to work with. You all know the people I’m talking about because they exist in every field and every school and every office. We have probably seen them in middle school, high school, college, graduate school, in creative industries, in non-creative industries, and in every other place where there is any element of social or professional competition. The people who will engage in cutthroat maneuvers to try to get ahead. The people who feel the need to cut down others. The ones who always have ulterior motives and don’t realize how transparent that fact is to everyone around them.
Dealing with those people can be stressful, and I try to keep a bit of distance from them where possible, but I don’t mean to cut them down either. I have no expertise in psychoanalysis but I’m guessing that some of those behaviors come from the same insecurities, fear, threat of competition, and jealousy that we all feel now and then. That said, I have learned that I can’t let their behavior convince me that I need to join in those games to achieve my own goals.
However, sitting with our own insecurities and fear, and sometimes seeing the people described above succeeding (or at least seeing their Instagram photos suggesting that they are doing so great at life), it can be hard to remember to be true to ourselves. It can feel like maybe we do need to be a bit cutthroat to get ahead of the competition. I think those thoughts tend to cross our minds with little things, like in deciding whether to tell a coworker or friend about a new project or opportunity you heard about, or whether to introduce two people in your network to each other lest they go on to do great things without you. (Stop that! Tell your friend about the project and introduce your people if you think they would get along!)
That little bit of doubt and cynicism can poke its head especially when someone else seems convinced that the only way to succeed is to be straight up mean. Before I went to law school, I heard stories about how it was very cutthroat, with people hiding books in the library and things like that. It wasn’t—most people were kind and supportive and there weren’t really books to be hidden anyway because it’s the 21st century and we have the internet now—but, as with anywhere, there were a few people who had a “this is a competition and all is fair” mindset. I watched one person purposefully withhold from her supposed best friend important information about a final exam. (Someone else updated the friend, don’t worry.) Things like this made me briefly worried that I had not been looking out for myself, as I had assumed I could just study and share information between my friends and everything would be fine. (Spoiler: I was fine! Everything was fine!)
I have those concerns a lot less often now. I have no hard facts to support this, but my approach has been to convince myself that it is 100%, totally and completely possible to find success while also trying my best to be a nice, genuine person. I know lots of nice, genuine people who are doing well and I’m sure you do too. Surround yourself with those people instead.
Sometimes, people who employ all means necessary to get ahead find success too. There’s no way to deny that. I can’t say whether it’s fulfilling, but I have to imagine it feels unstable. How can you maintain your place at the top if you’ve made a bunch of enemies and no one wants to support you? Do you even want to achieve a goal that apparently requires you to step on other people? What is the point of that? It doesn’t seem great.
What I do know is this: I have failed a ton, but I wouldn’t trade the way it feels when I do succeed (even in a small way) based on my own hard work and not because I cut someone else down. When I have needed to network and have needed support from my peers, including connections during a kind of brutal job search, I had lots of people willing to help me – not because I am a special snowflake but because I had always been nice and helpful to them too.
And most of all, it really is a great feeling to be able to help someone else, even in a small way. I get an unreasonable amount of joy just being able to respond to a “can you connect me with anyone at X company?” e-mail from a classmate or colleague or internet friend. It’s nice to be helpful and I always think about how much I have appreciated it when people did that for me. There’s something really great about the idea that we can be part of communities (alumni groups, friend groups, a workplace, a Twitter fandom, or anything, really) where people help to build each other up.
I’m assuming anyone reading this probably shares this thinking, given that you’re on this website dedicated to supporting each other in career development. I hope we’ll all stay that way, because I really do believe (and have seen in my career so far) that supporting each other can go a long way. As much as life can seem like a competition, life is not actually a competition. To say the most cliché thing I could possibly say at this point, the journey is more important. The friends we make along the way are more important. Avoiding being remembered as “that person who lied to undercut her supposed friend” is a good bonus.
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