Recently, one of the best Iranian travellers and hitchhikers I know announced he was going to concentrate on building a site. That’s good news for the community, his numerous followers and probably me too, but deep down I felt anxious. After some soul-searching I realised that his admirable skill-set (photography, storytelling & travelling) had intimidated me for some time. Now with him taking up blogging, I felt pitted against him. How am I supposed to win against someone better than me?

Competitive Success

We all know that one person who’s better than us at something. It might have been the genius in school who got the highest grades, or the lady with the killer body and face, or even the new guy on the team who never ceases to amaze. We react differently to people who outperform us, but envy and intimidation are common feelings. But why can’t we simply get along?

This quote I came across during my Multilevel Marketing days might shed some light:

“In order to succeed, you either have to be the first at what you do or the best .” Unknown

There are many variations but they all emphasise two factors: novelty & superiority. For many people this quote is a core tenet in their quest for success. It’s easy to see why seeing someone doing what you want to do is disheartening. For one thing it means someone else has already thought of it. Say bye-bye to being the first. If they’re doing a decent job, then you’ll have some competition rising to the top. So there goes your success, right? Wrong!

To debunk this idea, I’ll resort to some basic calculus. I’ll explain it as simply as possible, so no prior knowledge is necessary. Let’s begin.

The Math of Competitive Success

What Is an Extremum?

If you can quantify a parameter (earning, height, countries travelled to, etc.), then you have ups and downs. We all know a maximum is the biggest number in a set of data and a minimum, in contrast, is the smallest. A shorter way of saying minimum or maximum is to collectively call them an extremum-an extreme value. There are two kinds of extremums: global & local.

Global Extremum

The global extremum shows you the highest of highs or lowest of lows among ALL the values of something, so there’s nothing more than a global maximum (similarly, lower than such a minimum). There can only be one global maximun and one global minimum for a specific parameter, just like there’s only one tallest and one shortest person in any group.

Local Extremums

The local extremum however is defined differently. To find a local extremum, the important thing is to know the neighbourhood you’re looking in or in other words, the section. So let’s say you chop up a parameter into 10 different parts (i.e. neighbourhoods) and you find the extremums in each one separately. The maximum of one part might be less than the amounts in another (even the minimum), but it’s still the most extreme in its own vicinity and therefore, an extremum in its own right.

Math made easy, right? ?

Calculating Your Success

Going back to the main topic, first and best are both superlatives, i.e. extremums. But what kind? Global or local? It makes all the difference. For example, if you go looking for the highest selling clothes brand, lowest carbon emissions from a country, or first person in space, you’ll come across definitive and unique answers. But if we’re talking local extremums, we need to define where we’re looking first. Meaning you’d get different answers for the brand in different niches (children’s clothes, sportswear, fashion, etc.), the country among various continents or the person from a certain country.

Relative Success

Success is a relative and local matter. If Ali is making substantial profit from the sale of shoes out of his spacious chamber in Tehran’s bazaar would that mean Hasan is a failure, even though he’s the only shoemaker of a humble town far away from the capital? Alternatively, what would Ali make of his success if he were to compare his sales with that of a multinational company? The truth is that one’s success does not negate the others and that’s good news for anyone looking to grow.

I think comparison taken out of context is what breeds unease, or in a more mathematical sense, looking at the wrong neighbourhood. You can’t expect a retailer living in an economy damaged by sanctions to make the same money as a guy doing the same thing in the sanctioning country (sound familiar?). Heck, you can’t even compare me and my (previous) subject of envy because we each have our own conditions and to compare is to ignore them. Scientifically, you’d have to have the exact same conditions to make an accurate comparison and that’s rare to come across in real life.

Questions Worth Considering

The next time you catch yourself asking yourself whether you’re on the rise or not, define your neighbourhood more specifically. Ask yourself these questions:

  • During which scale of time? Short-, mid- or long-term?
  • In which geographical area? City, province, country? Bigger or smaller even.
  • Compared to what class of people? Well-financed, on the rise or impoverished?
  • Measured by which criteria of success? Profit, social impact, “likes” or critical feedback?

Succeeding in Parallel

After all is said and done, I got over my sense of inferiority by unmasking it. I believe there’s enough to go around for everyone and we can coexist and compete simultaneously, but more on the mindset of abundance versus scarcity later. Right now, I got to go do my thing and let Ershad do his. Who’s Ershad? A kick-ass explorer I admire and one you should get to know too.

Is there anyone who’s bugging you for doing something better than you? How have you dealt with the issue of comparison? You saw me being petty, so don’t worry about being judged. We’re only human after all.

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