Harvey Mackay Academy's Blog

Richard Petty, the stock-car racing legend, finished second in his very first race. He was so excited that he sped home to tell his mother.

“You lost!” was her candid response.

Richard objected and thought he did a great job to finish second among 35 cars in his first race.

But his mom didn’t see it that way. She said, “Richard, you don’t have to run second to anybody!”

Petty never forgot his mother’s message, and for the next 20-plus years, he dominated stock-car racing.

Like most kids growing up, the importance of finishing first or winning was always stressed. As a competitive person, I thought that second place was the same as last. Losing was a source of shame. Everyone wants to win.

Americans have a fixation on being number one. The most valuable player, the Oscar winner, the CEO. Who dreams of being the backup quarterback or getting named the runner-up in the Miss America pageant? How many kids grow up wanting to be vice president?

My good friend Nido Qubein says: “Winners compare their achievements with their goals and with their own potential. The rest compare themselves with others.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with striving to be the best. That’s what makes America. Healthy competition for the number one spot brings out the best in us.

But for there to be a number one, someone must be number two. And three. And four. There’s only one Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and Muhammad Ali.

What is the best way to get to number one? It’s competition. Competition has made me a better businessman, a better golfer and a better person. And when there isn’t another company or business to compete with, I try to outdo myself. If that sounds simple, well it is. I always want to be at my best.

Competition makes us better and stronger. We should not only welcome stiff competition, we should actively seek it. We’ll never realize our full potential in business or athletics unless we are challenged. Competition is healthy. It keeps us sharp. It makes us better. It improves quality.

But a problem I see all too frequently is that people are afraid of competition. Perhaps it’s because they fear losing, but I suspect a better reason is that they know they are not as prepared as the competition. They are not willing to put in the necessary hard work, training and sacrifice that is required. They think things will be easier for them than for others, possibly because others have made things look easy.

People can exceed expectations when motivated properly. Competition, not cereal, is the breakfast of champions. You’ll profit a lot more by trying to learn from your competition than by trying to destroy them.

Competition drives performance. It impels people to work harder and dig down deeper to deliver more than they ever thought they could.

Two hikers discovered that a mountain lion was stalking them. One stopped to change into running shoes and his buddy asked, “What good are those shoes going to do you? You can’t outrun a mountain lion!” He responded, “I don’t have to outrun the lion. I just need to stay ahead of you.”

There’s nothing like a little competition to boost productivity. Look at industry studies and you will consistently see that competition helped improve results.

I have always been very competitive. I understand that some people don’t like competition, but you have to accept that competition is unavoidable in life. That’s the way our society works. And it’s my firm belief that our society improves with competition.

Some parents have legitimate concerns about engaging their young children in competition. I understand their reluctance in situations where unrealistic expectations are set. But friendly competition is positive. Age-appropriate competition helps kids understand the importance of learning and improving. It is critical to prepare children and teenagers to compete in the real world. As they grow older, they will face competition in schools, getting a job, even buying a house.

A University of Florida study found that participating in sports is a healthy way to teach kids about the positive aspects of competition. Playing sports helps kids understand how competition works in a friendly environment and that if they try their hardest, they have a better chance at succeeding, not to mention improving their health and self-esteem.

Mackay’s Moral: If you can’t win, make the person ahead of you break the record.

About the Author

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.