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All In & Being Competitive

Many of us in IT are competitive, maybe slightly more so than in other professions. Competition adds a little spice to whatever you're doing, but the part that I find interesting personally is deciding when and what I want to be competitive about.  Maybe there was a time when it was all about winning for me, but for the last 10 years or more it's been far more about how I played the game - maybe that stuff from childhood really dig sink it. I've seen times when that approach absolutely exasperated people! I think people sometimes see that has lazy, naive, or just clueless. I see it as something fundamentally me - it's not enough to win, I have to win in a way that I consider worthy of the man I wish to be.

Take my current career as a SQL guy. I like to learn about technology, use it interesting ways, and it does pay the bills. Yet at this point in life I don't have an interest in trying to be the top dog of the SQL world. Could I study, compete with, even surpass those that are near the top of our profession (by whatever measure you like)? I'd like to think I could, but it's enough for me to be good enough to play in the bigs as it were without expending the substantial extra effort needed to try to beat everyone else. Lazy or pragmatic?

I'm an amateur woodworker and I have a lot to learn, and there more than technology it feels like a contest with me as the only contestant. Learning it takes patience and is sometimes annoying, but it's a fun contest and one I chip away at. I'd like to publish an article or two in a "real" woodworking magazine in the next few years, but I don't have any plans to enter contests or open a woodworking school, it's enough to just work on raising my skills and doing useful things like building an aquarium stand.

Another example is chess. I mentioned earlier in the year that I wanted to play more this year, and I bought a copy of Fritz Chess over the xmas holiday. I like playing, but I've never been a serious student of the game (which requires a LOT of work). Playing more I see areas where I'm weak and that's ok, but when I play it on the max level it's just breath taking how bad I lose - and how damned good a good player can be. That seriously annoys me! Losing is one thing, but this is something else again. I'm still playing casually, but it's tweaked my competitive nature. How much do I want to be good at this? More interestingly, aside from devoting the hours, do I have the raw talent to move up to say the grand master level? Should I try? Ah, the questions.

It's easy to be competitive when you have natural ability, but a lot more interesting when all you have is something less than world class talent but the ethics to commit to a lot of hard work. Most things worthy of doing take a long term investment, so it's more of a marathon than anything else. I'm not much of a card player, but there is phrase from poker that I can appreciate - "all in", which indicates that you're betting whatever you have left, and indicates a strong hand and/or going for it before you are so low on chips you're out of the game anyway. In my world I reserve "all in" for things that I've decided matter, and while I might not win, it won't be for lack of work or effort. The nature of that level of effort means it can't be done often or carelessly.

As is often the case with my blog I'm trying to solidify my own views, and I don't have a really good lesson to share yet. The best summary I can offer is that when you think about competing think hard about whether you really want to invest the work required to win.


I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.


Posted by Anonymous on 18 February 2009

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Posted by Steve Jones on 18 February 2009

I think I'm always evolving on what I'm competing in. I switched baseball teams this year because I decided "winning" every game wasn't as important as playing time for me. I'd rather go out there and get more chances to play than win more often.

On the other hand, I'm competing with myself to run every day. So far I'm holding my own.

In the technical world, I think I'm there with you. I want to keep learning, but I don't want to out-T-SQL Ben Gan any more. I just want to enjoy it and get better, but not try to be the best.

Posted by Bill Nicolich on 18 February 2009

Robert Frank has a great book called Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status. One finding is that some people accept lower pay because there's more status enjoyed as a big fish in a small pond.

I think there are cases out there where people stay in a particular job that doesn't require a lot of growth or where there's nobody there that's better to learn from just to enjoy the relative ease and/or status.

I've not always found myself in a position where there's lots of people to learn from. However, I enjoy scenarios where I'm surrounded by experts. So I find that I have to "import" expertise at times by reading and interacting with more people outside of an organization.

I think that perhaps part of being well-adjusted is to be able to admit that you're probably naturally average in most things and then below and above average in some things. After all, it's statistically impossible for everyone to be better than average at driving, and so forth.

It's most common for people to start competing in things that they're naturally better at. It might be more interesting to look at people competing in things they know they're not gifted at for the sake of self-discovery, growth, etc.

Posted by Andy Warren on 19 February 2009

Bill, always nice to get a book recommendation! I'll add to my list.

I think for most of us it's hard to find that work environment that stimulates growth and still falls into the basically comfortable category. Maybe Google, MS, and a few others do it, but most of us work at much smaller companies (and that's not bad in any sense).

Max growth comes from being put in a sink or swim situtation, learn or go! Not fun, but effective. Not something recommend for the faint of will either.

Posted by Steve Jones on 19 February 2009


Thanks as well. They don't have a Kindle version,but I've pinged them.

I think most people are comfortable being the small fish in any pond, relatively few want to move up. It's not comfortable.

Posted by Bill Nicolich on 20 February 2009

Andy, Steve:

I think Steve makes a really important point. People choose not to move up because it's not comfortable.

It is literally not comfortable. In fact, it actually places a load on the immune system. Some of the other social animals literally die of "stress" that's caused in social competition.

For years naturalists thought that species would reproduce and expand until they hit the resource barriers (food, water, etc.) of the environment. Then they began to notice cases with social animals where the populations stayed well under those resource barriers, and found animals were dying and failing to mate due to "stress."

Getting back, I'm sure these less-well-known forces come into play on people's career choices all the time.

I'll add to Steve's comment that people might hit barriers and stop moving up, but not necessarily be happy or at peace about it. One might stay mad at the world or at specific people who stand in the way of the positions one wishes to attain. One might resent having to exert the needed effort or bear the costs to achieve status.

Joseph Conrad wrote "The Shadow-line: A Confession" about a young man crossing that line between youth and adulthood. He's a sailor and he overhears the older sailers boasting about finding easy, well-paying jobs. He wonders how they can survive on such little adventure and magic in life. Then he gets into some pretty heavy-duty adventures and begins to realize why others might seek after some peace and quiet.

I know I mentioned Frank's book "Choosing the Right Pond." I should warn that of his books, this one is very academic and research-driven, and less connected with current events. You might only enjoy reading the first couple of chapters. It's like recommending someone watch "Men at Work" because the first 15 minutes are hilarious--but the rest might not be as interesting. But I'm glad it's in my library.

That said, I'd also recommend Robert H. Frank's books "Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions" and "Luxury Fever."

There's a good amount of literature about our status-seeking nature, but not nearly as much about social competition and status hierarchies. I've resorted to reading about other social animals like chimpanzees. For instance, "Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior" by Christopher Boehm. Perhaps we've kept this area of human nature swept under the rug, if you will.

Posted by Andy Warren on 20 February 2009

I think I agree with that. It's also easy (and human) to be become complacent.

Stepping out of your comfort zone just sucks - at least for me, and I'm actively trying to do it. Maybe requires a mindset change, maybe goes deeper than that.

Whether you should...that's different. Takes a smart man to know when he's had his adventures (or lack of) and decides to focus on the things that really matter. My view? When I'm in the final years, will I regret doing or not doing something?

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