The Primal Competitive Instinct: What Is It Good for?

Competitive Instinct FinalThese days we have a mixed relationship with competition, and maybe rightfully so. As a culture, we struggle with the joys of simple play, the meaning of good sportsmanship, and the lightheartedness of a game well played. Life as we live it today can feel too serious, and the prospect of competition against that backdrop can feel like yet another layer of harshness, judgment or evaluation. To boot, those who have too much of a competitive spirit often demonstrate the least exemplary attitudes. I’d argue, however, that we throw the baby out with the bathwater when we push competition away instead of cultivating a healthy relationship with it.

Trust me,  I should know. As a recovered competitive endurance athlete,  I’ve been on both sides of the tracks. It’s a big reason why I wrote Primal Endurance. As is often the case with Primal instincts, we can vilify competition with a one-dimensional assessment, or we can strategically harness it for our personal advantage. Now, with lots of experience under my belt, I always make a point to strive for the latter.

Sure, some of us are inevitably more drawn to competition than others, and we all gather energy from a unique mix of internal and external motivation. Nonetheless, we’re all born with the basic wiring. Competition is part of the human story after all. As a species, we’ve been propelled forward by the competitive edge time and again. Survival of the fittest may not mean as much in today’s world, but it was the principle that governed humanity’s evolution through the ages.

Although Grok’s time wasn’t necessarily characterized by the rampant violence conventional assumptions might lead us to believe, competition undoubtedly played out with random injustices, personal rivalries and mate competition. Yet, the egalitarian nature of social organization likely kept competition seated mostly in the realm of play rather than power. Even though band members might have enjoyed accolades or recognition for their hunting talents or inventive creativity, their status or well-being wouldn’t have changed much (except maybe being more attractive to potential love interests). On the individual level, competition, then, thrived more as a means of appeal rather than conflict.

But where competition mattered most perhaps was the larger context with group selection. The selfish gene, after all, wasn’t just about the individual in question. It was about group selection—oneself and one’s kin. How collaborative Grok could be (and even how altruistic at times), not only enhanced his appeal but also his and his band’s survival. It’s a different take than we often think of when we’re looking around the gym wondering whether we’ll ever be able to bench press what that other guy/gal can.

So, what should this mean for us today? What role can/should competition play in living a healthy life and propelling us forward? While not every health goal itself necessarily benefits from competition (e.g. the unhealthy conditions and long-term failure of The Biggest Loser approach to weight loss), competition can change how we apply ourselves to our goals. When viewed through the lens of play, it can be a boon for our growing sense of competence and self-discipline. We’re charged by more than the “shoulds” in our health aims and can engage on the level of game.

Let me throw out a few ideas for infusing your process with a competitive Primal spirit, and I hope you’ll add yours to the mix in the comment board.

Channel the group dynamic

Harness that “group survival” mentality, and get inspired to pull your weight in the tribe by joining a team sport like a hockey, Ultimate, a basketball league, or a group activity such as dancing, rowing, or mountaineering. Being in competitive group dynamics can be cathartic. It let’s you flex those proverbial (and literal) muscles without anyone getting hurt (usually). You get to contribute to a common goal along with your teammates while vying for victory. And if you have good sportsmanship, you can look forward to some deep social bonds; something which is good for longevity and overall happiness.

Engage in a little healthy comparison

Yes, comparison can be “the thief of joy” in some cases, but it can also spur us toward greater visions. Instead of indulging in jealousy, ask the person whose skill or strength you admire if they’d be interested in offering some advice on how he/she achieved success. Heck, if you both hit it off, you might have a new mentor as a result, which can be invaluable.

Challenge yourself to specific self-improvements

All athletes know they’re in constant competition with their previous performance first and foremost. Track your fitness numbers (e.g. pull-ups, push-ups, squats, plank time, reps, etc.), meditation minutes, sleep hours, pre-bedtime technology shutdown, or any other goal you have for yourself, and set short-term goals that push you to improve those markers. Engage your social networks by announcing and updating your intentions (humor will garner you enthusiastic support) on Facebook or Instagram. Nothing like group accountability to reinforce your commitment to personal progress.

Organize win-win scenarios

Trying to get yourself motivated to enhance your Primal way of eating? Host a Primal potluck and vow to bring your best cooking game to the event. Alternatively, channel your efforts for the greater good. Sign up for athletic charity events like walkathons and races, and push yourself to perform better all the while knowing your efforts are already benefiting a bigger cause. If you’re going to be competitive about something, you might as well have a positive byproduct to show for it. That’s something I’ve done all my life. I challenge myself to do big things, but only if they have demonstrable value to others. That’s been the guiding force behind everything I’ve done in the Primal sphere, from The Primal Blueprint and Mark’s Daily Apple to PRIMAL KITCHEN™.

Put play before outcome

When tracking numbers gets old, challenge yourself to variety. Compete with yourself or a friend to see how many new workout activities you can try in a month. Zumba, check. Slacklining, check. Helping a rural neighbor bale hay, check. If you have friends or family helping cheer on or oversee the competition, agree to assign extra points for creativity.

Here’s the takeaway. Be competitive, but in the right ways. Let that instinct guide you to greatness, not resentment or disappointment. Used wisely and constructively, a competitive instinct can be a deep source of motivation. So get out there and be competitive (for the greater good)!

Thanks for reading today, everybody. Share how you harness the competitive instinct for your Primal lifestyle, and have good end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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16 thoughts on “The Primal Competitive Instinct: What Is It Good for?”

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  1. Competition can be stressful for some of us. When it has that effect, we’re better off focusing on what’s really important in our lives. Stick up for yourself, your rights, and your own point of view. Otherwise, one-upmanship at anything is seldom worth bothering with.

  2. I too think a bit of personal competitiveness is healthy- as long as we can use it to grow and learn, and unhook ourselves from the winning as the only path to happiness mentality.

  3. I was never competitive by nature as a kid in most things. Organized sports never interested in me (and even winning at board games didn’t have a lot of appeal). But I still have a healthy sense of self-competition when it comes to achieving (and exceeding) personal goals.

  4. “Put Play Before the Outcome” definitely resonates with me. We’ve all been around people who get so caught up in competition that whatever activity they’re involved in becomes a means to that end. No fun there. You have to use competition to inspire you, but without letting it get in the way of enjoyment.

  5. Personally, I always take up the attitude of self-competition. Every day is a new opportunity to improve upon where I came from the day before. That applies to eating and exercise habits, but also larger goals, like being a better friend, son, etc.

  6. When I play tennis with my friends I enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, the social aspect of it, the exercise … but I gotta keep it real … it’s a lot more fun to win than to lose. 😉

  7. Self confidence is key. I have never felt the need to compete. For some need to work harder to maintain fitness, others not so.

  8. Being a sports official for over 12 years before quitting, I just couldn’t take the whining and screaming anymore. They cheat and stretch the rules. Parents, coaches and players have gotten out of control. Even at the high school and women’s college level, they act like they are all going to make it to the pros. And don’t get me started on the adult league men’s games. Being an athlete myself, I would always give it 110% and play with passion, but I would always walk off of any playing field as a good sport.

  9. Enjoyed this post…but actually DON’T enjoy most competition.

    When it comes to academics, I always liked being the best and definitely felt competitive before and throughout grad school.

    With yoga, where I have an advanced physical practice, I’ve always had an aversion to competition and do my best to steer clear of it (while still loving the sense of being inspired by other yogis).

    With Crossfit, where I definitely don’t have an advance practice, it’s all play. While I don’t mind competition and get that it is useful, I don’t really feel it (except when I know I have a chance of beating my husband, in which case, I’m all in!).

  10. Before perpetuating the notion that competition is bad on a personal level, take a good look around the planet (and through some history books) and see whether that feeling is innately, primally, human – or is the result of a few decades of indoctrination, that winning means someone else loses and so it’s not fair, that to possess any superior skill or talent is unfair, and so on.

    Outside specific classes and groups in the more affluent nations, the majority of the world didn’t get this memo to dumb-down, and still expects and strives for excellence in every field that matters to that individual and within their culture.

    Be compassionate, yes, be altruistic with your tribe and wherever possible with others, but to have a knee-jerk reaction to competitiveness, like it NEEDS explaining, justifying, and down-playing the moment it’s mentioned, I’m not sure that’s helpful or healthy, on either a personal or global level.

    The pursuit of excellence counts for little unless we have peers and competitors to, at least, benchmark ourselves against. To shun the very idea of competing, and to feel that it may somehow be immoral to excel, leaves us ill-prepared for all kinds of genuine challenges.

  11. Like everything, it all depends on your goals. Grok would most likely have to defend his territory from time to time, meaning he would have to battle opposing tribes, in a live or die ordeal. Competition was definitely the major factor determining his preparedness and work ethic, while preparing for battles. I find it very motivational to paint someone as an enemy, more along the lines of people or organizations that I don’t know. Then I paint an illusion of them potentially outworking me, out training me, out studying me, out growing me… It pushes me to not let any of that happen, causing me to attain my goals, instead of procrastinating. They aren’t really my enemy, I’d be the nicest person if I ever met them. Some times you have to find the killer in you. You have to transform into a lion.

  12. Good read! I think in order to make progress towards goals, self-competition is almost inevitable. There are so many ways to be competitive without putting too much pressure on yourself or others as well. But, at the core of all of us, we are competitive in some facet or another.

  13. To channel the group dynamic, challenge myself to specific self-improvements, and organize win-win scenarios, I use an app called MakeMe with friends and family. The added accountability helps me find the time for activities that otherwise get shuffled to the bottom of the list.