How To Use Your Natural Competitive Fire To Increase Your Willpower

In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco 49ers were having a basketball game between the 49ers team of the 1980s and the team of 1990s. It was a great pleasure for the fans to see their favorite players from each era square off in a friendly game of pick-up basketball. 

Jerry Rice, who was on the 90s team, was the leading scorer before he checked out of the game in the 3rd quarter. Then he started signing autographs, taking pictures with the fans and having fun with the event. But in the 4th quarter he heard the announcement that one of the players from the 80s had just become the game’s leading scorer. 

So he immediately stopped taking pictures. He checked himself back into the game and played like a mad man. He made sure that no matter what, he was going to be the leading scorer in the game. [1]

This is a prime example of what Jerry Rice was all about. He was as fierce of a competitor as there was in the game of football. This competitive fire led him to be the best wide receiver to ever play in the NFL.

He holds the records for the most receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in a career; in addition to his 3 Super Bowl rings and countless other accolades. And at a position where the average length of career is less than 3 years, Rice played for 20 years – most of which were at an All-Star level. 

But his competitive fire was not just found on game days. In fact, it was mostly found in his training. In his book, Talent is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin shares this story: [2]

In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers would trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home.

Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of them got sick before the day was over.

A competitive fire indeed. But Rice is not the only one who has this fire. This same competitive drive is buried deep within our human anatomy.


Millions of years ago, humans were remarkably weak and vulnerable creatures. The only way we survived was by sticking together in a tribe. In order to remain in the tribe, we wanted to prove ourselves worthy. So we would look at the tribe’s most admirable members and begin to try to become better than them. This was nature’s first competition. [3]

We wanted to be the best hunter. 

We wanted to be the best toolmaker.

We wanted to build the best shelter.

If we did this, then we would become indispensable to the tribe and assure our safety within it. So we developed the natural desire to check our own behavior and strive to be the best.

Unfortunately, many of us do not embrace this competitive drive in the correct way. Rather than using it to motivate us to outwork others, we use it to fuel our jealousy. We waste this gift of natural willpower coming up with excuses why we couldn't achieve the same level of success as others.

Even worse, some of us will actually try to go against our desire to be the best. We downplay our ambitious natures and classify them as “evil” or “greedy”.

Do not let yourself do this. 

The desire to compete to be the best is a natural human instinct. And is one that will give you extraordinary willpower.


When we were back in the tribe and first developing a part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex (the area responsible for our willpower), it was mainly used to help us resist our urges. [4]

We could no longer act on our most primitive instincts of eat, sleep and procreate. We had to begin to respect other members of the tribe and their right to personal property. So we had to resist the urge to steal someone’s food, steal someone’s mate and claim their shelter for our own. Otherwise we were banished from the tribe and left to fend for ourselves.

But as our intelligence grew, we started using our pre-frontal cortex to think bigger. We started planning for the future, we started thinking abstractly, we started questioning our actions and we started striving to be the best tribe member we could be.

Competition activates this part of the brain. It gives us a rush of willpower and focuses our mind on doing whatever it takes to get there.  

This state of mind is so powerful that all of the usual motivations to take the easy way out seem irrelevant. We do not even entertain them as options because we are so focused on completing the task in front of us. It is in this state that we are able to become the best versions of ourselves. [5]


Competition does not have to involve losers. Our natural competition did not originate from our jealousy or hatred of one another. It stemmed from our inner desire to be the best.

That is what competition is ultimately all about – becoming the best. These are some proven ways you can develop more competition in your life and tap into this powerful form of willpower.


This advice goes beyond “the greatest competition is yourself” cliché. I literally want you to look in the mirror.

Something odd happens in our brains when we look at ourselves in the mirror. The part of the brain that would say "hey, that's me in the mirror" is not activated. Instead it is a part of the brain that says, "I wish I was taller, skinnier, more muscular, etc." In other words, rather than seeing see who we are, we see who we want to be. 

This triggers our competitive response. Just like wanting to be the best member of the tribe, deep down we all have an ideal self that we are trying to live up to. By keeping that ideal self in mind, we can find motivation to be our best.

To keep your ideal self in mind, use process called Self-Monitoring. This involves keeping track of as much information on yourself as possible. Like with the mirror, you will look at the information on yourself and compare it to what you really want. This will trigger your competitive fire and give you that extra motivation. [6]


Jerry Rice wanted to be the best wide receiver to ever play the game of football. That purpose gave him the extra energy to get up day-after-day, workout-after-workout and practice-after-practice.

In order to tap into our natural desire to be the best, we must first have a purpose that we truly believe in. We must have something that we want to be the best at so badly that we will work toward it even when we are stressed and tired.

This purpose does not need to be grand in order to be effective. An alcoholic who gives up drinking for his kids will be far more likely to quit than someone who has a court order to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. An athlete who is training for her first 10K will be far more likely to stick to her workout plan than someone who just runs recreationally. And it is easier for someone to derive pleasure out of their daily work if they believe in what they’re working for. [5]

Do not try to force this purpose. If you genuinely do not care about being fit, then you won’t find the competitive edge you need in order to make it a habit. Instead simply seek out what you truly do care about. Find the things you are willing to fight for and devote yourself to those. This will allow you to tap into your true potential.


Our competition drive is highest when we know exactly what we are competing against. In the world of sports, this could be another player, another team, or even a personal best running time. Because athletes know what they are competing against, they are able to measure their current performance against the performance they need in order to “win”.

This benchmark for success focuses the mind. Rather than coming up with reasons why we can’t do something, we switch our brain to problem solving mode and find motivation to do what it takes to reach our benchmark. [6]

Then when we reach our benchmark, we tap into the extraordinary value of achieving small wins. We grow confidence that we can go further; that we can reach the next benchmark and the next one after that.  

Creating a benchmark does not require having an opponent to beat or a record to break. You can simply write down what you can do in order to win the day or win the next step towards reaching your overall goal.

Whatever you choose as your benchmark, make it as detailed as possible. The brain will be able to focus much better when it has a clear goal of what it needs to achieve.

For example, I have a dream of becoming the best science writer in the world. In order to do this, I need to write everyday. So my benchmark for success is to write 2,000 words per day. This goal focuses my brain on setting up my day to ensure I have the time and resources needed to reach my benchmark.


When a track coach took over a local high school team, she had one simple strategy – run hardest at the end. Her benchmark of success would not be the overall race time, it would be how fast the runners went in the last mile. 

In order to make this competition more fun, they would stick a coach at the 2 mile mark of a 3 mile race and check the places of each runner as they passed. The goal for the runners was to move up as many places as possible in that last mile.  

For each runner they passed in the last mile, they would be awarded a miniature rubber skull; signifying their vanquished opponent. These skulls became a signature of success for the kids. They put them on necklaces and wore them with pride; always seeking to add even more to their collection in the next race. [7]

When it comes down to it, competition is a lot of fun. It is fun striving to be the best and it is fun coming out as the winner. So embrace this!

Find ways that you can make your competition more fun. What can you do to reward yourself for reaching your benchmark that will add fun to the process? 


We have an innate desire to be the best. From millions of years ago when we sought to become the best member of the tribe, to today when we strive to be the best in sports, arts, or business. This competitive drive is a natural part of our anatomy and is a huge boost to our willpower. 

To tap into your natural competitive fire you do not need to have an opponent. There does not need to be a championship and there does not need to be a winner and a loser. Our desire to be the best does not require that someone else has to be the worst.

Our greatest competition is to simply become the best we possibly can be. Whether that is in business, in love, or in life in general. By having a purpose worth fighting for, having a clear benchmark for success and having a process that is rewarding and fun, you will be able to tap into your natural competitive fire. And that fire might just give you the edge you need to become the best you can be. 


  1. Carroll, P., & Roth, Y. (2010). Win forever: Live, work, and play like a champion. New York: Portfolio.
  2. Colvin, G. (2008). Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. New York: Portfolio.
  3. Duval, Shelley, and Robert A. Wicklund. A Theory of Objective Self Awareness. New York: Academic, 1972. Print.
  4. Irwin, Louis N. Comparative Neuroscience and Neurobiology. Boston: Birkhäuser, 1988. Print
  5. McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery.
  6. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  7. Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap--and others don't. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.