Those who surpass the best find that it is excelling, not competing, that makes the biggest difference. The popular movie 3 Idiots reasserts this idea in its theme- Excellence, not success, is to be pursued.
Why is that out-of-the-box thinking, completely new paradigms, and breathtaking qualitative (not just minor quantitative) improvements are usually found by people when they are not in a competitive state of mind?
For one, competing usually encourages looking at what the others are up to. This has two unwanted consequences – first, the focus from one’s own goal is diluted and second, the mind becomes trapped in the current way of doing things, only doing a little better or a little worse than those around, making comparisons to others but not to greater possibilities. Competition inhibits learning and creativity if people are trapped in it completely, as they tend to focus solely on the task at hand, without any longer term orientation.
For example, in studies on athletes competitive words such as “harder“, “better“, and “faster” stimulated more than double the normal levels of stress hormones. In fact performance researchers recommend that people abandon competitive thinking during practice, because performance improves when you take pressure off yourself.
The best performers are people who replace the goal of winning against others with the goal of going beyond their personal best, because doing so matters to them personally- for its own sake.
And it has biological basis as well! One of the newer evolved parts of the human brain, the prefrontal cortex (in the frontal lobes), integrates incoming stimuli and oversees the working memory circuits that move your intentions into action. Thus it governs goal-oriented behaviour, but for that to happen the goal must be emotionally compelling to you. In such a state of mind, obstacles are more easily overcome and determination maintained for longer periods of time.
However it takes awareness and practice to get these parts of the brain fully on your side and to activate faster whenever goal-oriented tasks are to be accomplished. Unfortunately most of us are more oriented towards external drivers (such as rewards of being labelled ‘successful’) rather than an inner emotionally-compelling goal and deeper purpose. Because of this, the brain regions that remain more activated are the more primate, fear-based, threat-detecting parts. The brain then jumps into a zero-sum game where survival instincts dictate behaviour.
And why is all this relevant to people preparing for an exam? The answer is simple- to really surpass your own expectations, you should try to put your dreams and curiousity ahead of your fears and reservations, you must be focused on what you want to become or want to achieve rather than be fearful of what would happen if you were left behind of others.
The chances of you giving your best can be greatly increased this way.