Finding identity, belonging, and purpose in a competitive world

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan

Whether we like it or not, we live in a competitive culture.  Competition is present on the field, in the classroom, and in the workplace. It is deeply formative—impacting the identity, belonging, and purpose of young people. And while competition can be an excellent context for character growth and identity development, such growth isn’t guaranteed.

For example,

  • A student aims to graduate with a 4.0 and at the top of her class; yet, she secretly wonders if she will have any worth if she earns a B her final semester.
  • An athlete strives to overcome every obstacle, but at the expense of healthy relationships with others.
  • A young adult earns a promotion, but feels he is climbing a ladder that ultimately leads to nowhere.

Young people need firm foundations to help them form identity and develop character. Sadly, the narrative of success and failure that guides so much of our competitive culture simply isn’t sufficient for the task. We need to offer students a grander life narrative in order to ground their identities and guide their growth.

The problem with performance-based identities

Fuller psychology professor Benjamin Houltberg is an expert on youth development whose research on performance-based identities and sports[1] reveals how our culture’s focus on winning and losing often negatively shapes young people’s identities. Houltberg found that performance-based identities (defined as “mindsets that link love and acceptance to performance”) ultimately lead to a fear of failure, perfectionism, and a fear of disappointing others. 

When love and acceptance are built on such an unstable foundation, people turn to coping mechanisms like blame, shame, and control to protect their fragile identities. Performance-based praise can inadvertently become the rubric for self-acceptance as well. 

Clearly, participating in competition does not guarantee positive identity and character development. 

Some of the strongest influences on young people’s identity formation are the adults in her or his life. When parents, mentors, and coaches focus on outcomes like winning and losing rather than character development and purpose, young people learn to link love and acceptance to performance rather than the unconditional love of Christ.

Given the unavoidability of competition in our culture, how can we encourage positive identity formation in the young people we love?

Move from performance to purpose

Teaching teenagers to form their identities based on a single narrative of success and failure gives minimal direction, inclines teenagers toward a utilitarian view of relationships, and is largely self-focused. Purpose is a more holistic basis for identity development. As Houltberg explains, purpose “organizes around a life aim, it’s based in relationship with other people, and it’s something greater than yourself that contributes to your sense of identity and worth.” Young people, all people, need a grander purpose and motivation that gives direction to their lives, provides opportunity for relationships with others, and is bigger than themselves.

So, how can we help young people gain purpose in a hypercompetitive world?

When our own identities and purpose are wrapped up in success and failure and the conditional acceptance of others, it is difficult to pass on anything different to the young people we love. 

First, we may need to reflect on the source of our own motivations and identities.[2] Ask yourself: “How is my own sense of self based on how I perform and how others perceive me, rather than on who I am in Christ?” Exploring the sources of our identities with a trusted friend or counselor can be an important first step in helping the young people around us do the same. 

Next, consider the following shifts that might help young people build identities and find purpose on a more solid foundation:

1. Identity 

Instead of focusing on A’s and F’s, wins and losses, ask young people each week about what they are learning, how they are growing, and how choosing to follow Jesus affects how they see themselves. Make space for their honest answers. 

2. Belonging

Instead of describing relationships in competitive terms (e.g., ‘beating the enemy’), use competition as a way of building relationships with others (e.g., ‘working as a team’). By doing so, competition can serve to help form a sense of purpose through relationships, as opposed to dominating and defining relationships.

3. Purpose

Instead of viewing success as the purpose of life, help young people comprehend their lives in the context of the much grander gospel narrative. Understanding our lives in the context of God’s redemptive work in the world can enable us to live for something bigger than ourselves, build meaningful relationships, and develop a sense of meaningful direction for our lives.

When we encourage young people to learn, build relationships, and live for a purpose bigger than themselves, competition becomes a context for growth and relationship instead of defeat.

How do you help young people navigate our competitive world?

I’d love to hear. Add a comment below.


[1] Find out more about Dr. Benjamin Houltberg’s research at https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/moving-performance-purpose-youth-sports/ and http://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/voices-on-sports/

[2] Identity development and finding purpose overlap and reinforce one another. See Kendall Cotton Bronk, Purpose in Life: A Critical Component of Optimal Youth Development (New York: Springer, 2014), 74.