Monday, July 30, 2012

On Competition

Recently, I was on a blog looking at a recipe, and in the post the author had mentioned that she has a distaste for competition. She went as far as to say that competitiveness is a symptom of a mental illness. But what I found really odd was this comment on the post: "A little competition is good for the soul. I think today's young woman (and I'm 52) is fearful of those things and they teach their kids (liberals do) that everyone should win and that's just not the truth in real life."

Where to start?

  1. I agree with the author to some extent. I won't say that competition is a dysfunction. I think games and the tendency to turn something into a game--with the emphasis here being on play and development--is healthy and normal. So is refraining from these activities. The problem occurs when the competition or game becomes the only way that you evaluate yourself and others. If you can't be your best without beating someone else, then your competitiveness is dysfunctional; you've lost the sense of what's best for you and you've lost empathy for others.
  2. Who understands the plight of "today's young woman" like a 52-year-old? 
  3. I'm a liberal. I don't think that everyone should win. I certainly don't teach my students this. I don't think I'd teach my children that either. Again, who better to explain the liberal point of view than someone who clearly isn't liberal? What I believe, and I think what many liberals believe, is that everyone deserves an equal chance to win. We recognize that so many in our country haven't been given this chance, so we want to create environments where these folks have the opportunity to "win" by building confidence and skills. It's not a fear of competition; it's an aversion to unfair playing fields. 
So how does competition play a role in my life and my preference for all things simple? Games have been a big part of my family since I was a kid. I can remember playing Chinese Checkers when the power went out, playing Uno with my siblings and cousins, playing games in school, and later playing board games with adult friends and family over some drinks. I love playing board games, but I generally don't care what the score is at the end. I just like to play. Keeping score gives us something to talk about and maybe motivates us somewhat, but in the end, what we remember is how the game was played. Today, I believe a lot of the characteristics I have came from the emphasis on play--fair play--in competitive situations. 

I'm sure people would argue, especially considering the Olympics going on right now, that we only remember the winners. Perhaps that's because we put them on a pedestal (literally) and give them star status in the media. Perhaps if people who simply give a great showing were given that kind of attention, we'd remember them too. 

It's hard to draw a line between competition that encourages fun and growth and competition that inhibits fun and growth. What starts off as a goal can easily become tunnel-vision with persistent feelings of "I'm not good enough." That's where it's dangerous. 

A healthier approach to competition is to allow ourselves to be inspired. Inspiration rather than envy is a good motivator, which is why mentors are so valuable. You're not trying to surpass someone else or covet what somebody else has; you're observing qualities that you admire and adapting them to your own life. 

Of course it's still possible to lose yourself or feel inadequate, but comparisons and competition are a part of life. You have to be able to separate what's good for you and what isn't. With good competition, you feel good about yourself whether you win or lose, and you feel compassion, not animosity, for your competitors. Develop philosophies rather than concrete expectations that will allow you to measure your success by your own standards.

Edit: August 1, Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project published this blog post on winning


Laura said...

My issue with competition comes from people who try to turn everything into a competition. Life is so much more nuanced than that. Sometimes there can’t be a “winner” and not everything falls into clear categories. Otherwise, I think competition can be fun and I love playing board games too!

Domestic Kate said...

I agree about the people who think everything has to be a competition. I've been in situations in which I had a plan to do something and someone else took that as an invitation to compete or evaluate my performance. What's maddening about that is that my plan was about me and my goals, not someone else's. It made me not want to do it because I didn't want to be doing it for someone else.