Competition, as we know from Darwin, is built into the very fabric of existence. At a baseline level, it’s been all-out war from day one among plants and animals who compete fiercely for food sources, water, and the sunlight that helps them grow.
Nothing symbolic about this competition: If you’re a plant, you need to claim your little piece of soil and sun and cling to it with utter tenacity. If you’re an animal, you either succeed in escaping predators and tracking down prey or plant food for your daily sustenance, or you die.
Nature is very unforgiving. It merely shrugs as all living things navigate the carnage of daily competitive existence.
Darwin sketched a scenario of remarkable creativity and cunning as living things learn from and adapt to the forces trying to eliminate them. Nothing keeps you on your competitive toes like the threat of annihilation—i’s so much more soothing to be a rock!
Now: we in the civilized world often recoil from these brute facts of competition. As well we should, if competition means that losers shrivel and die, vanquished under the boot of the conqueror.
Bedrock religious and ethical principles tell us that all human beings matter and are worth our consideration. Christianity suggests it’s not earned worth either, but is a simple matter of God’s grace and love undergirding everything in the creation.
Same with the Buddha Nature and the Quakers’ Inner Light. Our lives are precious. All of which leads naturally to concern and compassion for the downtrodden. This is a mark of civilization and culture, lifting us out of the Darwinian jungle.
No disagreement there. But I would submit that both compassion and competitiveness can exist side by side in holding transformative power for human beings.
I want to suggest that competition allows for much more than survival, nor only for survival at the expense of another. There’s an alternate scenario: that among humans, competition is a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, and ultimately, self-transcendence. All while allowing our opponents to experience those same states.
So please permit me to take you back now to a no-account racquetball game that happened some 40 years ago.
It was rapturous—both of us knew we’d never played like this before and had rarely had this much pure fun. (There’s a lesson in that all by itself.)
My friend Dick and I were both ex-college athletes trying to do what all athletes think about once their competitive careers end: not go completely to seed. So we were playing racquetball a couple of times a week, working just hard enough to earn our showers and a post-match beer.
And, of course, we kept score. This was to foster the illusion that winning and losing mattered, even though we both knew it didn’t, really…
We’d split the first two games, and in the rubber match, he zoomed to about a 15-4 lead. Twenty-one points wins, so the game was pretty much over. Ah well…
But then something interesting happened. I scored a few points, no big deal, 15-7. He got the serve back, scored a point, but I got serve again and scored three more. 16-10. Hmmm…
You’ve probably experienced a juncture in one competitive endeavor or other where you’re far behind, begin to creep back in, and ask yourself: “Could I maybe make a game of this?” And more important: “Am I up to expending the effort to do so?”
Sometimes, you face that moment and say “Nah, let’s just play it out and go home.” Other times, something compels you to say “Yes, dammit, I WILL throw myself into the action with all my body and mind and might.” Your counterpart feels the shift and stiffens his or her own resolve. Game on!
That’s what happened in my racquetball game with Dick, and the experience has never left me. Focused and intense but slowly coming into a joyous sense of abandon, Dick and I found ourselves in an epic struggle to reach every shot and wrest every serve from the other.
Our bodies flew around the court; we banged into the walls, made desperate lunges to save points and scamper back to our feet, only to make impossible shots yet again—that our opponent would return!
It was rapturous—both of us knew we’d never played like this before and had rarely had this much pure fun. (There’s a lesson in that all by itself.)
Something special was happening. We were calling out the best in each other—even as we battled with utter ferocity to grind each other into the ground. Neither of us could have come close to this level of effort and pure joy by going out to hit some balls by ourselves, or with a less intense partner.
The competition had morphed into a far deeper and more profound cooperation. We were the gift the other needed to dig deeper and bring out more of our potential than we ever thought was there.
The score wound up being some 33 to 31 or thereabouts. As fondly as I recall all this, the one thing I long since forgot was who finally won. Though we were hotly contesting each point, the actual outcome turned out to be immaterial to the experience we were sharing.
Sports, of course, is where humankind’s competitive instincts play out on a grand symbolic stage. But it’s human to delight in competition, even at the level of board games or cribbage or backyard badminton. Or baking and poetry contests at the county fair. Or races to find a cure for disease or baldness or wrinkles. The list is endless.
All these competitions are far removed from survival-based competition for food, or the insane competition of war. They mimic survival in only the most abstract way, which is perhaps why we love competitive games so much: it only feels like they’re of life-and-death importance, but no one actually dies!
But competition for jobs is certainly serious business, and all of us have been made better by knowing what other job seekers are bringing to the interview table, and then improving ourselves accordingly.
Business is just as steeped in competition as sports. It’s just not as much fun for spectators to watch corporate board meetings and pore over strategic plans as it is to watch the Giants against the Dodgers or the Olympic hockey final.
We join in competition with others so can all meet our ultimate competitor, our own internalized longing to be better, to do better, to explore new territories of experience and potential and joy. And thus become more whole, more who we can be. The eighteenth century Hassidic Rabbi Zusya summed it up this way:
“In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
Kids want to turn every single thing into a competition, of course. You can’t blow bubbles without them wanting to count who’s blowing more. Simple walks with my daughter when she was younger became a contest for who could walk longest on the outer curb without falling. We’d bet a buck. (There has to be something to play for!)
Competition is one way kids build self-esteem and explore their sense of competence and mastery in the world. Sometimes we adults are bothered when our kids’ competitive fires burn too hot and losers go off to pout.
Or even worse, the kid dumps the whole Monopoly board and table in the middle of the living room. This is when we think, “Little Johnny just can’t handle competition. Let’s go sniff some flowers instead.” But I would beg to differ.
One of the most important, if not THE most important lesson of competition is learning how to lose. Everyone must learn this, and most everyone does so with great difficulty, because it just doesn’t come naturally! Yet its lessons are critical if we are to become mature human beings.
We must endure loss to learn about resilience and grace and honoring our opponent despite the damaged self-esteem and dashed hopes we may have suffered at their hands.
Back in the 1970s, we got the notion that self-esteem in our precious dainty kiddos was best built by simply never allowing them to lose at anything. Unceasing positive reinforcement: “You’re great, you’re a winner, everyone gets a trophy!!”
This was when something called New Games came into vogue. New Games were perfectly nice little team-building and bonding activities in which…no one…ever…had to lose…
It was all-out cooperation, all the time. No scorekeeping and no comparing—ever!
But one must ask: Does avoiding competition prepare kids for the realities of life? Does it help plant seeds of striving and effort and excellence in them?
How can we truly know whether we’re excellent at something unless we… compare and compete? Unless we measure ourselves against some available criteria? And sometimes fall short of it.
As it happens, the main criteria we are presented with in life is…other people, and their respective performances in whatever endeavor we come to be interested in. We need them to tell us more about ourselves than we could ever possibly learn on our own.
Pitting ourselves against and alongside others allows us to find our niche, our passions, our competencies, the activities that help define us.
Many years ago, I fully realized and accepted I’d never be another John Updike. Not that I’m not a pretty good writer; I’m just nowhere near Updike’s league. It was important for me to measure myself against him, realize and accept that. But acceptance of that fact certainly doesn’t mean that I quit. I didn’t quit playing basketball in my youth once I realized I’d never be as good as Rick Barry.
As we age, it may be even more important that we don’t quit. It’s just that the opponent becomes more ourselves, our own standards and longings to continue refining the lifelong project of knowing better how to live, what to value, how to give more, love more, and spend more meaningful time.
I am suspicious when I hear people say, “Well, I’m finally comfortable in my own skin, I know what I believe and like and I don’t have to apologize to anyone anymore for who I am.”
Sounds fine as far as it goes, but I can’t help thinking those sentiments are sometimes—though not always—code for: “I can quit trying now, quit listening for new inputs, quit grappling with issues and people that challenge me. I’m done!”
And then there’s the gender issue, and the long-held belief that females are somehow born without a competitive gene. They’re the cooperative sex! Maybe competitiveness is Y chromosome-specific? Well, anyone who thinks that should accompany me to a Maria Carrillo-Montgomery High School girls’ soccer or basketball game.
There, you will see competitive intensity to match any boys’ game, anywhere. The soccer player Mia Hamm didn’t sound much of a New Games note when she said:
“You can’t just beat a team, you have to leave a lasting impression in their minds so they never want to see you again.”
Although some studies do suggest that women in general are less competitive than men, the huge question is whether this is primarily due to millennia of cultural repression. Perhaps its roots are in the cooperative food and water gathering excursions among women in primitive cultures, when the bigger and stronger men went out to repel invaders and chase down prey.
But when hunting-gathering societies ended and women began moving into official economies, refraining from competition became a severe handicap—one they seem to be overcoming.
Lending credence to the cultural repression idea, a renowned study compared the competitiveness of women in a patriarchal and a matriarchal culture. It found that women in the patriarchal culture were utterly noncompetitive—when the men were around. But offered a chance to engage in competition among themselves, they were found to be more competitive than the men. Reports from girls’ schools sound a very similar note. Competitiveness appears to be simply a human trait.
Truly, competition is fundamental to the human enterprise. We may be homo sapien, but we are also homo seekeralis, homo striveralis, homo more-more-more-alis, homo let’s-play-a-game-alis…
And in order to seek, to strive, to accomplish and attain more, it is good to have worthy opponents, to whom we bow in respect and commitment to do our very best, so that it may help them bring the very best out in themselves.
Together, we embark on a competitive journey that brings us, inexorably, back to ourselves. T.S. Eliot said it better than I ever could (!!) in Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Psychin’ up, dejection and jubilation galore here, and very nicely put together…
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The joy of competition and the satisfaction of doing one’s best, yes. And what of fair play? And what about winning?
What does it mean to win, in any given situation?
In America (and everywhere probably) we do like our winners. There are rewards for all that striving and trying! Hail the hero! And: you can get it if you really want, which begs the inverse logic that if you don’t have it you must not be trying very hard.
So, hail our current hero, one Mr. Donald Trump, with his unapologetic stance toward winning at any cost, being “smarter” or perhaps just more ruthless. Are they the same, then? Because this winning involves money it seems all strictures are off; he is rewarded not just with dollars but now with admiration. Kicking those slacking losers out of the way is integral to his appeal.
The cost of winning when fair play is abandoned may be higher than the gains. The thought of this ethic adapted as a social policy is a bit daunting.
On a different tangent now, I am thinking of another version of winning. When (mostly) women engaged in many necessary and cooperative efforts over the years, survival WAS the goal, that WAS winning. An individual couldn’t really get there alone. Competition in that realm was a bit counter-productive: others were, and are, vital to the enterprise of life. Being faster or stronger was certainly great and no doubt appreciated, and was important for being incorporated in furthering the whole group effort: making sure everyone was fed, warm, and safe from predators was the trophy. This was not a New Game, nor a one-on-one match. It was a different dimension, and is still hard wired in us. This ethic certainly still rings true in less developed societies but in our own as well.
There are, of course, competitive issues and survival strategies of the emotional and interpersonal nature as well. We all of us certainly deal with that competition every day. In the tribe, who was included and excluded was serious business that could dictate life and death, and getting along with others and being valuable in some way was certainly part of that equation. It looked like, and was, cooperation and was/is also a survival strategy with some very competitive, and occasionally beautiful,
I would say it looks a little different but probably feels a great deal the same today. This hard-wiring doesn’t get flipped off with a 21st century switch. Sibling rivalry, high school cliches, partnering, pairing, breaking up: for humans, staying connected and navigating the connection has always meant survival, about being able to stay alive. That we have been able to transform these connections into something that feeds souls as well as bodies, into beautiful bonds that sustain our families and communities, that still keep the predators on the other side of the fire: there. That’s a trophy.
Angela, the food for further thought you provide here works really nicely as a Part 2 posting on this topic; I would have just offered you the space as a “Guest Post” if I’d known it was coming! :-)
I think a lot of discussion on competition, especially from the New Games psychological side, focuses on perceived or conjectured harm to the loser, but as you suggest, there are a whole set of issues from the winning side as well, and they deserve their own airing.
Guidance in how to win with grace, in a kind of martial arts way, with respect and bows to your opponent, is something we could use much more of in this culture, seems to me. Instead, we have the boorishness of Mr. Trump, who makes a crude art form of being dismissive and rude, parlaying it not only into a hit television series, but also serious consideration among many millions of people as our next president of the United States.
NPR yesterday was discussing some social science research strongly indicating the wealthy, by a huge margin in comparison to the poor, agreed with the statement, “It’s O.K. to step on someone in pursuit of your goal.” Basic Darwinism, whereas the poor are more inclined to share and cooperate as a survival strategy. It’s the ultimate “entitlement,” really—the “right” to do what you have to do to pursue “success.” And in a “Just win, baby” culture, personal success, even if it comes at others’ expense, is all that matters.
Your comments on the “winning” aspects of social and tribal cooperation are more subtle still, and the emphasis on human connection as the ultimate “trophy” we all need and seek brings to mind, as the holiday season fast approaches, Mr. Scrooge. Sometimes it seems we haven’t really learned much since that tale got spun, no matter how often we hear it. If anything, at least in media portrayals with the likes of Mr. Trump and those dog-eat-dog, human-backstab-human reality shows that continue to be all the rage, we are cruder and more naked now in our jostling for more than our share of the pie. More evidence for that: our increasingly radical income inequality and general unwillingness to do anything serious about it. Appalling, really. And unsustainable and dangerous, in the long run.
Then I just have to call on alternate images of about a million nonprofits doing Good Works, and how readily people rally in the midst of tragedies, as in our recent Lake County fires here. I don’t want to forget that. It’s not all about trampling others on the way to the food line; it just FEELS like that sometimes when attending to certain political and economic policy debates.
Thanks again for writing. I’ll be chewing on your perspectives for a while yet, seeking my own “trophy” of deeper understanding.
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