Is Life A Competition?

Competition is a compelling notion to humans; no question. I firmly believe that this is coded into our DNA for reasons that no-doubt served a valuable purpose at one time in the evolution of the species. Perhaps it still does, but just as likely, it does not.

Sports and business are often used as metaphors for life. Are you among those that automatically assume that this is a constructive metaphor with some relevance your personal success in life? What about the possibility that the qualities necessary for success in sports and business is actually destructive to your quality of life?

This sports/business-life corollary is a constant theme in advertising and other forms of motivation. Personal development teachers all have their litany of sports/business metaphors that appear to prove their point and provide a benchmark for success of all kinds; including success in the experience of life. There are many more examples of this buy-in, but the bottom line is a pervasive attitude in our culture that the qualities required to succeed in sports and business has some relevance in our personal lives with a goal of producing a better experience (a.k.a., happiness).

Lately, I’ve even begun to hear these same self-help gurus deride the very notion of happiness as a goal for wimps who can’t “make it in the real world”. All the while, they refer to athletes as “champions”, and accomplished business people as “leaders”, and place them all on metaphoric pedestals without ever questioning the relevance of those domineering performances to the personal internal experience of our own lives. Instead, it serves their purpose for you to assume those qualities are universally desirable and applicable to your individual pursuits.

Yet, what is the indispensable theme in both sports and business? Competition. What is competition? It’s about dominating your rivals, often by tearing them down (sometimes literally) or, at best, building yourself up at their expense.

Competition is a compelling concept to humans; no question. I believe it to be coded into our DNA for reasons that no-doubt served a valuable purpose at one time in the evolution of the species. Perhaps it still does, and just as likely, it does not. But whatever purpose it may fulfill, we have clearly given it a virtue that it doesn’t deserve given the reality that competitiveness is not a particularly attractive or noble trait. In fact, I dream of a culture where competitiveness is never more than tolerated, and only then in a very controlled environment where there are plenty of rules to insure that life is honored above all. And, celebrated never.

The virtues of a more human-centered culture will become clear once we are willing to admit that enhancing the actual quality of human life, which we all claim to want (at least for ourselves), is a very different thing. Life, as it is actually lived, plays by very different rules from competition, and any attempt to connect the qualities of competition with the qualities of human life ought to be greeted with great suspicion, not reflexive applause. If we are looking for truly noble models and constructive metaphors for the life we live (not the one we’re looking to “win”), we can do far better than competition.

Some of the easiest money you’ll ever make comes from selling something that you can claim is about winning a competition against another human. It’s like taking candy from a baby, as long as the babies never question the assertion that winning a competition will make them a better person or provide them a better quality of life. That’s precisely why the prevailing subtext in advertising is about “winning the game” of money, status, sex… you name it.

In the end, competition is always about dominating other people and forcing them to acknowledge your superiority or submitting to your will. That sounds like textbook egotism to me. Attractive on that level, to be sure; but since when are our egos considered a noble aspect of human nature. Is competition really the best of humanity? Is this what we really want the dominant—or even romanticized—theme of our culture to be? Or, in the case of the personal-development rhetoric, blessed as an acceptable motivation for improving our lives? Unless we can check ourselves and our egotistic desire to “feel like a winner” at the expense of others, it will continue to be just that.

Want to know what the “winning is everything” philosophy looks like when it becomes embedded in a society? Take a good hard look at the prevailing tone of US election rhetoric. When denigrating your fellow candidates becomes a proven strategy for elevating your own popularity you know that a “culture of competition” has taken hold. And it could easily be pointed out that all wars have begun over this urge to dominate other humans.

Real life—the one you are experiencing right now—feels and works best when you build other people up to succeed, knowing that everyone’s success is really your success…

The life that the metaphor suggests is one where you’re always slugging it out with your “competition” (a.k.a., other humans) from the moment you wake in the morning to the moment you lay your head down at night, and where you’re constantly on guard for the next attempt by your fellow man to tear you down. That’s the reality of being “in the game” of both sports and business. Do you really want that to be the quality of your life also?

Real life—the one you are experiencing right now—feels and works best when you build other people up to succeed, knowing that everyone’s success is really your success, society’s success, and humanity’s success also. It’s about living in peace; never having to look over your shoulder for the next assault, and knowing that your fellow human also wants the best for you, not the worst. That’s my definition of noble.

It’s important to remember that the playing fields of both sports and business are littered with the shattered lives of people who have excelled at “the game”. And, the ones who excelled at both sport/business and life did it by keeping competition on the field of play, and out of the fabric of their lives.

There is a place for sports and a place for business, but they are not the stuff upon which you should be basing the quality of your life. At least, not any life you really want to live. The next time the sports and/or business metaphor is trotted out as a noble source of inspiration, now you know it is being used to appeal to your insecurities and fears of losing out, and (probably) to sell you something, not to elevate the quality of your life.

How about this instead: a high quality of life is its own inspiration, because you care about creating the best possible life for you and your family, and because it is also the way to contribute the most to your fellow humans and the world we all share; not by tearing them down so you can “feel like a winner”,  rather than actually being one.

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