The notion of a competitive challenge is obviously compelling to us humans. The sheer number of fans for both amateur and professional sporting events, and a fascination with the world of business, is evidence of that. This attraction appears to be coded into our DNA for reasons unknown, but that must have served a valuable purpose at one time in the evolution of the species. Perhaps it still does, but I have to wonder.
Competition has gone far beyond being a pleasant diversion from life. Sports and business (another form of competition) are often used as metaphors for life itself. Regardless of the context, competition is universally revered as a noble pursuit, and excellence in either discipline is considered next to godliness. We call winning athletes “champions”, and place them on figurative pedestals alongside Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. It’s clear this is driven by something other than that the facts of the matter, and without ever questioning the assumption of either nobility or relevance. If anyone within earshot of me ever suggested that there might be a question about the nobility of competition, I’ve never heard it. But, it definitely needs suggesting.
Consider for just a moment the possibility that the qualities necessary for success in competitive pursuits are actually destructive to the design of life. I know, heresy, right? This puts me right up there in a league with other sopping wet blankets.
This sports 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 the benchmark for success of all kinds. The bottom line is a pervasive attitude in our culture that assumes the qualities required to succeed at sports somehow apply directly to our lives in a way that produces a better experience.
Yet, 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 always—without exception—a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Is that how we want to view life?
Whatever purpose it may fulfill, we have clearly conferred upon competitive pursuits a degree of virtue that they don’t deserve. The reality is being competitive is not a particularly endearing trait. When embraced too tightly, the world—and everyone not in your close circle (team?)—becomes an enemy. For these reasons and more, competitiveness ought to be tolerated at best, and celebrated never. To view your life as a zero-sum win-lose proposition is not a fun way to live.
Make no mistake, competition is very satisfying to one particular part of our make-up: the ego. The ego resides in the same part of your brain as judgment, critical analysis, fear, and perfectionism. Not the kind of company that any virtuous quality should keep. The way these brain centers work is this: you stimulate one, you stimulate all. Do we want to encourage these traits in anyone, let alone our kids.
One of the first really desirable qualities to be sacrificed for the sake of satisfying the ego is notion of fun. You may be someone who has fun engaging in a “friendly competition” from time to time. But (can we be honest, here?), isn’t that just another way of saying you’re not really competing. The true essence of competition is in reality about one thing only: winning first. Which, by extension, also means fun second. And, for all serious contenders, there is no second. No one pays for a ticket to a sporting event to watch their team “being friendly and having fun”. They want their team to win. Period.
Fun is not one of the qualities of life that exists in the same realm of winners and losers. Satisfying the ego by winning, and the satisfaction of having genuine fun, are not the same thing. Yet, winning is often described that way. At least it’s described that way when we can no longer distinguish. Most of us know someone who has lost that ability to distinguish. No matter how innocent the game, there are those that can’t have fun in any contest. For those, even an innocent game of Pictionary can be a brutal death match in their head.
If you’re someone who enjoys competing at some particular challenge(s), be very aware of what you’re choosing in that moment. We’re all in danger of losing our ability to distinguish between a satisfied ego, and fun. Choosing that which satisfies the ego always comes at the expense of a far more valuable experience.
In the end, competition is always about dominating other people and forcing them to acknowledge your superiority or submit to your will. Attractive to your ego, to be sure. But, is this the best of humanity? Is this what we really want the dominant—or even publicly-sanctioned—theme of our culture to be? Or, that we want to bless as motivation for anything? Unless we can check ourselves and our desire to “feel like a winner” (always at the expense of the losers), competition will continue to be just that.
The life that the metaphor suggests is one where you’re always slugging it out with your “competition” (a.k.a., other humans and the world) 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 may be the reality of being “in the game”, but do you want that to be the quality of your life also?
The next time the sports and/or business metaphor is trotted out as a noble source of motivation, remember that it is there to appeal to your ego, and (probably) to sell your ego something, not to enhance your life.
How about this instead: a high quality of life is its own motivation, because you care about creating the best possible life for you and your family. Which, by the way, is also the way to contribute the most to your fellow humans and the world at large. Not by tearing them down in order for you to “feel like a winner”, but rather by winning with them.
Real life—the one you were meant to live—works best when you build other people up to succeed, not fail. There is at least one very good reason to choose this approach to live instead. It’s the knowing that everyone’s success is really your success, society’s success, and humanity’s success. It’s about living in peace; knowing that your fellow human wants the best for you, not the worst.
In the all-important goal of life—which is to die with no regrets—any honest reflection of life will never regret acts of creation. The same cannot be said for acts of competition.