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.

Sports and business are often used as metaphors for life. Are you among those that automatically assume that this is a constructive metaphor? What about the possibility that the qualities necessary for success in those disciplines 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. There are many more examples of this, but the bottom line is a pervasive attitude in our culture that the qualities required to succeed at either of those disciplines can be somehow applied to our own lives in order to produce a better experience. We call winning athletes “champions” and successful business people “leaders”, and place them on metaphoric pedestals without ever questioning the value of those domineering performances to our own lives; rather assuming those qualities are universally desirable and applicable to our own 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 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 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 noble trait. In fact, it ought to be tolerated at best and only in a very controlled environment where there are plenty of rules and celebrated never. That’s a scheme that each of us should consider if we are willing to admit that enhancing the actual quality of life we all claim to want is a very different, and far more noble, goal.

Some of the easiest money you’ll ever make is by selling something that you have convinced others is about winning a competition…

One thing that modern life affords us is the opportunity to over-indulge in aspects of our lives that produce stimulating sensations. Food is one great example. Control is another; rather than finding life’s various imperfections to be just interesting observations, we instead demand products that provide absolute control over our experience. That kind of control is typified by what happens through our computer screens, and explains our obsession with them. And, eventually, we over-indulge in the more compelling urges of our psyche; of which competition is one.

Some of the easiest money you’ll ever make is by selling something that you can claim is about winning a competition. 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. Attractive on some level, to be sure; but is this the best of humanity? Is this what we really want the dominant—or even well-known—theme of our culture to be? Or, blessed as an acceptable motivation for improving our lives? Unless we can check ourselves and our desire to be “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 were meant to live—is about building 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” in both sports and business. Do you really want that to be the quality of your life also?

Real life—the one you were meant to live—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. 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. You get to choose.

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 both. And the ones that also succeeded at life did it by keeping the 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. 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 insecurities and fears and (probably) to sell you 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 is also the way to contribute the most to your fellow humans. Not by tearing them down in order for you to “feel like a winner”, but rather by winning with them.

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