Some people seem predisposed to being competitive, for others it has to do with nurture. One of my daughters excelled in swimming from a young age. In high school there was one event in which she always came in second place to a teammate, even though it seemed she could win. The other girl was vigorously competitive and our daughter was not. After one particularly intense swim meet when the other girl won by inches, my daughter was very quiet on the drive home. It suddenly occurred to me to say, “You know, sweetie, it is okay to beat her.” My daughter dissolved into tears, the kind that come with relief. After that she won those events.
Her competition deficit likely came from me since my wife had and retains a healthy competitive spirit. I was never comfortable with it. In fact, in high school when I played basketball, I didn’t know how to calibrate the difference between the emotions of competition and those of outright aggression. It was all the same electrical storm inside the circuitry of my brain, and I was ill at ease feeling like Rasheed Wallace. I so admired my classmates who could compete with abandon, joyful in the zeal of striving against others. The benefits of competition are well-known and highly valued in our economy and culture, and rarely if ever questioned.
It is a given that competition can drive individuals and teams toward higher performance. But I have been observing this mess of a culture we have developed and begun to wonder about the down sides of a pervasive sense of competition, and an economy that operates by the values of win-lose and dog-eat-dog.
Think about it in terms of the education system, or even employee management. Rewarding only high performers means that recognition, incentives, and reward benefits are bestowed on roughly the top ten percent. What does that do to the self-esteem and confidence of the ninety percent – many of whom will never, no matter how hard they strive, enter the recognition of the top ten percent? I am not touting participation trophies.
Think of it this way. Most rural and urban poverty zones will rarely be successful in a competition for attracting jobs and economic development. If economic policy is based solely upon competition, then the losers will simply keep losing opportunities. What happens when a team or an individual keeps losing no matter how hard they try? A vapid dispiriting sucks the energy away, or a seething resentment stokes hot coals of temper. That is what we have now.
We are a society in which generations of those who have been repressed, neglected, left behind and kept behind are seething. Black, brown, and white; rural and urban; politically engaged and civically disengaged are angry and drawing a line in the street and countryside. We are living amidst the failures of a competition-based economy and culture. While there are clear benefits to specifically applied competition, an economic culture steeped in competition becomes dark, painful, and dangerous. We need to re-think our economy and our culture at every level: in schools, neighborhoods, town halls, and legislatures. The hard work of collaboration, consensus-building, and applied equity is far more promising.