For many of us, competition is the devil.
While the dominant culture certainly embraces competition at every turn – between organizations, within organizations, in its elections, in its sports and entertainment, between students, between schools, amongst siblings, among neighbors, etc. – often our more progressive cultures often insist on collaboration and shun competition.
Wouldn’t we be better served by shifting from a scarcity mindset, where we have to vie for limited resources, to one of abundance where we can all have what we need if we work together? Wouldn’t our organizations be better served fostering teamwork rather than antagonism amongst its employees? Wouldn’t our economy work better if organizations worked together toward the greater good rather than against one another for their own self-interest, as is demanded by capitalism?
The short answer is: Yes. There are countless facets of our society where we can and should replace competition with collaboration. The world I hope to help build is indeed fundamentally rooted in collaboration and our shared humanity.
But the long answer is more complicated.
The case for competition
In grad school, I often saw this anti-competition belief system come up in class. In some situations, I saw fellow students refusing to participate in exercises built around competition, even if in the spirit of fun. Their logic was that competition and working against one another is at the root of the problems we are trying to solve. Even if in play, this competitive mindset is reinforcing behaviors that turn us away from each other and our higher, more collaborative and selfless, selves.
But for me, when some students would refuse to participate in competitive exercises, my most immediate reaction was sadness and frustration.
The truth is: I fucking love competition. Whether playing basketball or a board game, vying for a prestigious award, playing trivia, rooting for my favorite team, or whatever it may be, the spirit of competition fills me with life. It’s a source of energy and drive for me. It’s a source of joy.
And I believe it’s a source of joy, community, and creativity for many throughout the world. Just look at how animated people get coming around their favorite team. Or look at how creative and inspired people can get at the idea of winning a science or innovation prize. It’s undeniable; many of us humans get a spark from competition and team identity. It makes us come alive.
Is this a dysfunctional part of me, of society, that should be shunned and done away with? I don’t think so.
The bottom line is: competition is a technology. It’s a tool many of us use to achieve certain results: teamwork, motivation, creativity. And like any other technology it can be used for our benefit or to our detriment. It can be used in a good, healthy way to inspire. And it can be used in a destructive, unconscious way. How we use it is a choice we make ourselves.
Our task is to bring it into balance and harmony. Our task is to make it available to those who thrive off of it, and make it avoidable for those who don’t.
The question is: What does this healthy balance look like? In our organizations, how do we build a sense of healthy competition to inspire growth and momentum, without creating disconnection? In our economy, what elements can we safely infuse with healthy competition and capitalistic drive without incentivizing destructive, greedy behavior?
In short, how can we reassign our competitive drives so that they are in service to our highest purpose and values? How we consciously and intentionally use competition as a tool for a better world?