Competition. The art of being the best. It’s the foundation of so much of our sports and innovation culture, how could it be bad?
Well … we live in a world that completely misses the boat in terms of human and ecological need, with development, industrialization always happening at the breakneck pace of … competition! There are profits to be made and a bottom line to beef up, because the next person/company will be in greater demand than you, and you will be out of luck if you don’t keep up. Everything from people’s rights to their livelihood to their living conditions to their sanity and ability to take care of themselves and their families is on the line.
Competition on a social scale teaches us that there are winners and losers, and that we must work against each other, even as we innately know how important community is. Who among us doesn’t want to make friends and feel community with those around them? Yet when you compete with someone, they become the enemy.
Should we never play competitive sports? Petty competition vs. social competition
This is where I make a key distinction. When competition is purely for fun and does not involve judgments of how good or worthy a person is, I have no problem with it as long as everybody involved consents to take part. This is what I call “petty competition” – it’s just for a short time, and it’s not to be taken overly seriously. It’s “just a game” – and that can be quite enjoyable.
But life is not just a game, and competition is this silent norm in so many aspects of modern life. Most societies today place an extreme, unhealthy emphasis on things – and people – that are better, faster, bigger, and so on. And it goes right on down to the personal level. As human beings, we must increasingly compare ourselves to others and sell ourselves – to get a job, to get housing, to get into school, to prove ourselves worthy of being loved, and so on. A sneaky discomfort with equality [one that we really don't talk about] enters the picture, because if we’re just “equal” to other people, we won’t stand out and get noticed – we’ll become lost in the crowd and get left behind. So we must become better – even if not too much better – than our fellow brothers and sisters. And when we fail at this, we get insecure and depressed about all sorts of things – how we look, whether we’re good enough, whether we’re strong enough, and so on.
Striving to be noncompetitive
Any positive person should have a strong noncompetitive streak – a strong reflex to avoid competition wherever it is not just for fun or absolutely necessary (which is rarer than you might think). The reason I say this is because we often subconsciously fall into competitive modes of thought without even realizing it! The American slang word “hater” refers very clearly to this phenomenon, whereby a creeping jealousy develops toward people whom we perceive to unjustly “have it better” than we do, often for reasons we don’t figure out until later on. The fact that society is so often organized around competition and comparison trains people to think like this – to “hate on people” who are perceive to have a better situation in some way.
We may not think of this as competition, but it is. It’s a symptom of an either-or, one-or-the-other style of thinking that we can accidentally become prisoner to – because this kind of thinking is everywhere! I hate dogmatic thinking like this – I think it’s responsible for a lot of suffering. Instead, we should remember the diversity of truth, which is far greater than mere comparisons of a few small things. Every perspective has its advantages and disadvantages. Even if the grass is greener on the other side, the sun may not shine as bright – and a complex truth that seeks a balance of things is more desirable than a simple truth that relies on one or two things for its existence.
Like I say, a little fun competition in games or sports is fine, as long as it isn’t taken too seriously. But when somebody has a cocky, competitive personality and baits you to take on their mindset, don’t fall for it. it could be anything from a judgment they make about you, to an invitation to see who is right about something, to a situation in which you are being tested to see how much abuse you can take. As much as possible, avoid getting sucked into competitive dynamics. People act this way because they are stuck in the either-or mindset, and you don’t want to go there too if you don’t have to. It’s a miserable place, full of “losers” and a few “winners,” in which the losers are … well, losers, and the winners are rarely happy simply with being the winners and often hurt others in attempts not to become losers tomorrow.
People who don’t need superiority to feel good are worth much more of your time – because then you don’t have to be inferior to them for them to feel good! And if you feel yourself unable to resist thinking in this competitive, comparative way, maybe it’s time for you to get in touch with your sense of justice.