By Michael Strelcheck
Competition is good – right? There is no doubt that our country’s free-market system of economics has benefited greatly from competition. Competition in the business place keeps prices in check, inspires innovation through research and development, and drives businesses to find new ways to provide their services cheaper and more efficiently. Competition also seems to be a necessary quality in free societies, for it allows everyone a chance to compete for a “piece of the action,” to work hard and carve out a better life. But, due to recent events in our society, the problems created by competition have come to people’s attention.
Competition is so ingrained in our society’s psyche that we find it in just about every aspect of our life’s expression. Children start out competing early on with friends in games and when they get to school they are evaluated competitively against others and graded accordingly. (Remember that infamous grading “curve?”). Those who perform better academically receive praise and opportunity. Those who wish to go on in education compete fiercely to get into college, and whether or not a person finishes school they compete to find a job, where again they are evaluated competitively against others. Once an adult, individuals compete in society for influence by gaining attention and importance. It sure seems as if success is dependent upon a person’s ability to compete.
There’s no greater example of American’s competitive nature than in our national sports! Our media is filled with a constant stream of different types of sports and their seasons. So important are sports that even our President takes time out of his busy schedule to predict who he thinks is going to win the College NCAA Basketball Tournament in the spring.
This seems harmless enough but there is a dark side to competition as well. Although competition (at times) brings out the best in individuals there is a point where the completive spirit becomes a negative factor. For example, we are all familiar with the recent rash of scandals where some our country’s greatest professional athletes have admitted to cheating by using performance enhancing drugs – believing that would help them compete better. Now all of these athletes knew that what they were doing was wrong when they took the drugs, but for some reason it didn’t seem wrong to them at the time. Perhaps the drive to compete had become so strong in their minds that they lost the ability to think rationally? Remember Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open Golf Tournament 5 years ago playing on a broken leg! The feat was truly remarkable but was his effort sane? The same can be said for some of bank managers 5 years ago who traded financial assets that were worthless (which many admitted to knowing at the time) in order to be more successful. Their decisions weren’t rational, for by doing so, they weakened our society rather than improved it, but obviously, to them at the time, it seemed like it was a good thing. Could the desire to compete and win drive an otherwise rational person to go beyond our society’s ethical standards?
Perhaps the answer to the negative effects of “spirited competition” lies in our society being able to draw a line where winning is concerned. It seems that our society has gotten too captivated with the idea of winning. Vince Lombardi was once quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” He later said that he regretted the comment, but in the moment, he probably meant it.
What if we rethink the idea of why we compete? By that I mean what if we reanalyze what motivates us to perform. A compelling reason why a person wants to compete is to win and thereby get something of value. For example, a parent can offer children money for good grades, which motivates them to try harder – not so much for the satisfaction of improving their ability – but more for the reward they will get. Another compelling reason a person competes is to prove that they are better (and thus more valuable) than others. If they win, that proves that they are good and of worth! Unfortunately, being motivated by that reason is dangerous, for if one doesn’t win then they have to deal with being a loser, and of little value, and that’s the real problem with competing – there is only one winner and everyone else loses! Not good for the non-winner’s self-esteem. Maybe that’s what drives some people’s bad behavior, the fear of the humiliation of losing?
What if we reconsider the idea and think of using competition as a means to better ourselves, internally, rather than to get some exterior prize. Let’s say that we compete more with ourselves than with others – challenge ourselves to do better than we did before. In that way we don’t have to worry about losing and if we do better in our effort we get the reward of personal satisfaction. The nice thing about personal satisfaction is that no one needs to give it to you (or can deny you it) because it comes from inside, when you know you did a good job!