Saturday, May 12, 2012

Competition




During the course of most of my adult life, I would have answered, "I'm a competitive person." I grew up with a younger brother and we were, much of the time, quite competitive. I played all kinds of sports throughout my youth and reveled in the competition. I loved nothing more than to have the highest score on a test.  I still enjoy winning at board games, cards, and even make competitive games out of routine activities. To this day I defeat teenagers at public basketball courts in one-on-one pick up games (it must be humbling for them), enjoy the back and forth of political debate, and strive to catch up to, then re-pass, cyclists who pass me. But I no longer answer, "I'm a competitive person."

A two-track slot car set up might at first appear to invite a classic invitation to compete.

Although I still considered myself competitive, playing both baseball and soccer, my transformation began when I hit the University of Oregon campus as a freshman thinking, "never again," never again would I allow myself to be sucked into the kind of icky social competition in which I'd become mired during high school. You know what kind I'm talking about; it's that rule-less competition in which you must constantly worry about being at the right party, hanging with the right people, dating the right girls, and wearing the right clothes. I'd been reasonably successful at this competition for coolness, I suppose, although I never enjoyed the satisfaction of success to counterbalance the heartbreak of losing, because winning in this sort of game has no definition, the rules are in constant flux, and there is never a moment when you put your hand on your worthy opponent's shoulder to say, "Good game." I was never able to get my mind around that kind of competition and so made a conscious decision to not participate. 

This was 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president with his message of free market competition. I was "all in" at the time, still considering myself a competitive person. I figured this brave new social Darwinistic vision for America would especially benefit me, having honed my competitive nature on the field and pitch, as well as in the grade-on-a-curve classroom. I'd read my Ayn Rand, a little Milton Friedman, and my 18-year-old self listened to the things the new president said, re-defining democratic freedom to mean the freedom of enterprise, worthiness as a measure of how much money one could make, and fairness as a new social contract in which we were going to let the invisible hand serve as umpire.

The way the children used it in our preschool classroom, however, it was an exercise
in turn taking, sharing, and cooperation.

Back then, competition was defended as a manifestly good thing, a character builder, an important part of growing up. It's how we learned about winning and losing, discipline, teamwork, and a certain type of focused fierceness. This was the common knowledge and for the most part I agreed, although my support was shaded by the knowledge that competition only worked for me when it had clearly defined rules (like in sports, board games, or this apparently tidy economic model of supply side Reagan-omics), when those who lost were not labeled as "losers," and when the people involved could, after the dust had settled, shake hands and thank one another for the effort.

Today, most developmental experts (and by that I mean those who base their views on research rather than nostalgia) turn a skeptical eye toward competition, at least for children under 10 or 11, especially when adults place too much emphasis on winning. There is still plenty of research out there that points to the benefits of competition for older children, such as learning about abilities and limitations, setting goals, handling loss, developing skills, working together, and enhancing popularity, indicating that organized competition with clearly defined rules, an emphasis on civility, and a concentration on best-efforts over winning, makes it beneficial for a certain type of child. But it also must be emphasized that competition is not the only, or even the best, way to learn these things. And there are always the potential pitfalls of competition, like physical and emotional injury, the humiliation of losing, the ethic of winning at all costs, the undermining of self-confidence, and the emergence of hostility and aggression.

We had to concentrate on the physics of the action and strategize in order to decide
where we were going to position those little yellow guard rails to help keep our
cars on the track.

So even while I maintain a fondness for competition, and still engage in it, we try to keep it out of the preschool classroom as developmentally inappropriate. As children get older, and competition becomes somewhat more appropriate (again, for some, but not necessarily all kids, and in limited doses) it remains important that it not devolve into a kind of free-for-all. Rules still must be clear and strictly enforced to ensure fairness, civility and sportsmanship still must be maintained, and effort still must be emphasized over winning (process over product). This is what I would call "healthy competition," a term that Alfie Kohn calls an oxymoron. (In fact, Kohn makes a strong case against competition altogether, both in this essay to which I've linked and in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition.)

Our Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talks a lot about healthy competition, how he wants his players to prove themselves on the field; may the better man win. I have no doubt that these young men compete both honorably and fiercely in practices for their "job," then again on Sundays as part of a team competing against an opponent. These are cream of the crop athletes, guys who've already learned lots of lessons about hard work, setting goals, and handling loss. At the end of the game you see them, helmets off hugging their opponents, smiling, chatting, thanking, congratulating, making plans to meet later for a drink.  There are, I'm sure, many unhealthy aspects of this professional competition as well, but mostly it works because rules are followed and sportsmanship is valued. Winning is important to these guys because, well, it's sports, but I assure you that none of them would be out there without having strong internal motivation that drives them to be their very best.

We fiddled around with the electronics to figure out how the system worked.

I'll tell you, however, that from where I sit, it seems that healthy competition in our society is more the exception than the rule. The Reagan Revolution has turned into little more than a bare-knuckled political and economic brawl, in which "survival of the fittest" is achieved by any means possible, rule-lessness (deregulation) is the goal, selfishness is a virtue, and civility is for losers. Corporations have become places in which human beings are merely another resource, in which tricking grandma Millie out of her retirement savings is rewarded, and the common good is not even an afterthought in their unhampered pursuit of profit. Government is a place of partisan stalemate, in which the "winners" get whatever they want at the expense of the "losers," and so-call leaders let shouts of "Let them die!" pass without comment while the audience cheers.

This isn't just unhealthy competition, it's a full-on cancer. It rewards viciousness and punishes kindness. It's war. Competition is a very shaky, unreliable, even evil, foundation upon which to organize a society. 

We could never have played with this toy if competition had been our guiding
principle. But with cooperation, teamwork, strategy, and compassion for our
friends, we were able to make it work.

Of course, it's not possible to eliminate competition from our society entirely, nor should we seek to. Like it or not, it's a part of human nature and like most of the things that make us human, it's a two-sided coin. Unfettered competition is without a doubt the maw-like gateway to the dark side. Competition with rules, however, designed to serve the common good, competition on a level playing field, competition that embraces fairness, competition that honors sportsmanship, can and does elevate humanity.

But competition, like NFL football, is really just a sideshow in the real course of human progress. An economy or government based upon Randian competition will inevitably kill its host, but only after years of suffering. We must find a way to turn this corner as a society. We must find a way to push back this cancerous revolution and replace it with the certain values of the common good, cooperation, teamwork, sociability, empathy, mercy, and love. These are the real American values: not this Johnny-come-lately fantasy of every man for himself competition.

I'm not a competitive person, but I can appreciate a little one-on-one basketball every now and then, if only for the exercise, to test my skills against those of another, and to prove to myself I haven't lost it. And if I send those teenagers home with stories about the old man who beat them . . . Oh, who am I kidding, they'd never admit it. But in the end it's only something I do as a pastime: it's not important. It's not the core of who I am. It ought not be the core of who we are.


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