Competition -- An Inhuman Activity

Greetings, everyone. It is great to look out and see so many friendly faces.

I'd like to tell you a story that embodies the essence of competition. Two friends were hiking in the wilds of Montana near Glacier National Park, and they came upon a grizzly bear, about one hundred yards away, and the bear started lumbering towards them. One fellow sat down and pulled his running shoes out of his back pack, threw himself on the ground, and furiously started pulling off his hiking boots and putting on his running shoes. Now, his friend was watching this amazed, and said, "You don't think those running shoes are going to help you outrun that bear, do you?" The first fellow looked up at him and said, "I don't have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you." (group laughter)

Seriously, not a day goes by without a news story or two that mentions competition. For example, President Clinton in his "State of the Union" address last January portrayed American workers as earning our livelihood in "peaceful competition" with people all across the earth. The Postal Service has adopted a new logo costing seven million dollars and they said, "We need to send a clear signal to the American public that we are dedicated to a new level of competitiveness." I read in the New York Times magazine section last month about "kids who grow up too fast." The story said, "The kid of yesterday who wandered in meadows of fantasy, whose tears were reserved for skinned knees and broken toys has given way to the kid who is strapped to the competitive fast track before he is out of diapers."

Now, when I first began to research this talk, I went to the library and punched in "competition." Here are some of the titles that came up: Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, Out Sell, Out Manage and Out Motivate and Out Negotiate Your Competition. Here is my favorite: How to Work the Competition into the Ground and Have Fun Doing It. (group laughter) Here is one that is actually a little sad, Teen-Age Competition, A Survival Guide. Many of these books and articles assume that competition is good for us or that it is our natural way to be or that we really don't have any choice but to compete. That is how completely enmeshed our society is in competition.

If you can imagine a spectrum of competition, at one end are societies that function without any competition at all, and at the total opposite end is the United States of America. Our entire economic system is predicated on competition. Our schooling trains us to beat others and regard them as obstacles to our own success. Even in our own families, there is rivalry for attention and love and approval. Leisure time is filled with games in which one person or team must defeat another. We can't even go dancing without getting involved in a dance contest.

Well, to start we need a working definition of competition. Competition is two or more people trying to achieve a goal that cannot be achieved by all of them. Or, in other words, one person succeeds only if another does not. Now, in our culture, I believe we are taught to compete. I don't blame Bill Clinton one bit for his views about competition. He is a good person who simply had the experience of growing up in this country. Competitive behavior is not the way we want to be. It is not the way we were born. We were born as completely good human beings, wanting to love and be loved and to cooperate and be close to one another. There is evidence of this all around us. For example, why do you suppose the TV character Barney is such a hit with kids? It is because Barney relates to their natural way of being, of sharing, of hugging, of loving and cooperating with each other and having fun doing it. Children instinctively know that this is good, this is wonderful, and they love Barney for allowing them to express the way they were really meant to be. Barney elicits the best in them.

What happens to these loving children as they grow older? Since they are raised in a society where competition is like breathing, they are inevitably hurt by it because competition is antithetical to being close, being loving, sharing, and having fun. Those of you who are most put off by Barney may have been hurt a great deal around issues involving competition, around winning and losing. You say, "Barney is too sweet, he isn't realistic, he doesn't tell it like it really is." It is not your fault that you feel that way. (group laughter) Since competition is a societal hurt that affects everyone, we may be unable to appreciate or recognize how we once were and how we were truly meant to be.

Well, I am not going to keep you in suspense any more. My theme today is simple: Competition is an inherently undesirable thing. There is no such thing as healthy competition. It is an oxymoron. Competition is bad. Competition is evil. Competition doesn't do anyone any good. Certainly not the losers, and not even the winners. The path to fairness and kindness requires the elimination of all contests of any kind where there is a winner and a loser. In fact, "No Contest" should be our theme and our watchwords. (group laughter). "No Contest" is also a tribute to Alfie Kohn for his excellent book called, No Contest, the Case Against Competition, which has been a true inspiration to me.

First, I would like to cover briefly four myths about competition. Myth number one says that "Competition is part of human nature." This says that we are born to compete. It is the nature side of the "Nature vs. Nurture" argument. Now, I don't expect to resolve that argument today. But, as I said, I believe competitive behavior is taught and therefore, cooperative behavior can also be taught. Here is a story that illustrates the point:

A U.S. teacher was visiting a British elementary school. He asked the children who was the smartest among them. They didn't know what he was talking about. They had evidently never thought about it. There were no grades, no tests, no gold stars. All stories and drawings were displayed on the walls. This teacher was amazed, and he resolved to return to his U.S. classroom and make it less competitive. He later wrote, "It took three weeks for the changes to emerge. The first was an end to the destruction of each other's work. Later, a spirit of helpfulness began to be common. Finally, there was what I look for as the real measure of success," he said, "Children talking freely to every adult and stranger who walks in, leading them by the hand to see projects and explaining their activities. No longer afraid, suspicious, or turned inward." He said, "These changes developed because we stopped labeling and ranking."

Myth number two says, "Competition is more productive." The question really is, "Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others or when we are working with them?" The evidence in the literature is overwhelmingly clear. The answer is, "We perform better when we work together." Now, the key to understanding why competition does not promote excellence is to realize that trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things. Paying attention to who is winning distracts one from the task at hand. For example, the child who is frantically waving his arm in class to answer a question when he is called on can forget what he was about to say. His focus was on beating his classmates. Someone who runs for president may be a bad choice for the job. A good campaigner does not necessarily make a good executive. They are different skills. Competition is also not productive because, by its nature, it makes people suspicious of and hostile towards one another.

In contrast, in a cooperative environment, people feel accepted by others and they feel safe to take risks, to play with possibilities and benefit from mistakes rather than trying to hide mistakes to avoid ridicule. Also, cooperation results in better performance because it is more fun. Competition is a distinct cause of anxiety since in a given competition most people will lose. Competing also promotes a selfish orientation. When we compete we do so out of our concern for our own welfare. If we became concerned about the welfare of a group of people, then cooperation would follow naturally, therefore social change that will benefit all of us can take place only if cooperative action that puts the group first supersedes the quest for individual rewards. This is why keeping workers of different groups pitted against each other in a competitive way is such an effective strategy for maintaining the status quo. Now, Adam Smith, the prime theorist of capitalism, said that "When each person tried to further his or her best interest, each person gained." But as I have pointed out, everyone does not benefit when we struggle against each other for private gain. He was simply wrong because he focused on the individual without considering the effect on the group as a whole. Competition between individuals is damaging to the group and, thus, to most individuals in the group.

Myth number three says, "Competition is more enjoyable." Many people defend competition in recreation or in playing sports. Is this justified? Well, the problem here is that if you are trying to win, you are not experiencing true playfulness -- fun, joy, and self-satisfaction. Any activity whose goal is victory cannot be play. "Sports builds character." But it builds exactly the kind of character that is most useful for our social system. From the perspective of those who control the wealth in this country, it is very useful to have people regard each other as rivals. Sports serve this purpose very nicely. If she is on a team, the athlete comes to see cooperation only as a means to victory, to see hostility and even aggression as legitimate, to accept conformity and authority.

There is proof all around us that competition is not enjoyable. Do you know people who get really upset when they lose a game? Who get so wrapped up in winning that the game isn't any fun for anyone any more? Trust me. They are not having fun. They are simply doing what they do best. They are competing to win.

These types of people cannot imagine that there are alternatives to competitive games. They ask, "How can it be a game if no one wins?" Well, there are lots of examples. There is a version of volleyball called "Bump and Scoot." A player who hits the ball over the net immediately moves to the other side. The objective is to make a complete change in teams with as few misses of the ball as possible. Here is one for you Scrabble lovers. Change the rules so that all players try to obtain the highest possible combined score. Each player is allowed to see everyone else's tiles. Now this is very challenging (group laughter) since you have to be thinking about saving certain spaces on the board for your partners. There are many more examples of noncompetitive sports and games. And I have compiled them in a bibliography that will be available to you after the talk.

Now the fourth and last myth is, "Competition builds character." For this myth, we have to ask, "Why do we compete?" and Alfie Kohn in his book suggested that, "We compete to compensate for low self-esteem." Of course, we here at the Ethical Society know that self-esteem is not conditional. It does not depend upon approval from others or on winning contests. Despite this ideal, our self esteem may have been injured, to put it mildly, by societal hurts such as competition so it may not be functioning at our ethical ideal. Thus, we might try to be stronger or smarter than others in order to convince ourselves at some level that we are a good person.

Regardless of self-esteem, anyone can be shaken by a loss. Since losing hurts, competition is always damaging to some degree. What about the "thrill of victory"? Well, despite the excitement, winning fails to satisfy us in the long run and cannot compensate for the pain of losing. Why? Because there is no competitive activity for which victory is permanent. Whether we are talking about chairman of the board or champs of the Super Bowl, to become Number One is immediately to become the target for your rivals. "King of the Mountain" is much more than just a child's game. It is a prototype for all competition.

The discovery that "making it" is often a hollow game is a traumatic event to the successful competitor, and it is one that I personally experienced. After starting my own law firm and working like a dog to build it up for ten years, I finally realized that to some of my corporate clients I was only as good as my last victory. I was constantly on the line to produce a win in each case and losses had to be analyzed in anguishing postmortems as if life or death was at stake instead of just money. I fortunately managed to get off that roller coaster. I discovered, just like I think Michael Jordan did, that winning doesn't satisfy us in the long run. All winning means is that we will need to do it again and again and again. Instead of contributing to self-esteem, beating other people contributes only to the need to try and continue to beat other people. It is like an addiction. A vicious circle. The more we compete, the more we need to compete.

So what is the bottom line? The bottom line is since both winning and losing have undesirable effects, it seems clear that the problem lies with competition itself. Competing drags us down, devastates us psychologically, poisons our relationships, and interferes with our performance, but acknowledging those things would be very painful, causing us to confront the road less traveled, perhaps forcing us to make radical changes in our lives. So instead, we create and accept rationalizations for competition, "It is part of human nature," "It is more productive," "It is fun," "It builds character." They are all false.

I want to talk now about men and competition, then women. American men are brought up to win. The object a boy learns is not to be liked but to be envied. Not to reflect but to act. Not to be part of a group but to distinguish himself from others in the group. Not to be warm and close but to be "tough" and distant. Boys are tremendously hurt around these issues, both physically and emotionally.

Personally, I can recall being beaten up by some very aggressive classmates at Shepherd Elementary School which I attended right across the street. It was not a happy time for me since I was not aggressive and was not very good at sports. Thus, I was always the last to be chosen at baseball, which was a game I loved, and I was always assigned to play right field. While this doesn't seem very important now, at the time I can assure you that the message was clear and the hurt was real. I began to believe that I was as bad as my peers had judged me and soon dropped out of playing sports altogether because of this humiliation. And these hurts have kept me from being close to men my whole life.

Men's competitive training comes out when we meet other men, when we undercut our colleagues, when we put down our own children. It comes out when we talk, when we argue even when there is no disagreement, just for the chance to come out ahead. For us men, the very act of speaking is often an opportunity to establish who really is best, stronger, smarter, or ultimately, more powerful. And men, again, are very, very hurt by these things because deep down inside men really want to be close to each other.

What about women? Well, it is a mixed message. Some women are raised to compete and others are not. Over the last ten or twenty years, many have been urging women to compete and to accept competitiveness as appropriate or even healthy. In fact, that movement is so strong, you either must agree that competition for women is desirable, or you are a sexist who believes only men have a right to be successful. The question is, "Is this trend towards more competitive women good or bad?" It is bad. Why? When women compete, what suffers is the terribly important female commitment to relationship, as it comes out in moral reasoning, in childhood play, and in conversation. The shift towards competition represents, I believe, a potential abandonment of this commitment, an attenuation of care.

Why should women respond to sexism by appropriating the worst of male values? The fact that men have had a monopoly on competitiveness does not make it desirable. What do women need to do? The woman who hears a squawk from her conscience when she begins to see her friends as obstacles to her own success should not seek to silence that voice. Rather, she should question her own actions along with the win-lose structure that led her to feel bad.

The goal is not to be unable to compete but to choose not to learn how. In its place, women need to truly affirm relationship. This time around maybe the lesson will be cooperation and men will be the students.

What is it about competition that damages relationships? Well, had we set out to deliberately sabotage relationships we could have hardly done better than to arrange for people to have to compete against one another. If I regard you as a rival over whom I must triumph, you become an "it" to me. An object, something I use for my own ends. Depriving our adversaries of personalities, of faces, of their subjectivity, that is a strategy we automatically adopt in all areas in order to win, whether it is relationships, sports, or the ultimate competition, war.

It is difficult to imagine a more telling indictment of an activity than the fact that it requires such depersonalization. In contrast, cooperative settings promote more mutual liking, more sharing, and more helping behaviors. An example of this is that fifth grade boys, after a bowling game, were given some coins and invited to contribute some of them to a March of Dimes cannister. Those who were told they had won gave away more than those who were told they had lost. But those who had played non-competitively gave away the most of all. The point is that competition discourages generosity.

Competition is also a kind of aggression. Studies have demonstrated that athletic competition not only fails to reduce aggression as some have suggested but actually encourages it. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said, "The true mission of American sports is to prepare young people for war." Athletic competition consists of and promotes war-like aggression. We see more and more evidence of this in professional sports, since fights now regularly erupt not only in hockey games, but in basketball and baseball games as well. Sadly, fan violence is now a frequent companion to sports competition.

Aggressive behavior extends from any competitive area, even the classroom. It is not hard to understand why children can be violent against each other when in the classroom the highest praise is reserved for those who have beaten their peers.

Is there an alternative to competition that is better for relationships? The simple fact is that when we cooperate, we are inclined to like each other more. Even in our merciless, competitive society, each of us has had a cooperative encounter working with others to paint a room, complete a report, put on a craft fair. Cooperation teaches us the value of relationship. Cooperation means that the success of each participant is linked to that of each other and of every other. Studies show that in a cooperative environment, children encourage each other. They are more sensitive to others' needs. They have improved communication and they trust each other more. Now, why is this? It is because I will look very different to someone for whom I am a rival than to someone with whom I am a partner.

It is one thing to feel hostile in a contest that pits one person against another. It is something else to feel the aggression that rages in group rivalries. Think of the horrible results of multiplying hatred by the number of people in the group. It leads to a "we versus they" mentality that, after all, is the heart of every war. It is not readily apparent how we can end the awful legacy of nationalism, the intergroup competitions between countries that now threaten the existence of so many humans. We need to expand cooperation so as to include as many people as possible in solving problems. There are enough problems to occupy us indefinitely, and our work on them will have the delightful consequence of binding us together if we join in solving them.

Now, in politics, Congress and the President have a lot of difficulty getting legislation passed. Now why is this? It is because of competition. The fundamental basis of politics is obviously that someone wins and someone loses. It is really no mystery why someone as well intentioned as Bill Clinton beats his Republican opponent in 1992, and in 1993 scratches his head in wonderment as his calls for bipartisan support go unheeded. The Republicans know very well that if they cooperate with him now it will help him beat them in 1996. Is it any wonder that so little ever gets done?

Members of Congress are so worried about winning and losing in the next election that the instance of a politician doing the right thing for the common good is all too rare. More and more elected representatives, and usually the good ones, are retiring long before their time. I submit that they are simply beaten down by the constant fighting, the cutthroat competition, and the hurtful positions that they need to take in order to get anything done the way things are set up in our society.

Change seems to be the hot button in politics today. But as long as all we are changing is a winner for a loser, we all lose. After the voters have changed winners and losers enough times without seeing any difference in our society, perhaps we will all get the message that something structural needs to change.

Well, now we come to the fun part. I have ten notions, or visions if you will, about how I'd like things to look in a competition-free society. I'd like to share them with you.

First, we've had our "War on Poverty." Let's declare "War on Competition." Competition will be outlawed. The transition from competition to cooperation won't be easy, won't be easy at all, so we will have competition-ender's courses set up. (group laughter) That will help those who don't think they have the will power to stop competing "cold turkey." (group laughter).

Number two, instead of Vice-President Quail's famous "Council on Competitiveness," Vice-President Gore will establish a "Council on Cooperativeness" to explore ways to circumvent government regulations so people can cooperate with each other to meet human needs.

Number three, some of you will like this one and some of you won't. (group laughter) No more Redskin [football] games. (group laughter -- some applause) People will no longer find entertaining the prospect of grown men beating each other's brains out for money. In fact, professional sports will die out. The money used to pay athletes will be channeled towards more socially productive goals. People will still watch athletic events like figure skating or gymnastics, but the athletes will not be graded or scored. We'd be watching for the pure enjoyment of it, like a play or concert.

Notion number four, the trend toward ever more violent movies will vanish since it will no longer be necessary for movie makers to produce films that compete with each other for box office receipts.

Number five, all elections in which there is a winner and a loser will be outlawed, (group laughter) recognizing the inherent worth of every individual. Our leaders will be chosen, not based on who runs the best campaign, but on who volunteers. Our own Ethical Society will lead the way by abolishing elections for the Board of Directors. (applause) W.E.S. will establish a "Council of Elders" whose job it will be to select the next board based on those members who volunteer, and everyone volunteering will be given a job to do.

Number six, grades in school will be done away with. Those who want higher education will be able to get it. Children will be praised for trying and for learning rather than for getting high test scores. In fact, tests will also be outlawed.

Notion number seven, businesses will no longer be permitted to undercut each other. Commodities will be sold at the cost of producing them. Since there will not be any profit, there will be no incentive for creating new markets for new and mostly unneeded goods. Our quality of life will improve because we will have more time to spend with our loved ones since we will not be preoccupied with keeping up or getting ahead.

Number eight, and this is my personal favorite, a new breed of politician will emerge, one who is not interested in winning or losing or soliciting contributions and one who is not preoccupied with smearing his (or her) opponent. Rather one who accepts an office to work together with others for the common good, to cooperatively solve the problems we face, one who emphasizes what we have in common and not what separates us. One who is not skilled in "sound bites" (Very brief statements that generally don't provide meaningful information about the candidate's grasp of the issues, but which sound good and are useful in the format of television news programs -- Editor) with the media but who is skilled in building consensus for solving problems.

Number nine, all jobs in our new society, including the very important (and difficult) job of being a parent, will be paid at exactly the same wage.

Notion number ten, diversity training will be mandatory so we can each appreciate how alike we all are despite physical and cultural differences. No longer will it be important for a country to achieve enormous wealth or amass territory at the expense of another. All boundaries -- city, state, national, and international -- will come tumbling down as people learn the benefits of cooperation and realize that geographic boundaries are simply barriers that produce isolation and competition.

Now, I recognize that the foregoing things are not going to be in place overnight. So what practical things can we do right now to make that transition towards a competition free society?

Well, here is a seven-point program that I have adopted for myself, and I want to see if any of it appeals to you.

Point one: I am going to secure my self-esteem other than by beating someone else. I am signing up for the W.E.S. course on "Unshakeable Self-Esteem," and I am going to learn more about ethical culture and the worth of every individual.

Point two: if by accident I find myself in a competitive game, I am not going to keep score. If it is obvious who wins, I will not make a fuss over the winner, and I will not console the losers.

Point three: when I find myself in a conflict, I resolve to persistently look for the common ground, to listen to and understand the other person's viewpoint. To freely admit when I am wrong or when I have acted inappropriately. To try and create a win-win solution to the problem. And, if all else fails, to bring in a mediator to help.

Point four: I will never compare my children's performance to that of someone else in order to motivate them to do better. I will not make my affection or approval contingent on my child's performance. I will be genuinely unconcerned about the results of competitions in which they are involved, including victories. If I am unconcerned, they will be unconcerned. I will not misuse the word "cooperate" as do some school teachers and police officers. To cooperate is not to be obedient and subservient. To cooperate is to work together towards a common goal we all can reach. I will teach my children about the severe damage wrought by competition. If there are school programs to deal with the abuse of drugs, why not do the same with competition? The evidence is clear enough and the stakes are certainly high enough.

Point five (and this could be the most difficult thing I ask of myself so I am going to ask it also of you, but I will also give you some help): stop making up contests. No contests. What does this mean? Don't try to make sales people outdo one another. Don't display the best homework assignment on the bulletin board. Don't challenge our children to see who can set the table fastest. Don't praise students for good grades or gold stars. And when talking about people, never use the words better or best. Every time we set up contests, we contribute to unnecessary and undesirable competitiveness.

Now as we leave here and re-enter the most competitive society we have ever known, we may need a reminder that contests need to be consciously avoided. I therefore invite you to take and wear a pin from baskets that will be circulated in a few minutes. (group laughter) The pin says, "No Contest." That is our slogan for the day.

Since our efforts to be cooperative will be frustrated by the structure of our competitive society, if we want to move in healthier directions we are going to have to change the fact of having to participate in contests.

So, point six is: we need to challenge some basic assumptions inherent in our economic and political system. Instead of taking competition for granted or as inevitable, we should ask what broader arrangements can be instituted to present us with a structure that does not require winners and losers. And again, the bibliography has a number of articles and books that have explored these broader arrangements in education, leisure time, politics, and conflict resolution.

Whenever I compete without thinking, I will know that I am doing so by force of habit. Since I was hurt around competition, instead of being able to think clearly at certain times, it will be like a tape recording playing in my brain forcing me, perhaps, to behave in irrational ways. A lot of emotions will come up as I try my best to choose not to compete.

So, point number seven is: I will maintain a good counseling relationship so I can deal with these emotional upsets as they come up, as they inevitably will.

Do not kid yourself. When you stop to think about it perhaps you will conclude, as I have, that competition is the root cause of many evils in our society. Teen-age gangs, police "on the take," homelessness, hunger, domestic violence, teen-alcoholism and suicide. You can almost run down the list.

We can try and visualize a competition-free society and that was fun, but the bottom line is that the future of our society as we know it may just depend on what steps we take now, you and I, towards ridding ourselves of the scourge of competition.

In a speech last spring, Hillary Clinton said, "Americans suffer from a sleeping sickness of the soul. The feeling," she said, "that we lack, at some core level, meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, the sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another." She concluded, "Let us be willing to re-mold society by redefining what it means to be a human being." To me, her remarks reflect a deep desire, a longing for cooperative endeavors among humans, for cooperative social interaction, for cooperative achievement and problem-solving. By definition, this would preclude competition as a way of being for humans.

In the end analysis, I believe that the only thing we have to compete with is competition itself.

Thanks.

Perry Saidman
(Talk Given at the Washington, DC Ethical Society, November 14, 1993)


Last modified: 2015-07-21 09:27:49-07