The Shadow of Competition

Last Saturday I attended my first live college football game in 38 years. I used to attend them when I was president of the Faculty Senate because I got free tickets in the president’s box and was expected to go.  But this time it was different.  Clemson University, where I taught for fifty years, and has long been a football powerhouse but not so much this year. They played my alma mater, the University of Connecticut, which never was nor will be a powerhouse.  UConn came in with a 1-8 record and left with a 1-9.  But it was fun. 

This football game reminded me of my love-hate relationship with competition. Football is the ultimate team sport, each member with a defined role to play. With few exceptions, the athletes handle competition much better than the fans.  The athletes compete to do their best.  The fans just want their team to win, their only required effort being their presence, their purchase of tickets, and their yelling and screaming. Me? I wore a UConn sweatshirt and cap and sang the Clemson alma mater (which I knew by heart from attending many graduations) and cheered for both teams. For me, it just was live theater.

Competition is, of course, at the heart of market economics as an incentive to do better. Produce a better product, listen to your customers, take good care of your employees, and above all, make a profit for your shareholders. The shadow over competition is failure, of being second-best, or worse yet, a loser.  In order for some people to have success, acclaim, fame and wealth, we need some others to be losers. Losers do learn from their failures, but in football there is only one winner in a game and only one national champion, and UConn had already learned the lessons and replaced its coach–and lost another game. For the Clemson University students and administration, every win, even over UConn, carries extrinsic rewards.  Every win matters, and an occasional national championship (two in the last few years for Clemson) spurs a spike in applications for admission and a lot of money for the University.

Robert Frank and Philip Cook wrote a book, The Winner Take All Society, about the very low ratio of winners to losers in our market system. There is only one Miss America and a lot of runner ups, only one national champion in every sport, only one best actor, best picture, best actress, only one best party school in America (that isn’t either Clemson or UConn).  In my homeowner’s association, there is even only one yard of the month, apparently to encourage competition among residents for having the loveliest lawn.

Don’t get me wrong. Competition has a role to play.  But a good athlete, actor/actress, cook, professor, CEO is not solely motivated by competition and not a failure at being #3. Or 10. Or not having a number at all. People are also motivated  to excel at what they are good at and find satisfying,  not just a bunch of blue ribbons and trophies.

The team part of competition is good.  The chance to develop and use one’s skills as part of a group effort can build character, responsibility, appreciation of the contributions of others, camaraderie, and a sense of community.  The rankings, the score, the blue ribbon can actually distract from those good outcomes.  In the study of motivation within the discipline of ethics, there has been much written about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards include money, recognition, power, fame, and being number one for your fifteen minutes of fame.  But depending on extrinsic motives tend to displace the more valuable and lasting rewards of a job well done, a skill well mastered, or making a difference in the lives of others.  For a university, success in football can both enhance and detract from its core missions, which is equip its students with the skills, experiences, knowledge and wisdom that will see them into successful adulthood.  Learning to be a good team player is one of those skills. Finding your gifts and passions and shaping them into a vocation is another. Neither of these is measured by the morning after quarterbacking that rank teams, coaches, and players at individual positions like wide receiver or quarterback on a weekly basis. Or for that matter, rank in class, a criterion for admission and an honor bestowed on those who graduate as valedictorian.

We all need to be the best we can be.  A little competition can help, but too much can stifle the developing  young people from discovering, honing and practicing their particular skill and passion and misleading them into focusing on extrinsic rewards.

No applause, thanks. I write for the sheer joy of writing and the hope that it will be meaningful to my readers.  I do not aspire to be the number one blogger, just one with a unique point of view.  May you too find your niche, your passion, your gifts, and practice them for the joy of being and doing, and hang the applause.

Accentuate the Positive

I was recently reading a book on environmental justice, and I was struck by an observation about motivating people.  The writer argued that we should not use guilt or fear to motivate people to be more environmentally responsible, but rather gratitude and love for the Earth our Mother.  That feeling of doing a good deal by recycling, or gardening organically, or driving less and owning a more fuel-efficient and less polluting car is a great reward.

That idea of positive motivation has a lot of implications for how we encourage people to develop good habits, habits that are good for them and for others as well. Yet how rich in our world are the negative commands.  Starting with the Ten Commandments, eight of which are Thou shalt not.  The only two positive commands are to keep the sabbath and honor your father and mother.

A bias toward negative commands and negative motivations—fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of punishment—is pervasive in our highly competitive society, which creates a few winners and a lot of losers. In their book, The Winner Take All Society, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that many of the rewards in our society go to Number 1, whether it is a football championship, the Best picture Oscar, the spelling bee championship, the job at a prestigious law firm, a presidential election, or the prom king and queen.  Everyone else is an also-ran.  Being good enough is not good enough. “Loser” is one of President Trump’s favorite  tweet insults.

Some of the well-intentioned efforts to counter this set up for disappointment and build self-esteem, especially in young people, have gone awry.  Participation trophies. Blue ribbons and smiley faces for every pupil. The gross overuse of the term “awesome.”  how we can encourage people in a positive way that will make them feel successful and being who they are and doing what they do?

Collaboration and cooperation is one strategy.  There are lots of co-operative games out there, and lots of ways in engaging in activities that are not competitive.  Teamwork doesn’t have winners (unless, of course, it is team sports where there is a champion!). Both in paid work and in volunteer communities, there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating in collaborating with others, learning new ideas and building new friendships. We celebrate the solitary writer or artist, the lone genius in her lab, but in reality, some of the best work arises from the synergy of learning from one another.  I remember one time when I led the process of writing a mission statement for my congregation.  It was highly participatory. I could identify 55 people (in a 120 member congregation) who had a hand in its construction, and no, it didn’t look like the proverbial camel (a horse designed by a committee).

A second strategy is to let go of attachments to rewards and do what you do for its own sake, for the pleasure of doing, alone or with others. You can run a marathon to win, or just to improve your time or to enjoy the experience.  You can be an excellent cook whose efforts are appreciated without winning the prize at the county fair or being the best contestant on a cooking show. You can be a good writer and be appreciated by your audience without making the New York Times Best Seller list or winning a Pulitzer prize.  There is room for more than one.  And competing with yourself to do better at whatever you are doing means you are always a winner.

Or, like the writer on environmental justice, you can do what you do as a worker, a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a volunteer, a citizen our of gratitude for the riches that life has bestowed on you.  It’s your choice.  For your sake, and everyone else’s, I hope you choose that path and practice it without attachment to rewards and when possible, in collaboration with others.