On Competition

6 Aug

I’m writing about this subject because recently I was given a piece of (unasked-for) advice from a very wise person. I was told that I should give up competition.”

The advice shocked me. I don’t think of myself as particularly competitive. But the advice was given so powerfully that I had to at least consider it. Yes, I try to do my best at what I do, I thought, but I’m not really particularly

When I got just that far in my mind, it came to me with genuine surprise that I’ve been competitive for as long as I can remember. My siblings were older, but I not only wanted to do everything they did, I wanted to do it better. At school I didn’t just want to get good grades as demanded by my parents. I wanted to be first in my class. As an adult I’ve defended competitiveness as a good, even necessary motivator of real effort even though in some cases, when I thought I might not be able to win I would just refuse to participate at all. Sometimes, especially among friends, I was competitive only in my head, so they wouldn’t suspect. All right, yes. Guilty as charged.

We live in a culture that supports, encourages, even demands competition. Schools give grades, create honor rolls, name valedictorians. There are spelling bees and math contests and History Day competitions. To say nothing of sports. I’ve been just as caught up in the pattern as anyone.

A few years back a family member managed to get me hooked on “America’s Got Talent,” and it stuck. I now record every episode (so as to fast-forward, because I hate commercials). As I write this post, the 2019 show is in the “Judge Cuts” part, where each week 18 acts have to be winnowed down to 7. Eleven acts get eliminated by the judges out of sight of the cameras. The remaining 7 go on to the “live show” at the end where they compete with each other for votes from the viewing audience.

This show is ALL about competition! Only one act can win, can be awarded a million dollars and a “headline show in Las Vegas.” First it is the judges who decide, but in the end, after the live show, it’s a matter of who gets the most votes from the viewing public.

Our world is full of such things—one person wins the major tennis matches, one team wins the World Cup or the World Series, or the Super Bowl. One jockey—on one horse—wins the Kentucky Derby. One person in each category wins an Academy Award, one children’s writer the Newbery. They’re seen for the moment at least, as “the best” in their field or sport. There may be runners up, the winners of the lesser version of the award—Olympic silver or bronze medal, Newbery Honor [this is the one I got]. But among truly competitive types, runner up can be felt like a kind of failure. [Just to let you know, I had that feeling only briefly!] But in America’s Got Talent there is no runner up.

And here’s the very big catch in the show’s structure. There is no way the various acts should be competing with each other at all, because who could possibly say whether a magician, a singer, a dancer, a “danger” act, a choir or group of adorable kids from an impoverished country who have managed to come together for an amazing act of some kind, is the best act of the season. The competition is between the proverbial apples and oranges.

One could say that no matter how engaging, the show is actually a competitive farce. Many of the competitors are completely brilliant at what they do, and they’ve worked very, very hard to be the best they can be. The back-story of each act is told in some cases to get the viewing audience emotionally involved with a particular person or act, because it’s a popularity contest. One reason the show is so enticing is that there is almost no way to predict which act will prove most popular, or for what reason. One of them will certainly get the enormous ‘award,’ but everyone else no matter how talented, how hard-working, how determined, and how accomplished will be a “loser,” (except, of course, for the publicity value of having been on the show.)

How does this relate to the gifted? In recent years a group of educators and theorists who think of themselves as gifted specialists have made the claim that the goal of gifted education should be to create “eminence.” That feels very like suggesting that the goal of anyone supporting or coaching a talent act should be not merely helping the performers develop their talent, but creating the AGT winner. Becoming “eminent” in any given field is in significant ways like winning AGT. It depends on many factors that cannot be guaranteed by excellence alone. Indeed, the effort and determination to be “the best,” can also lead a person down any of a variety of highly questionable paths. One has only to check on the number of retracted scientific journal articles to see the pitfalls of intellectual competition.

What life lessons might be involved in assessing one’s inner level of competitiveness? It can help us see how we feel about ourselves and others, how we choose friends, make critical life choices, how we feel about our accomplishments or lack thereof. And also how we judge—or treat—other people.

It is enormously difficult not to be competitive in our culture. But once we start thinking about it there are great benefits from trying to walk away from competition. It allows us to see ourselves, our friends, family, coworkers and even enemies as individuals who are, like the acts in AGT, unique. When we take competition out of the mix, it can help us stay balanced and begin to see more clearly what each individual may have to offer. Sometimes a “winner” is just that—a person who happened at one particular moment, to win—perhaps but not necessarily, a better, more worthy, or more admirable person. And it can be wonderfully freeing to judge our own intentions and efforts instead of solely our accomplishments.

No matter how old you are, or how young, there has never been another you in the world and there never will be. You are the one and only you, now or ever. So there really is no competition, except with yourself. Once you let go of the idea that someone could beat you at being you, you become free to decide for yourself how best to go about being who you want to be. You will almost certainly disappoint yourself sometimes, as we all do, but you can then choose a way to move on from that. Because nobody else can get there at all!

It comes down to the quotation that I have used for years at the end of nearly every speech I give—a quotation I’ve been seeing in a new light ever since that wise being told me—talking directly to me, specifically—to “give up competition.”

Here’s the quote: You are not accidental. Existence needs you. Without you something will be missing in existence and nobody can replace it.

Our culture doesn’t support that idea very well, but for yourself and for your kids, for all of us, it could be the key to the greatest reward of all—a truly authentic, and meaningful life.

 

One Response to “On Competition”

  1. Stef August 6, 2019 at 8:23 pm #

    I forgot to identify the source of that quote: Osho, a Zen Master

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