Competition in games and work

In the west, we are raised from a very early age to be competitive. We are graded and stack ranked in the classroom, either by teachers or by standardized “normed” tests. We are taught by adults to play games where only one person (or team) wins, and the others must lose. By the time we are adults, we’ve learned to take joy in defeating others.

The popular sports we see on TV are competitive. Football, baseball, tennis, golf, these are all set up so that success is artificially scarce. Competition surrounds us. And yet, not all sports are competitive. One reason skateboarding is so popular is because it is a cooperative sport: when you’re at the skatepark, everyone is rooting for you to succeed! Sure there are the big televised competitions, but that’s not the spirit of the sport, as you’ll find if you ask anyone who actually does it (including Tony Hawk).

Many people have become so used to seeing competition that they feel as though it is necessary in order to achieve greatness. But that’s crazy if you think about it. Consider how many goals would be scored if hockey teams decided to cooperate in a game instead of compete!

Competition in games is an artificial pitting of one person (or team) against another. A healthy way to look at it is that your opposition offers a resistance for you to push against. Arm wrestling is an obvious example of this, but chess is another example, where you and your opponent explore the game together. Few great chess players would be truly happy after investing an hour in a game only to have their opponent make a truly sloppy move that allows an easy win. Much of the joy of chess is in the exploration of the strategy and tactics. Your opponent cooperates in your study of the game when she plays the best move she can find!

Many people don’t ever discover this healthy viewpoint and victory becomes the end goal. They aren’t happy unless they are triumphing over someone else.

In the west, it’s common to find competition in the workplace. Sales people compete for incentive pay and often prizes. People compete to climb the corporate ladder. Employees compete for “employee of the month” awards. All of this leads me to ask the question, why do we need to introduce artificial opposition, or resistance, in the workplace? Aren’t there already enough hurdles in the way of a business being successful? Why add more?

At a recent conference emphasizing cooperation over competition, I overheard a salesman complain to his colleagues when challenged to consider a salary as opposed to a commission, “what, are we just supposed to stop keeping score?” Winning can easily become an obsession, especially for people with low self-worth.

When you’re not focused on victory over other people, you can use all of your energy to lean in to whatever project you’re working on. Winning is an end – when you’re not focused on winning you tend to enjoy the journey more, and thus live a happier life. Excellence is orthogonal to competition – it can exist with or without it.

For further reading: No Contest, by Alfie Kohn

2 thoughts on “Competition in games and work

  1. Well said, Keith. I am particularly dismayed by the trend of reality shows that base their premise around getting rid of the most unpopular person each week, until there can only be one “victor” in the Most Popular Person Ever Contest. I would love to live in an atmosphere where each person’s contributions are seen as valuable in their own right.

    Likewise, I would like this country to embrace a school system that is not based on rewarding only the students with the highest numbers on a meaningless exam with very narrow measures.


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