It’s around 10pm on a Tuesday night and I’m out roller blading in northern Manhattan. I’m climbing up a hill and my friend is about 200 feet in front of me. Thinking to myself, “I can beat him to the top of the hill”, I pump my legs harder and accelerate up the hill. I reach to where my friend is and continue pushing it. But I’m unable to take up the lead – we remain side by side. Ten seconds pass and we both start laughing. He’s pushing his legs to maintain my pace. And I bet his legs are burning and aching as much as mine are. As we reach the top (I won’t say who got there first), our legs are on fire and we’re gasping for air. But we both have big smiles on our faces…
We live in a competitive world. In order to be successful or survive, we must be able to compete well against others. We’ve been told stuff like this our whole lives and it makes me hate the idea of competition. Yet I thoroughly enjoy being a a competitive person. Is this a paradox? I think not. Competition has the potential to bring out the best in us or the worst in us.
Is there something inherently good or bad about wanting to be better than everyone else? I believe it can go either way. Consider this parable: There is a line drawn on a piece on paper. How would you make it shorter? The obvious answer is to cut the line, to erase part of it. A more interesting answer is to draw another line next to it – one that is longer. So does your being better than another result from some loss to them? Or a gain in your part? Or both? I feel any instance where there is a loss represents the dark side of competition. Unfortunately, this common in many settings. For example, the only way to be promoted or keep your job at some workplaces is to break down others. It’s really a waste of human productivity yet a game some of us are forced to play.
There’s much to like when the game entails no loss. If one person is inspired to be better at something to pass the level of another person, that’s great. Even better is when that other person reciprocates. It can be a virtuous cycle of betterment. This is precisely the case in the skating story above. My friend and I are stronger skaters because we constantly push each other. I’ve experienced the same in indoor rock climbing, where my friends and I challenge each other to increasingly difficult climbs – by first doing it ourselves! The same healthy competition can do wonders in workplaces and allow people to do amazing work. Taken a few magnitudes larger, companies can “compete” to out-innovate each other. Everyone wins.
So let’s let competition inspire – it makes us all better. And not let competition conspire – it’s bad news for everyone, even the “winners”.