She appreciated his efforts to create a sense of community in a city where the desirability of competition went unquestioned.
Chapter 71, A Moment of Time*
Competition. How do you respond to the word? Do you envision a sporting event or a beauty pageant or a new business that threatens your livelihood? Do you shrink at the thought of having to compete, or do you put on your boxing gloves and prepare to conquer all opponents, confident that you will emerge victorious? What forces shaped your views about whether competition is healthy and desirable or detrimental to your peace of mind and to your relationships with others?
Everyone wants to be a winner. Winners are exceptional and successful. They’ve beaten the odds or excelled or persisted or been lucky. They are the most talented artists, the fastest runners, the richest, the smartest, the best; they are the champions. We may feel compassion for the less fortunate, but we don’t aspire to be like them, for they are missing out in some way.
Ah, but humans are complex beings, and even the superstars have faults, flaws, and weaknesses. Superman’s powers wane when he is in the presence of Kryptonite. The great Achilles had a vulnerable spot, and it was there, in his heel, that an arrow was able to penetrate.
Most of us prefer to play to our strengths and downplay our weaknesses. We may achieve great things in spite of a disability, (Winston Churchill, for example, became “a stirring and eloquent speaker” even though he stuttered)(1) but our natural gifts and attributes provide us with resources to draw upon, whether we are gifted with superior intelligence or physical strength. When we have developed the skills that we need to be able to achieve our goals, we proceed with confidence, prepared to meet the challenges that life, or our opponents, present us with.
At one time or other, most of us have had to compete—for attention from our parents, for recognition from our teachers, for a coveted job, for a scholarship, grant, or prize. At school, we may be required to participate in spelling bees (or moot court, in law school!); at family gatherings, we may be expected to participate in friendly games of basketball or football or tennis. We may choose to play sports or to enter our music, art, poetry—or pets—in contests that award prizes for “the best” entries in various categories. The outcome of some of these competitions will be one winner, many losers. Second place or an honorable mention may have value, but the glory, the prize, and the title goes to the person (or animal!) who gets the most votes, crosses the finish line first, or scores the most points.
Going for the Gold
“Oh, yes, I got a silver medal. But I didn’t get the gold.”
Our conceptions of winners and losers are somewhat relative. The Olympic silver medalist may consider herself a failure, as she failed to achieve her goal of winning a gold medal and being recognized as The Very Best in the Entire World. The wide-eyed girl watching from the stands who has hopes and dreams of her own thinks it’s fabulous that the athlete got to the Olympics at all. She knows about the athlete’s background—it’s similar to her own. The athlete had to overcome many obstacles just to be accepted onto the team, to be allowed to compete.
“Wow! You’ve come so far!” the girl tells her role model when she asks for an autograph. “I want to be just like you when I grow up!”
We think that winning will bring us something we crave, whether it’s respect, attention, or recognition. But does winning really make us happier? Here’s what Robin Williams had to say about winning an Oscar:
Nothing really changes. In Hollywood people are nice to you just in the first week after the ceremony. Then they are like, “Oh, you just won an Oscar, right?” Three weeks after the big party people are already thinking about next year’s Oscars. Life goes on. Winning an Oscar is an honor, but, between you and me, it does not make things easier.(2)
Similarly, winning the lottery may temporarily boost your happiness score, but many lottery winners report a return to pre-winning levels of life satisfaction within a few months.(3) Researchers have postulated that a certain income level is necessary for health and well being, but beyond that threshold, increases in wealth do not increase happiness levels.
How you spend your time and money, however, does matter, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor and author of The Myths of Happiness. Spending money on experiences that allow connection with others, that contribute to the community, or that lead to personal growth can increase happiness levels.(4)
Being a winner in one field or discipline does not ensure success in all our endeavors, and when the glory fades, our previous accomplishments no longer mark us as Someone Special. We may enter a new phase that requires new skills. We may find ourselves among people who don’t know about our reputation or care about our former status. They want to know how well we fit into their organization; they may value attributes we do not possess. What can we contribute? Will we promote the group’s program or will our ignorance and lack of experience be a hindrance?
Our beliefs about our value and the value of others affect the way we approach life, and our attitudes and behaviors influence the way others respond to us. If we define ourselves solely in terms of our achievements, then when the accolades stop, we lose our sense of worth. If we value others only in terms of what they can do for us, then they are mere objects and means to some desired end, whether they provide sexual gratification, networking opportunities, financial support, or a shoulder to cry on. When they can no longer be of service to us, we look for others who can.
By furthering our own agendas, we may accumulate magnificent possessions and impressive trophies but have no one with whom to share our good fortune and celebrate our victories. If our relationships are superficial and short-lived, we have no one to turn to in times of need. If we fail to cultivate meaningful relationships, we may feel isolated and lack support. We may get left out, overlooked—or excluded.
When we cultivate inner awareness and develop relationships that are based on enduring qualities, we can better survive challenging times. We have people in our lives who love us as we are, who share our vision or passion for a cause or lifestyle; people with whom we can build something of value.
Belonging to a group can confer benefits beyond social interaction. (See my earlier post about Community.) Because of our involvement, we may gain access to information, find clients or investors, learn about new products or tools or markets. With a variety of resources to draw upon, a group may be able to achieve more than any individual could by acting alone. By joining others who possess knowledge and skills that complement our own, our ventures may be more successful.
When our past role has been one of helping and supporting others and contributing to group projects (whether we contribute financially or by volunteering our time and expertise), then members of the group are more likely to support us when we need help. They may be more willing to make allowances when we need time to develop new skills and to forgive our mistakes when we practice new behaviors as we grow and change.
All One, All Win
When we embrace an inclusive view, we no longer think exclusively in terms of winners and losers. Instead of looking for ways to prove our superiority, to show we are stronger/smarter/wiser/richer/faster, we look for ways to share, participate, create, and contribute, and we invite others to join us. We create win-win situations. We cooperate.
Cooperation requires a willingness to consider the needs and abilities of others. For some people, the word may conjure up similar imagery as words like responsibility and service. If you want to focus solely on your own needs, desires, wants, and goals, then you may resent having to accommodate other people’s interests. You would much rather dictate How It’s Going to Be and have everyone follow your plan. Mediation to resolve a conflict would not interest you much; you’d prefer to hire a brash attorney to help you crush your adversary than to find a mutually satisfactory outcome.
Participation in processes like mediation and other cooperative (versus adversarial) ventures may not bring us every item that we desire or demand, but it yields other benefits that are, perhaps, less tangible or quantifiable and that enhance long-range outcomes. Contributing to a community may pay off in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance. But investment in the future only makes sense if you can envision a future and if you care about something beyond short-term gains and your own interests.
When you realize that the health of the whole affects the health of the individual, the need to sacrifice some of your own desires—and even some of your own legitimate needs—in favor of “the greater good” becomes more apparent.
Children pretend they are kings and queens and knights and princesses and other prominent figures. Some adults attempt to realize these dreams, imagining themselves as rulers of empires or even the whole world (or universe). These attempts are usually geared to attaining personal glory, wealth, fame—and power. But when these aims are purely selfish, dire outcomes often result for the nation or company or empire—and for the individual.
The benevolent leader is concerned about the welfare of all members of the group; the wise leader attempts to implement policies that will enable the group to prosper and thrive; the charismatic leader is able to generate support for his or her agenda.
Talented but ruthless individuals can sometimes achieve impressive results, but the leaders we admire and revere are those who institute reforms and develop programs that improve lives—whether that means building roads and bringing electricity or Internet services or medical care to impoverished areas or supporting measures that will lead to safer neighborhoods, a strong economy, and development of new industries, advances in technology and health care, or access to education and justice for all members of society.
Successful leaders are visionary and inspirational; some are outspoken, some are (or become) celebrities. Others quietly perform their duties and win supporters through their integrity and persistence. Whether they attained power through hereditary means or popular support, whether they are spiritual leaders or rock stars, these people use their influence to bring about changes that have a positive impact on the world.(5)
In compiling their 2015 list of fifty great leaders, the editors of Fortune magazine looked for qualities such as effectiveness, commitment, and “the courage to pioneer.”(6) Deciding that “it was not enough to be brilliant, admirable, or even supremely powerful,” they selected leaders with vision “who moved others to act as well, and who brought their followers with them on a shared quest.”(7)
Geoff Colvin, author of the article “Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders: 50 intrepid guides for a messy world,” notes that, while some elements of successful leadership are eternal, success today requires the ability to influence people without the use of money or force. Concluding that “no group achieves anything worthwhile without someone in charge,” Colvin recognizes that today’s leaders require skills that allow them to not only manage their own employees or address the needs of their constituencies, but also to work with people from outside their field or organization and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.(8)
In a world that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent, we all need to develop skills that allow us to interact effectively with people who look, think, act, and speak differently than us; we need to learn how to cooperate.
Who Goes There, Friend or Foe?
According to Chris Roth, editor of Communities magazine (published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community), members of cooperative groups tend to be “more trusting than suspicious, more open than self-protective, more likely to expect honesty, integrity, and efforts at harmony than deceit, betrayal of trust, and antagonistic actions.”(9)
The willingness to cooperate—the desire to work for peaceful solutions and find avenues that foster trust and community—does not mean that genuine threats and potential hazards are ignored; denying reality and hoping problems will simply go away has never been an effective or sensible approach. Predators, scammers, con artists and other deceitful (or cruel) individuals will take advantage of naive, trusting, and gullible individuals and groups if they are given the chance. Nonetheless, groups and organizations can develop procedures and methods for minimizing vulnerabilities; individuals can develop discernment and take reasonable precautions to enhance safety and security without being overly suspicious or living in fear. Buying into an us-them mentality only contributes to creating a polarized situation that can become entrenched as stereotypes and false beliefs take root.
We all make choices about who to trust. Will her check bounce? Will he be faithful? Are my employees honest? Are my children telling me the truth? Is this online business legitimate? These are valid questions, but at times, suspicions have been raised—or assumptions made—about individuals solely on the basis of race, religion, gender, or class. Long-standing feuds and animosities between families, tribes, or nations prevent amicable relationships from forming, and sometimes rivalries, prejudices, and stereotypes are codified into laws or adopted as social mores and taboos designed to ensure separation.
Laws may prohibit racial intermarriage; customs may ensure that women will be faithful to their husbands—because they have no rights and no alternatives. The consequences of violating rigid conventions may be harsh; a few individuals will risk the punishment in order to challenge the restrictions, but widespread change will not occur until large numbers of people are ready for it—and demand it. Visionary leaders may push for change, but conservative policymakers will not respond until a change in consciousness prevails and ushers in a wave of reform.
In a society that adopts a clearly defined class structure, suitable marriages may be arranged and segregationist policies enforced. Whether the division is between Gentiles and Jews, Brahmins and untouchables, or blacks and whites, a strong identification with “your own kind” means that everyone else falls outside of those clearly defined boundaries. If we are of the same race/ethnicity/culture/family/tribe/nation, then we belong together. If you speak/talk/look/act differently from me/us, then you are an outsider. You don’t deserve the same privileges and benefits; you haven’t earned our respect/trust/business/support. If I think you are less than human, I can treat you as an object. I can despise you, exploit you, cheat you, rape you, or kill you.
Forging a Path
Objectification of others is not limited to enemies; for those who hold a limited world view, spouses, children, friends, and employees can all be considered property. In contrast, when you respect the sanctity of another person’s privacy, individuality, independence, and freedom, you may not like their choices, but you do not attempt to interfere with their liberty.
Increasingly, we are called upon to expand our definitions and boundaries to include ever-widening circles of associates. We take down walls—literally (e.g., the Berlin Wall) and symbolically, facilitating the free flow of commerce and ideas. We allow previously marginalized groups to participate more fully in society. We eliminate barriers such as segregation; we design buildings so they are accessible to people in wheelchairs. We grant rights of citizenship to the foreign-born; we allow women to vote and own property; we recognize same-sex unions.
As our consciousness expands, we may come to see that individuals are never completely separate from the community—the global community. You can lock a person in solitary confinement; you can go live in a cave—but we are all connected in ways that cannot be completely understood on an intellectual level.
As J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD, observed:
[U]nder conditions of productive collaboration, an emergent “collective mind” can congeal in a group, of which any individual member is not aware but which enables higher-order problem-solving. And at the beginning of the last century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Russian philosopher Vladimir Vernadsky both posited that human cognition is guiding further evolution toward a so-called noosphere, a united consciousness with growing self-awareness (even as human individuality and uniqueness are preserved).(10)
Finding a Balance
Competition prevents us from getting lazy and lackadaisical. A worthy opponent keeps us sharp and gives us opportunities to practice and maybe even enhance our skills. Team sports and activities can help us develop skills and learn to work together. We can discover our strengths and excel in a given task or role, thereby strengthening the unit as a whole.
But competition can bring out the worst of human behavior. It often becomes associated with numbers, statistics, and keeping score. Grades, sales figures, polls and ranks are indicators of performance and how we stack up against “the competition.”
Measuring our performance gives us goals to strive for, whether we are competing with ourselves or others, but doing must be balanced by being. We must learn to love, appreciate, and value ourselves—and others—for who we are and not just for what we do, or we become stuck on a treadmill of constantly having to perform, entertain, please, and prove ourselves and our worth. And even for the best of us, that kind of pressure becomes exhausting.
When winning is everything, we lose perspective. We may make poor choices, and other responsibilities and interests may be neglected as we strive for perfection or success at all costs. Then, we end up losing, undone by our own machinations. (Just ask Lance Armstrong.)
Give and Take
We’re not always in a position to cooperate; we’re not always willing to compromise. But a cooperative spirit goes a long way toward strengthening relationships of all kinds. Bridges give us something to cross over so we can connect with others; walls keep people out and give us something to bang into.
As the world’s population expands and burdens are placed upon infrastructure, institutions, and resources, competition is likely to increase. When operating budgets are cut, restrictions are imposed. Difficult choices must be made. When a whole region is experiencing drought, should wealthy residents be permitted to use large quantities of water to maintain a nice green lawn simply because they can afford exorbitant costs or does the welfare of the whole, and ensuring access to basic needs by all residents, take precedence? Who gets to decide? When the rich are also the powerful, who will safeguard the rights of the rest of the population?
In times of scarcity—drought, famine, recession—people become desperate; they don’t have the luxury of high-minded philosophical principles. They need to eat; they need to live.
In times of abundance, we can afford to be generous. We can share our good fortune, donate part of our surplus. If you are out of work, money may be scarce, but time may be plentiful. You may have more gifts to share than you realize, for not all gifts come in pretty packages, and not all needs are for material goods. Look for ways to participate that are enlivening and generative. Enthusiasm is contagious!
The Forest and the Trees
A fundamental shift in perspective occurs when you realize that what benefits the whole benefits you too. Sure, you can sell off all your trees and pocket the profit, but when everyone does that the effect on the environment is dramatic—and devastating. (As Ulm notes: “Clear-cutting an ancient forest (for development or timber-harvesting) would be rewarded in an ‘efficient market’ for yielding quick profits, while ignoring less-quantifiable damages (to the local ecology, or to new medicinal sources) that would far outweigh the initial gains.”)(11) But when the environment is degraded, we all suffer.(12) (As Pope Francis recently stated, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.”)(13)
When we see only as far as our own backyards, it’s easy to lose sight of the effect our actions (and inactions) have on the global village. When we feel powerless and insignificant, we don’t believe our individual choices matter. When a “business-as-usual” attitude prevails, we learn to rationalize selfish and short-sighted behavior. We think adopting an aggressive strategy is the smart thing to do—it’s what everyone else is doing, and we have to compete to stay afloat, right? When we compartmentalize our lives, separating interests into “personal” and “professional,” we may preach cooperation at home and yet engage in destructive practices at the office.
When we take a broader view and see beyond our special interests, we act as stewards and caretakers; we seek to nurture and protect rather than conquer and destroy. We carry our values into all parts of our lives. We vote with dollars as well as with ballots; we invest in companies that engage in sustainable practices, and we purchase their products. We support local farmers and businesses. We forego opportunities to flourish by means that require oppression or exploitation and refrain from actions that produce minor gains for us and major problems for others. We redefine success and form coalitions and networks that invite participation and create bonds. We plan for the future—because we plan to be a part of it.
At work, we implement policies that show our employees that we value their contributions to our endeavors. By building a solid reputation or quality product, by providing services that enhance lives, by paying a living wage, we demonstrate that we are running a business and not running a race.
The failure to incorporate a long-range plan or vision into our practices—whether we are running a company or a nation—produces a free-for-all marketplace where the loudest, the largest, and the strongest often dominate, and the wisest and sanest voice is never even heard. As Ulm notes, “Without prudent regulatory bodies or forward-thinking social policies, companies face demands to ‘win’ immediate approval at the expense of a region or industry’s long-term sustainability.”(14)
When we park our values in the lot outside the building, we are more likely to succumb to pressures (real and perceived) to produce results “yesterday.” We believe we must buy/sell/expand/reduce/acquire—or, worse, lie, cheat, and steal our way to “the top.”
Progress or Perish
If we are to continue to enjoy the advantages of the civilizations we have created, humans must join together to find solutions that contribute to our collective welfare, that make our global village a safe, healthy, and enjoyable place to live. Progress can no longer be defined solely in terms of expansion and profit. Bigger is not always better. The limits of a competitive atmosphere must be recognized, and opportunities for cooperation and joint ventures sought and embraced. As Ulm puts it: “At each emergent leap, ruthless dog-eat-dog behavior—even if it carries some advantage at simpler levels—increasingly poisons the more complex levels of organization.”(15)
Each person’s presence on the planet has an effect; it’s up to each of us to determine whether that effect will be beneficial or detrimental. The way we live our lives, the choices we make, the way we treat people and other living things all reflect our values and our beliefs. We can all be winners at something; it all depends upon the way we define our terms. The results of our actions, however, are not open to debate: the environment doesn’t ask about our intentions when a species disappears; global warming will melt the polar ice caps whether or not we “believe” it’s happening or are concerned about the consequences.
Winning is nice. It can be rewarding, affirming, and satisfying. In some cases, it can change our lives for the better. But it’s not enough. Whether we are collecting money (“winnings”) or trophies or medals, our collections won’t bring us peace of mind. When our stay at the top of the heap is over, we find ourselves back in the company of the other ninety-nine percent of humanity. And in that moment, we have an opportunity: instead of stepping on our neighbor’s toes as we scramble to climb the ladder to “success,” we might instead look into our neighbor’s eyes and start a dialogue. We might instead look around our present circumstances—whatever they may be—and ask, “Who wants to join me in a friendly game of cooperation?”
*The city Caitlin Rose is referring to in this quote from A Moment of Time is Washington, D.C.; Caitlin is an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice when the story begins.
Find A Moment of Time at your favorite online retailer or independent bookstore.
(1) The Stuttering Foundation.
http://www.stutteringhelp.org/famous-people/winston-churchill (Accessed September 21, 2015)
(2) Anderson Antunes, “‘Don’t Tell Me Jokes.’ Robin Williams’ Revealing 1998 Interview,” Forbes (August 12, 2014)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(3) See, e.g., Susan Adams, “Why Winning Powerball Won’t Make You Happy,” Forbes (November 28, 2012)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
“Can winning the lottery buy happiness? Far from a sure bet, history shows,” NBC News (April 18, 2012)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(4) Rachel Pomerance Berl, “How Money Affects Happiness,” US News & World Report (December 19, 2013)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(5) See, e.g.,“The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders (2014),” Fortune (March 20, 2014)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(6) Geoff Colvin, “Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders: 50 intrepid guides for a messy world” (March 26, 2015)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(9) Chris Roth, “It’s the Law,” Fellowship for Intentional Community Blog (August 25, 2015)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(10) J. Wes Ulm, “Cachet of the Cutthroat,” Democracy (Issue #16, Spring 2010)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(12) See, e.g., James Hamblin, “The Health Benefits of Trees,” The Atlantic Monthly (July 29, 2014) (“the more trees are in an area, the more pollution those trees remove”)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(13) “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home” (May 24, 2015)
(Accessed September 21, 2015)
(14) J. Wes Ulm, “Cachet of the Cutthroat,” Democracy (Issue #16, Spring 2010)
(15) Ibid. (“[T]he clear implication of recent work is that the process of evolution itself is nonlinear and evolving, with inflection points as one advances from individuals in a species, to small groups and communities, all the way up to cities and nations.”)