Competition Makes the World Go ’round

Before we get into competition, since it’s already been well ingrained that competition is good for us. It’s commonly accepted that competition motivates people to strive to do better. That competition gives us better products and services as businesses in the free market try to outdo each other for our dollars. It’s so intuitive. But to preface the discussion, the factors that make competition competitive need to be understood. There are the vast differences between us. We have different talents and difference degrees of talent. The range of human abilities is wide and deep. So, the ranges need examination.

First on the list is a physical trait : height. Tallest man on record was Robert Wadlow, 2.72 m. The shortest was Gul Mohammed, 0.57 m. That’s a ratio of 4.77 : 1. Of course, this is including people with abnormalities, dwarfism and gigantism. The generally accepted global normal distribution range is 1.2 to 2.1 meters, a ratio of 1.75 : 1.

Fastest sprint speed, set by Michael Johnson, was 200 meters in 19.32 seconds. That’s 10.35 m/s, or 23.15 mph. Usain Bolt hit a top speed of 12.27 m/s, or 27.44 mph. Average adult male can run a short distance at about 6.7 m/s or 15 mph. Ratio of fastest to average 1.83 : 1. The fastest man in the world is less than twice as fast as the average.

Highly contested IQ scores may be considered a wildcard for measuring human differences. There are many variables, different tests, procedures, etc., but taking most of the variables into consideration, the highest adult IQs on record have not exceeded 198—average is 100—just barely a 2 : 1 ratio.

Talent and creativity are even harder to measure, probably impossible. According to J.P. Guilford’s studies, IQ and creativity do not correlate—the smartest are usually not the most creative. He found that convergent thinking, getting the right answer, does not necessarily help with divergent thinking, finding a new or alternate answer. However, testing for creativity and measuring it is notoriously slippery. It’s a given that some people seem to be more open and flexible with their thinking processes. This ability appears to vary greatly, but everyone is creative.* Some exercise their creativity more, some show it more, some develop it more. Still, I’d be hard pressed to say even the most creative person is greater than two or three times more creative than average.

In any category I can think of, the variation from person to person is rarely, if ever, in a range greater than a multiple of two or three, since most fall within one standard of deviation. Allowing for four standard deviations covers 99.994% of the population. Even the most extreme outliers exhibit a range of less than five times (as in the shortest to tallest). Olympic gold medalists often win by fractions of a second. A change of any one little variable, any minor twist of fate, a small gust of wind, and today’s winner of the gold could end up not even getting a bronze tomorrow. Yet, despite the micro deviations between first place and third, or for that matter, even last, all the attention, endorsements, and lucrative contracts go to the one and only gold medal winner. Hmm. . .

It’s impossible not to wonder how such small, incremental variations get magnified into night & day, all or nothing differences, as if one person were a hundred times, or a thousand times, or nearly infinitely better than another. It’s undoubtable that we are all different, with varying talents, knowledge, capabilities, motivations, desires, but to value one person hundreds of time more than another is extremely exaggerated.

Further consider that one’s talents and accomplishments are subject to a myriad of constraints that no one has any control over—genetics, environment, education, opportunities, providence. No matter how hard one works, there’s no escaping your genes or life circumstances. Your smart choices are less a matter of being smart, than of having better choices offered to you.

No matter how one is measured, everyone has the same absolute limits—the need for food, water, oxogen, clothing, shelter, rest. We’re all bounded by the same twenty-four hours a day and 11.2 km/s escape velocity from earth. A person can work only so hard, know only so much, accomplish only a limited amount. And there are trade-offs. It’s well established that working long hours greatly reduces one’s efficacy and efficiency. The more time and energy one puts into one talent also leaves other areas undeveloped. The more one knows about X, the less one knows about Y, and Z, and A, B, C. This leaves us dependent on others to fill-in the blanks. Not a single person I know is one hundred percent self sufficient; most are closer to near zero. Everyone relies on others for getting through most of their most necessary daily needs. Do you pump your own water? Grow all your own food. Did you build your house with your own hands? Do you spin your own thread, weave your own fabric? Imagine if you had to do everything for your survival. Little time would be left for anything but basic needs. Then imagine how much you’ve learned from others. Imagine if you had to relearn everything on your own.

Given our dependence on others, and the inescapable dependence on happenstance, imagine if you couldn’t trust the water coming out of your pipes, the food in the stores, the drivers on the road. Imagine if all those “menial” workers who clean up, cook and serve food, repair and maintain durables said, “No, do it yourself.” Imagine if you didn’t have enough time to do your really important work. Imagine if you couldn’t trust your friends, neighbors, coworkers. Imagine if everyone lied all the time. Imagine. . .

And this leads us to competition. You see it in the interaction of young children with their siblings. It appears a natural part of being human. You have probably observed it in your pets. You’ve seen it on nature programs. For animals, it’s part of their survival skills. For children, it’s, uh, uhm, it’s different, perhaps jealousy, certainly not survival. Still, children are taught to be competitive at home and at school. At work competitiveness is encouraged even among workers in the same company. It drives people to reach higher, strive for more, to better the competition. It pushes children and adults to be all they can be.

Competition makes winning the goal. Winning feels good; losing feels bad. There’s only one winner; the rest are losers. Winners get rewarded for their effort. Losers get nothing. Which do you want to be?

There’s more to competition than winning. There’s money. Money, we all know, is another great motivator. (There are studies that prove the contrary.) Money makes us feel good. It gives us security. It makes us feel superior, much like winning. It is winning. And like Olympic medals, only a few get the gold. The rest are losers.

Competition is a great motivator; simultaneously, it’s a great demoralizer. Losing feels bad, so naturally, people avoid situations that cause pain. But still, we need that competitive motivation to build moral fortitude. The bigger lesson is, don’t be a sore loser. Less often taught is, don’t be a smug winner. Winning and losing set up feedback loops, positive for the winners, negative for the losers. At closer inspection, a darker side of competition creeps over the horizon. Dividing the world into winners and losers, absolutes with no shades of gray, doesn’t correspond to nature’s bell curve. This dichotomy may explain the noted exaggeration of variation and value. But, how could we survive without competition?

Winning and money are motivators for their own sake. From that point of view, they are corrupt motivators. There are examples of this everywhere, everyday. Too many put the goal of winning (Armstrong, Rodrigues, McGwire), or money (Koch, Walton, Adelson) as the goal, and consequently any means to that goal supersede actually being better, or doing better, or making better. It’s all about, “How much can I get out of this world?” rather than, “How can I make this world a better place for me to live?” For every example of competition being a positive motivator, there are countless more examples of it being the motivator behind avarice, deception, inequity, and domination.

The Olympics, professional sports, TV reality shows, Wall Street investment bankers, . . . “We like to imagine that we are watching the triumph of the human spirit when in fact we are highly likely to be watching the ingenuity of the criminal mind.” —from A Bigger Prize, Margaret Heffernan.

And that brings us to a book on its opposite : Cooperation. Margaret Heffernan spends a good deal of time on the pitfalls of competition, noting in detail with mountains of supporting research the same problems I’ve outlined above, but her overarching message is that cooperation produces far greater rewards for everyone, the more and the less talented alike, for the individual and society. That our individual differences blend into subtle shades of gray when people work together cooperatively. That even the lower parts of the bell curve have something to offer, and come up with brilliant ideas that never even cross the minds of the highly celebrated. That if humanity is going to solve its biggest challenges, cooperation is the most efficient means for finding the solutions, or the only means.

The questions are : How does a competition embedded society overcome its self-defeating prejudices to realize its actual potential? How does a global media industry grounded on competition and controversy, clear its zero-sum-game-head to promote and support real progress? How can commerce come to the realization that bending to social concerns is more beneficial than beating down the competition? How can humans understand what it means to be truly selfish?** How can the educational and political systems of the world overturn centuries of competitive conflict to create a global society capable of cooperation within and between nations and the ecosystem?

It almost appears impossible.

The contrasts between competition and cooperation become stark as Heffernan examines the lives of both those caught in the cycle of escalating competition and those who have found a way to exit the hamster’s running wheel—night & day stark. It may be, without ever trying, the most optimistic book I’ve read in decades. Then, perhaps, I shouldn’t use the word optimistic, because realistic, down to earth examples are presented that make the spinning wheel look stupid easy to escape.

Example : Finland’s school system. No standardized testing (until 18), no grades, no standard curriculum, teacher autonomy, student centered, learning centered, and parents who voluntarily, gladly send their kids to public school. It’s truly a “no child left behind” oriented system. Finland’s last chief school inspector, who’s job was eliminated in the 1990s, says, “We [Finns] can make a competition out of anything—for fun. But we just don’t think it’s the way to inspire a love of learning. We focus on equality and cooperation instead of choice and competition. What does high-stakes testing do? It narrows the way that children think, so it discourages risk-taking. It makes kids frightened. That’s not good thinking—and it’s boring.” The Finnish results? High quality public schools; among the highest student rankings in the world; the lowest gap between high- and low-achievers in the world; happy, satisfied teachers; happy, satisfied students; happy, satisfied parents.

Example : Morning Star. It’s one of the world’s largest producers of tomato products—billions of kilos a year. They adopted a self-management process. There is no formal top-down structure, no employees, no bosses. Wild idea? It allows people to think on the job, and ask for help without fear. Chris Rufer, founder and CEO, says, “. . . knowledge is the leader. You find the person with the most knowledge and together you make decisions. So, you’re always learning. If there’s a problem, everyone will run to it. Everyone is always learning, building their knowledge.” He goes on to say, “My attitude is that I have never learned anything from someone who agrees with me. So I welcome alternative views and new ideas—however crazy, because to get a good idea you must discard lots of bad ones.”

Example : TechShop. Mike North of TechShop, “The old big, corporate, hierarchical engineering model is too slow, too expensive, and it doesn’t use the expertise of the people who are going to be living with the final product. Talk to people, understand what they want, prototype as fast as possible, get help and advice and insight from everybody!” TechShop brings engineers and topnotch facilities together. Provides an environment that encourages collaboration and sharing knowledge. Much more happens much faster when knowledge, experience, and ideas are openly shared. When engineers, or anyone else, are competing they withhold their knowledge to keep others from getting ahead. The irony is that this tourniquet on intellectual matter occurs in both directions, choking off oneself as well as others.

These aren’t isolated, cherry-picked examples. There is a plethora of individuals, companies, and communities who’ve broken the stranglehold of competition and embraced a collaborative, egalitarian policy all to remarkable success. And success built on, with, by people who are motivated by the only motivation that matters : doing the job well. As the old saying goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” Money, power, fame are proven amoral motivators that produce more failure than success. “What we know from half a century of research into human motivation is that extrinsic rewards—ranking, prizes, grades—crowd out intrinsic drive. Apparently, we can be deeply motivated by only one thing at a time, not by many things at once.” Just like the inability to multitask with any focus or efficiency.

As the book progresses, it digs deeper into the pitfalls of competitiveness. Heffernan devotes an entire chapter on “the race to the bottom,” or how to strive for ever lower goals. Contradictory? Yes. Every example depicts how destructive fighting for dominance inevitably becomes. There’s no place to go but down as the participants deceive themselves into thinking they’re making great strides forward. It’s pathetically sad. And every example of self defeat is backed up with an equally opposite example of how systems that have reduced stratification and emphasized free exchange of information and ideas open new opportunities, improve efficiency, and drive progress. Like the free flow of money in a market place, or the free flow of blood and oxogen in a cardiovascular system are signs of a health economy or body, so is the free flow of intellectual property between people a sign of a healthy society and economy. And it is the single most significant feature of human behavior that has allowed us to become the most successful species on earth. Competitiveness is social arteriosclerosis.

Superstars are a fallacious invention. Gutenberg did not invent movable type, Newton wasn’t the only inventor of calculus. Neither Daguerre nor Talbot invented photography. Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution. Bell was not the first or only inventor of the telephone. Edison did not invent the light bulb. Einstein was not the first to propose E=MC^2. In each case, the ideas preexisted. These innovators were the ones that pooled the established knowledge and put the finishing touches on it. Without the free exchange of ideas, none of these famous people would be remembered today. Each drew on the available information from earlier generations, then built their own ideas around it, and followed that by sharing it freely with the world.

The idea of the heroic soloist, the messiah, that one and only unique superstar who can do what no other single person can do, is the foundation of every myth, thousands of stories, and Hollywood’s primary theme for its blockbuster flash & dazzle super movies. It’s the MVP on the team. It’s the CEO that turns around a slumping multinational corporation. It’s the BIG name in all caps on the marquee. Yet, in every case, without a supporting cast, a writer, a director, costumes, makeup, lighting; without thousands of employees doing the everyday functions that keep a business running, labor, sales, bookkeeping, toilet cleaning; without the coach, the team players, the equipment, all those stars would be standing alone, flailing hopelessly. The myth of the hero taking all the glory is like “a rooster taking credit for the sunrise.”

It’s hard to create a climate of safety in times that feel so dangerous. But the failure to inculcate the habit of collaboration may be the biggest organizational, social, and political risk we face today. It’s why companies hire armies of brilliant people, only to feel disappointed by what they produce; it’s why citizens feel so disillusioned by politicians eager to attack but paralyzed when asked to work together. We don’t lack for talent, but organizational silence and stalemates persist when the cost of honesty and sharing remains too high. Trust, not rivalry, is what makes relationships and institutions effective and efficient. Trust is both what we need and what we create when we learn to work together.

The case Heffernan builds is prodigious. The chapters titled “Clone Wars,” “Supersize Everything,” and “How Low Can We Go?” by themselves make it worth picking up the book from your local library. After reading A Bigger Prize, the benefits of collaboration and cooperation jump out as night & day obvious, and the social destructiveness of setting person against person, business against business, country against country flashes out as blazingly bonkers.

Competition may be intuitive. So is a flat earth, and lots of other things that are flat out wrong.

It’s not too much of a mystery that major media won’t give these ideas the attention they need. They believe it’s not in their immediate, short term, shortsighted, beat-down-the-competition interest. The reality they fail to see is that no one lives in a separate reality. What is a mystery is why do they piss in their own pool and trash their own backyard?

A Bigger Prize, Margaret Heffernan, PublicAffairs, 2014

Watch her TED Talk presentation [Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work]

* Everyone is creative : [Ouroboros].
** Lazy and selfish is : [Nature’s Way].

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