and How to Tell it From Good

Competition is so enshrined in our culture as a virtue, so essential a motivation to our economy, that it is hard to be critical of it. If it goes bad, if it drives individual to cheat, say, to take performance enhancing drugs, or injure others or lose sight of their other needs, we punish the individuals who succumb to temptation.  In fact it seems as if we punish them doubly:  first for the transgression itself, but then for the disappointment and let-down we experience in having our ideals sullied and our role models tarnished.

We see this now clearly in the treatment of the baseball players who took steroids but it is also echoed in the current villification of CEOs and hedge fund managers in the wake of the collapse of Wall Street.  I am not suggesting that those who cheat, who are greedy or use poor judgment should not be punished.  On the contrary, I am suggesting that singling them our for blame can stop us from fully understanding why it happens and where useful changes might be made. 

Competition in its essence is not an individual phenomenon. At the very least, it takes two to compete. Actually it take classes of combatants as well as teams – and observers – to sustain a viable competition.  Look at the Olympics industry, subdivided into associations and leagues for dozens of individual sports throughout the world.  Look any any market.  Or any spectator sport with its season ticket holders, avid fans and spin off products.  So much is at stake for so many.  The individual competitor is only the tip of the iceberg.

Bad competition for the individual is where it comes to mean too much, where the difference between winning and losing is catastrophic, unacceptable.  Such devastating pressure can come from parents of little leaguers who are over-invested in the child’s success, coaches whose own careers are at stake in their team’s performance, and certainly it can come from individual competitors whose insecurities find failure too painful to endure.  Not for nothing do we do our best to inculcate pride and sportsmanship in our children.

But the bigger problem is the larger system, when we ourselves demand that the competitor succeed for our own sakes.  If our self-esteem is invested in the performance of an athlete or our self interest  bound up with the achievements of a financial guru, we lose tolerance for disappointment and loss.  In such circumstances, all too often, there are no inner restraints to mitigate our response, no sign that our expectations and demands  are out of hand, that we are asking others to do more than they possibly can.  In essence we egg them on and on.

We create, in effect, a double pressure, without restraint and without forgiveness, and we do this largely without knowing that that is what we are doing.  It’s not fair that we do this, of course;  but, worse, it is counterproductive because we encourage corruption and ultimate failure.

So how can we tell when good competition become bad?  We have to look at ourselves and our stake in the outcome.  This is not a foolproof test, but it is something we are not used to doing — and something that will make a difference if we try.