Is the Problem
That We Compete?

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by Robert Winter

SYNOPSIS:  Instead of looking askance at interpersonal competition in general, we should focus on just the destructive kind.


A few years back we got smart and decided to stop using the word "aggressive" so indiscriminately.  Prior to that, anybody who did anything energetically, thoroughly, or diligently was said to be doing it "aggressively."  It had come to be considered basically a positive term;  people would say that they wanted a good aggressive account manager, or whatever.

Then we collectively remembered that aggression, as in invading another country or mugging one’s fellow passengers on the subway, could also have negative connotations.  The wordmongers went rummaging for a substitute.  What eventually popped out was "assertiveness"—a clean word, devoid of the hostile and antisocial connotations of "aggressiveness."  It was also probably a better descriptor of human motivation.

It’s time we did something similar with the concept of "competition."

Lately, competition has begun to take on a bad name.  People say they want their children to play non-competitive sports, somehow managing to imply that if you interact in any way with the other players, you’re just another variation of a face-bashing hockey player.  Our terminology could use more refinement.

We need to begin by acknowledging that people have competed with one another for a long time—probably as long as we have been on this planet—and that it hasn’t always been a bad thing.   Michelangelo almost certainly competed with his contemporary da Vinci, and as a result we have both the Mona Lisa and the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.   Without the stimulus of such competition, perhaps neither artist would have been pushed to discover the full extent of his creative talents.

But creative or artistic competition isn’t precisely what we’d want to make an exception for.   Anybody who has had a friend professionally involved in the arts, or has even seen the movie Amadeus, knows how ugly and even vicious the competition within the creative community can be

A more useful distinction would be between competition by outdoing and competition by undoing.

COPYRIGHT 1998 ROBERT WINTER.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


More Specifics

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Competition by outdoing is constructive;   competition by undoing is destructive.

 

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Competition by undoing occurs throughout our lives--and takes a toll.

 

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Our most sensible approach would be to discourage competition only when it's of a truly negative kind.

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