Is Competition Really the Best Way to Achieve Excellence?

If you are like me you spent a fair amount of the past two weeks watching the world’s greatest athletes perform feats of strength, endurance, skill, and agility in the 2012 London Olympic Games. I’ve always loved the Olympics. I have great memories of watching them with my parents as a kid. I remember talking about the world, hating the dreaded USSR and the East German cheaters. It was a nationalistic thing. We were the good guys; they were the bad guys. It was simple. This time I spent a lot of time pondering the extremes to which these athletes will go to be the best in the world.

Competition is everywhere in our culture. I went to the grocery store a couple of weeks ago and felt myself competing with other drivers for the best parking spot, competing with myself to take the most efficient route through the store to gather all my items without backtracking, looking at signs for competitive pricing, low cost guarantees, and compare and save, then I went to the obligatory check-out line competition: it’s a delicate balance between the length of the line and the perceived competence of the cashier. That’s just a trip to the store.

Economics is competition based. Politics is too. Even entertainment has been made into a competition: Grammys, Emmys, Academy Awards, Tonys, People’s Choice Awards, Espys, Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Nickelodeon’s Kid’s Choice Awards, National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, Nobel Prizes – Christians have awards for the best songs about Jesus called the Dove Awards (…messed up for a whole different set of reasons). It’s not enough to write a book, make a movie, star in a musical or write a play. Now you have to win a contest over all the other folks who have done the same thing.

When we make competitions out of the most important things in life, we fundamentally change their telos – the end toward which they are striving. When economics, politics, and art become simply a competition where my success requires your failure, then we have ceased to care about the common good.

The common cultural assumption is that competition is the best way to achieve greatness. That’s the myth perpetuated by the Olympics. We all have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve excellence and productivity is through competition. It’s a myth that is simply not true.

Alfie Kohn’s great book No Contest: Why We Lose in our Race to Win makes an incredibly strong case against competition as a means of achieve success and excellence. He sorts through hundreds of studies which show that if our options for achievement are 1) Competition, 2) Cooperation, 3) Independent action, Cooperation wins over competition nearly every time.

The reason cooperation beats competition is that the nature of the project changes when it becomes a contest. In a cooperative effort, the goal is to work together as efficiently and productively as possible to reach the desired outcome. In a competition the goal is to win by reaching the desired outcome while keeping your opponent from doing so. The telos of the whole enterprise shifts from achieving the desired outcome to beating the opponent. This causes a fundamental change with regard to resources and abilities: If we are cooperating I’ll share my resources, information, and abilities in order to advance the cause. If we are in competition I will hoard those things – depriving others of the help they would provide – and use them first and foremost to help me with the game. Competition is inefficient.

The idea that competition is completely necessary in order to achieve excellence is a myth. Cooperation is the best way to get things done.

Two Contrasting Examples:

Nasa’s Mars Rover: this is a cooperative effort among many agencies, public and private, business, government, scientists across disciplines, nationalities, races, etc.

American Politics: the goal is no longer to govern well, but to win elections. There is no incentive to cooperate with other parties, in fact politicians are punished for doing this.

Can you think of others?

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  • I’m not sure it’s totally fair to say that economic competition—particularly between providers of goods and services—is an inferior way to achieve excellence. Physical goods are scarce. Time is scarce. Prices are bits of information that send signals to human beings, pieces of “incentives wrapped in knowledge,” that help the economy flow efficiently. Competition paves the way to efficiency of the market overall. Cooperation, however, is indeed a major, major contributor to the excellence achieved in any market. Cooperation is the substance and foundation of any serious manifestation of capitalism. But cooperation for its own sake, or with the goal of “efficiency” is impossible without knowledge, in particular the knowledge that prices brings. While competition is merely a way that prices vary, it would be foolish to throw out competition in an economy.

    I’m also a bit leery of any either/or with respect to these mechanisms. Surely there is room for competition and cooperation. What baseball team, entrepreneur, or olympic athlete didn’t cooperate in order to compete? Can competition even be possible without some measure of cooperation? Can cooperation, completely alone, sufficiently bring excellence? Perhaps, but I’m doubtful.