Growing up, I never really understood the value of competition. In fact, I had an entrenched suspicion there was something profoundly wrong with it. But I couldn't begin to articulate what that "something wrong" was. Nevertheless, I dug in my heels and opposed taking any competition -- from sports to spelling bees -- seriously.
It wasn't until I was in college and reading H.D.F. Kitto's classic text, The Greeks, that I was able to figure out the value of competition. Or rather, Kitto figured it out for me. You see, Kitto pointed out that the ancient Greeks believed competition was necessary to arete. Arete means any kind of excellence, and seems to have connotations of a person or thing living up to its fullest potential.
So, from a Greek view, you cannot be the best you can be without competition spurring you on.
As an aside, think of how that notion would influence your view of your enemies! Instead of regarding them as completely opposed to you, you might be inclined to regard them almost as allies because you could see their competition as necessary to your achieving your own greatness. And if that's true, would it help to explain why the ancient Greeks so often honored their enemies?
Kitto's -- or the Greek's -- view of competition did not completely change my view of competition, but it rounded it out. I believe now that I finally understand the value of competition. While I wouldn't always go so far as to say that competition is absolutely necessary to bring out one's best, or to live up to one's fullest potential, I can see that it often enough helps us to do so.
At the same time, I've never really given up my earlier suspicion there is something terribly wrong about competition. In fact, I've finally figured out precisely what is that wrong. You see, competition can, and sometimes does, distract us from ourselves.
So far as I can see, one of the major challenges of life -- a challenge on which so much depends -- is for us to be true to ourselves (in a responsible manner). I don't believe we can flourish as individuals unless we to some significant extent master the art of being authentic -- and being authentic is to me another term for being true to oneself. So, when I say competition sometimes distracts us from ourselves, I do not mean that it distracts us from thinking about ourselves, but rather that it distracts us from being true to ourselves.
To use a trivial illustration for the sake of simplicity. Suppose you were not naturally inclined to painting. That is, you had no real talent for it, and hence, you had never developed much skill at it. But one day, you see an announcement: The creator of the winning painting entered in that Fall's local art fair will be generously given the right to brag that he or she is the best artist in town. Fueled by a desire to be considered the best artist in town, and perhaps a little fearful of feeling inferior should you not be considered the best, you enter the contest. Over the next dozen weeks you work your butt off to produce a winning painting. You actually do the best you can do, but when the day of the contest comes, the prize goes to someone else. Worse, when you go to the show, you observe people laughing at your painting. You now slink away, shamed and humiliated.
What has happened? Competition has brought out your personal best, but it has also given you a lot of baggage to carry around for awhile. However, because this is a happy blog post, and not a despairing one, you finally manage to dump your baggage one day when it occurs to you in a moment of insight that, because of the competition, you were trying to live up to the expectations of the fair's judges -- rather than being true to yourself. Immediately upon having this insight, you burst out laughing at what folly it is to let other people define you, and your baggage is shed.
The above is an elaborate way of saying the problem with competition is that it can -- and sometimes does -- teach us to live up to the expectations of others, rather than to follow our own nature. And that can, in turn, alienate us from ourselves.
Of course, that does not need to be the case. It is quite possible -- and people frequently do -- enter into competitions that are perfectly in line with their own nature. And in those cases, if they are doing it for themselves, rather than merely because someone expects them to do it, they can be following their own nature.
To sum up, I can see both advantages and disadvantages to competition. I think the Greeks were largely right in that it can, under the right circumstances, motivate us to do our personal best. And while I do not agree with them that it is absolutely necessary for doing our personal best, I can see the value of it as a motivator.
On the other hand, a motivator doesn't necessarily motivate us to do what is true to ourselves. And while the art fair example that I've used in this blog post is a trivial illustration of that, simply imagine the person who spends his or her entire life "keeping up with the Jones", rather than finding their own path, and you will perhaps have an example of competition at its worse. After all, there is something seriously wrong if you hate the way you live and have never fulfilled your promise as an individual human -- seriously wrong even if you have a bigger swimming pool and a better car than your neighbor.
Now, it is early in the morning, I've been up most of the night, and I'm running on caffeine. Consequently, my thinking is much too fuzzy to know whether I'm making any sense or not. So, please help me out here! Does this post have enough truth in it to take to the bank, or should I start planning to skip town under an alias? What do you think?