Culture of Competition

It’s almost here. That special Sunday when the nation pauses to celebrate our collective obsession with competition -- Super Bowl XLVIII, with its Latin numbers redolent of religion. Followed by two weeks of heated contests that are the Winter Olympics.

Where does our competitiveness come from?

Well, I can tell you about a Saturday morning bike ride I shared with some family members who had two sons – aged about eight and 10 – along the beautiful Cape Cod Rail Trail, a bike path that meanders through some 25 miles of mostly wooded land in Dennis, Eastham and Wellfleet.

At lunch after our ride, the younger brother was visibly upset. His father – who happens to have his high school football jersey framed on the family room wall – asked why.

“I didn’t finish first,” his son said, his eyes starting to tear.

His father consoled him. “After lunch we’ll go back and you can win this time.”

Huh? This poor kid regarded our tranquil bike ride as a competition?

I know too many people who delight in competitiveness and border on the neurotic in their drive to finish first in every aspect of their lives – even here in paradise.

I’ve always considered this a terribly unhappy way to go through life – needing to win at everything.

Like this guy:

“I like to win in everything I do, regardless of what it is. You want to race down the street, I want to beat you. If we're playing checkers, I want to win. You beat me, it's going to bother me. I just enjoy competition.”

Derek Jeter said it.

But athletes aren’t the only ones afflicted with near-neurotic competitiveness.

Writers – even at the top of their game – have waged famous rivalries. Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.

Woody Allen nailed it in this scene from his 2011 film, Midnight in Paris:

Gil: I would like you to read my novel and get your opinion.

Ernest Hemingway: I hate it.

Gil: You haven't even read it yet.

Ernest Hemingway: If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.

Karen Horney, a Freudian who went on to develop Psychoanalytic Social Theory, suggested that modern culture is based on competition. Everyone is the real or potential competitor of everyone else, she said, and this competition results in basic hostility.

There might also be a case that competition is the obverse of ambition.

Blogger Luke McElroy says competition and ambition are two primary manifestations of personal motivation -- neither one better than the other, just different.

Google Co-Founder Larry Page, for instance, wins by out-performing Microsoft and Yahoo. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, never worried much about Apple’s competition, but drove himself to be personally better in creating phenomenal products.

It’s the difference between basketball and swim teams. Both are team sports. But the basketball team wins by making the other team lose. The swimming team wins by individuals bettering themselves.

I’m not sure into which category I fall. I always thought I wasn’t a competitive person at all.

But I felt the adrenalin rush of competitiveness as I ran the New York City Marathon. I wasn’t going to win the race, of course. The Kenyan had broken the tape long before I reached the 26th mile.

Yet … the finish line beckoned …and I wanted to beat just the one runner directly in front of me.

And then the next.

And the next …

In my next blog, “Making Life Work Best”


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 10:30:13 -0400