There is perhaps no metaphor for life as powerful as competition. In pure survival terms, the struggle for resources, for mates, and a place to lay one’s head top the list. (Darwinian theory would add to that list propelling one’s genes into the next generation through procreation and care for one’s offspring.) But when survival isn’t strictly at stake, competition is still the rule. We compete at school so that we can be better competitors in the job hunt. We play games and sports centered around competition for the pure thrill of it. Kids make up pointless contests just to make dreary tasks more interesting (who can do their homework faster? with fewer errors?).
We devote considerable energies and sums of money just to witness competition. Professional sports cost a hell of a lot of money to attend, yet most teams have devoted followings. The City of Chicago recently announced its bid to host an Olympics in 2016 — its first ever. Indeed, many of our entertainment choices are organized around the idea of competition. The endless string of mostly meaningless reality TV shows feature an eventual winner (and many losers, in all senses of the word). And then there are the awards shows and Nielsen ratings, all about actors, directors, shows, movies, etc. competing against each other.
I recently had the experience of buying and selling on eBay. The purchase of an item is completed with the phrase “You WON!” The odd thrill of participating in an auction has doubtlessly led more than a few to pay far more than an item’s ostensible value. My first two sales auctions haven’t yet concluded, but it’s an unexpectedly visceral thrill to see the bids mount up (for things I was willing to dump in the trash).
Perhaps the greatest long-term competition is politics, which has evolved into an endless campaign leaving little time and attention for actually conducting the business of politics: oversight and legislation. I’ve heard the political arena called horserace politics, referring to placing one’s bets (in the form of campaign contributions) and staking one’s fortunes on a candidate and/or a party platform. Even the first response upon losing a particular race (the presidency, a governorship, control of the Senate) is strategizing on the next scheduled competition four or six years away. The prize isn’t actually governing; it’s simply winning the competition.
Even making music, which is a cooperative and communal experience, is slowly being infiltrated by competition. The prizes awarded to songs and compositions often mean more than the actual music, and the American Idol effect — winning a competition and recording contract — is changing musical ambition from expressing an artistic idea to being rich and famous. Adding a competitive aspect to cooking (Iron Chef) is the height of ridiculousness, totally missing the point of preparing and enjoying a good meal.
Admittedly, competition acts as a tremendous spur to achievement. Winning an Olympic medal, for instance, validates a lifetime of preparation while it tends to invalidate the efforts of those who fail to win. However, striving and participation are themselves worthy achievements quite independent of winning.
On a personal level, my best musical experiences are the result of hard work and achieving the level of musical expression for which I am striving. My participation in the Chicago Triathlon last year (first time, in middle age no less) was about being out there, not getting the best time. The triathlon (or for others the marathon) is one area where average folks truly get that it need not always be about competition.