Competition as a Universal Metaphor

Posted: April 29, 2007 in Culture

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.

  1. greywhitie says:

    competition is not limited to homosapiens. but, we’ll leave the topic of competition in the non-human animal kingdom for another day. competition for limited resources has sparked numerous wars in the history of humanity, and continues to do so today.

    warfare aside, competition can motivate people to perform better. competing can be more stressful for some than others. in the business world, competition can drive down prices and enhance quality. one good example is the quality of certain ethnic restaurants. in a city where there are at least 100 restaurants selling the same bowl of noodles, i can easily buy a bowl of rice noodles for $3.99, whereas in in a city where there is only one restaurant selling this kind of noodle, i might have to pay $8 for a crappy bowl of noodles.

    in sports, such as the olympics, the audience likes to watch how far the human body can contort, and the points that make up the competition are just icing on the cake. it’s the thrill of physical exertion that spectators pay big bucks to see.

    having said that, not everything needs to be competitive. some folks perform much better in a cooperative atmosphere. and there is no need for competition in every sport.

    in the fine arts such as music, where there is not enough money to fund every band or orchestra, competition is stiff for slots in paid ensembles. some musicians love to think that they are just competing against themselves, but in reality, they are competing against others. this is not to say that non-paid performances are not on par with paid ones. many professional orchestras started out as volunteer ensembles, and the musicians played in them just for the love of music.

    there should be a healthy balance between competition and cooperation.

  2. grasshopper says:

    Competition can serve as a healthy motivator, I suppose. Sometimes, it may heighten the fun. But more often, it seems to me, one’s personal single-mindedness runs a muck. Your example of “winning” a political “race” demonstrates (when we look closely at recent history and current events) how quickly and seductively competition overrules both common sense and human decency.

    An easy analogy is children’s sports’ teams. The goal, I would constantly argue, to no avail, when my children were young, was to show them just how arbitrary “winning” and “losing” can be, even when the rules and time limits are carefully controlled, let alone contests dependent on subjective and/or aestetic judgments.

    I wanted my children to learn that that even as one player on a team, he or she individually or along with the team as a whole, might play far better than any previous best, and yet lose. Likewise, they might play selfishly or indulge in a group laziness, but win. The day, the time, the weather, refs, coaches, and, invariably, the bullying influence of several parents watching on the sideline…were only some of the factors determining who won that day vs. who lost. I kept emphasizing that when a call was bad, or an overexcited father challenged everyone else’s perception, the less was: what kind of competitor are you? One who wins at any cost or one who knows how to lose gracefully, no matter how intense the desire to win and/or how grueling the effort?
    “Them’s the breaks.”
    Some people told me to my face my attitude was un-American. Others, I am sure, kept quiet. Still others distinctly implied it sounded as if I intended to rear polite but wimpy losers.
    Past a point, even childrens’ sports served as a first taste of bellicose, perverted glory–an initial stirring toward what taken to its extreme becomes a propensity for war. What’s wrong with us? Can’t we find motivation to reach beyond our previous limits and devote our utmost toward an activity, without “pulverizing” our lottery-derived opponents?

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