I win! Sound great? Of course, it does. We live in a highly competitive and individualistic world. We compete with each other not only on the field of sport but in our interpersonal lives at work, school, and home. We compete over who is smarter or better or looks the best.
However, not all competition with one another is the same. Some ways of competing are destructive, humiliating, even deadly (think road rage), while other ways of competing can be fun, collective as in wewin, and creative (think friends competing for who does the best Darth Vader impression, and the prize is everyone goes out for a beer afterwards).
I am interested in what makes competition a positive or a negative experience.
It made me think of two different experiences I had recently.
One experience took place at a professional training I recently attended. The level of ‘I know more, my idea is better’ in the class was palpable to me. No, people were not actually getting up and saying these phrases; that would have been refreshingly direct actually! It was more like the subtle, ordinary yet insidious way in which traditional learning is hierarchal, very idea-driven and individualistic. No attention is paid to creating a more humane, collective and open learning environment. There’s the teacher who is the Knower and the professionals in the audience are showing off how much they individually Know. It made for a fairly dry and uninteresting experience, as are most conventional ways of teaching, interacting, sharing knowledge. Check out the fascinating and important book in progress by Dr. Lois Holzman The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession with Knowing Keeps Us from Getting Smart Enough to Make a Better World that looks at the ways in which our commitment to Knowing in this way actually makes us dumb.
In contrast, the other experience I had recently while away with friends for a weekend was a joy. The group included at yoga instructor (me) a ballet dancer, and a martial arts instructor. Throughout the weekend, the three of us, as competitive people, joked about teaching each other some moves from our respective disciplines. When we finally had some down time, we played together. At first there was the air of who-is-going-to-show-up-whom with our skills and knowledge, but as friends we quickly made it into a game of helping each other look good. I showed the martial artist a yoga move, he showed me a warrior move, the ballet dancer showed both of us the proper 1st, 2nd and 5th positions. It was a fun, rich, joyful learning environment where we took the risk of looking bad and were more interested in the other person, not so much the typical dynamic of I’m better than you. It was definitely show-offy and competitive, yet also intimate, fun and we all learned some cool moves from one another.
We all have experiences with the know-it-alls in our lives and how much harder it is to create a conversation with them. I don’t blame the know-it-alls, as most of us play that role at least sometimes. After all, we are socialized to be competitive and super individualistic: I want to make sure I look good and win, I don't care so much about listening, making the others around me look good, being curious.
One of the tenets of improvisation and effective team work is to complete each other instead of competing for individual stardom. I think that is a great tenet for everyday life as well. Completing each other can help us compete in a positive way.
So let’s Complete: I invite you to work hard to make the other person look great in your next interaction!