We are taught to live with “the goal of being competitive so we can make a living.”
Does anyone ever stop to wonder if all this competition is wholly necessary in our world? We can’t all be competitive in the meaning used above. Being competitive isn’t just an attitude or feeling here, it’s directly linked to success. Being competitive here specifically means being better than most of your peers. By its very definition, we can’t all be competitive, so what does it mean when we insist that this is the way to design our societies?
In reading this article I was reminded of my PE teacher back in high school. We only had to take one class of physical education in the entire four years I went to high school and the teacher/coach took it upon himself to give us a pep talk about our lives. In classic form, with his foot on the chair and his body draped loomingly casual over his knee, he tells us, “These are the best four years of your life. Don’t waste them by taking naps. You’ll nap in the afternoon, then you will stay up late because you slept too much. Then you will oversleep your alarm because you stayed up late, and the cycle repeats. Push through the tired! Get up and get out and DO something! My athletes are all tough…” I don’t remember what he said after that. I was too hung up on the terrifying notion that high school was the best my life was ever going to get, and that some people didn’t understand that naps were themselves a valid activity to spend the afternoon on.
Why should high school be the best four years of our lives? I think, now that I am what people call an adult, that my PE teacher was making the critical grass is greener error. High school, unlike adulthood, does not have 30-year mortgages to pay, jobs to clock in and out of, bosses that are never pleased with your performance, kids that always need your attention and never shut up. In high school, you are young and your life is ahead of you. Your body is resilient, you are full of potential, you are forgiven for your mistakes on account of you being “just a teenager”, and your job, which is to attend class and do your homework, carries no responsibility whatsoever. To the teacher, high school kids just look like a bunch of brats who get to hang out with their friends, smoke pot, and get doted on by their parents all day, insulating them from all the harsh realities of “real life.”
But again, I ask, why should real life be so harsh? Why should coming of age be a burden? Why must it be that when we are young we have our parents and our teachers to fight for us and care for us, but when we are grown we should be abandoned and left to fend for ourselves?
The belief that being competitive is the only way to survive in this world is simply the other facet of the resignation that life is harsh. But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it? It is a choice we make together as a people.
As an economist, I am familiar with the argument: Inequality and competition are necessary to fuel economic growth. However, even as some people are losing relative to others, it is not actually a bad thing on an objective level because the growth we achieve raises the quality of living of everybody. Moreover, if you try to reduce competition or inequality by redistributing wealth or making laws that prevent people from getting profits or wages that are too different from each other, you will destroy the desire for people to make progress and the economy will stagnate. Therefore the harshness of life is both a necessary and sufficient condition for economic.
The thing that really bothers me, though, is that this is not even true. Recent research has shown that happiness correlates with income only up to a certain level (slightly above the average income level of a community) and that the extremely rich can be just as thinly spread as the moderately poor. Millionaires have been quoted saying outrageous things like “4 million dollars just doesn’t go as far as it used to…” Then there is the blockheaded insistence that bloated bonus packages for top level management are the just and necessary compensation for their entrepreneurship, skill, and willingness to bear the risks of success and failure in the name of economic progress. When stakes are very high, experiments have shown that people perform worse than when stakes are medium or low. The explanation is that high stakes means high pressure and every human, no matter how strong we like to believe we are, has a pressure threshold above which we start to crack.
Economic research, despite what we want to believe, does not support the notion that more money is sufficient to motivate people to innovate or risk new business endeavors. At the same time, is it even necessary? In other words, even if at some point more money cannot induce people to try harder or perform better, are there ways to motivate people without just increasing their income? The answer to this second question is yes. Throughout history great artists and inventors created their works not because of the material rewards they were getting from them, but in spite of the failure of their work to generate income. Two famous examples are Edgar Allen Poe and Nikolai Tessla. Both men are indisputable titans of their fields, and yet both men spent their lives in relative obscurity and suffered their work being stolen, plagiarized, and ridiculed. It was not until after their deaths that their true genius was appreciated. So why would these men persevere? The answer is that it exists within each human being the power and the drive to create.
The “starving artist” archetype is not an archetype for no reason.
So, why, I ask, why is it that we hold so desperately to this notion that harsh competition is the only way to design our lives? Even the economists who brought us this idea in the first place are tearing it down again. Ironically, the authors responsible for contradicting the sacredness of the competitive claim were merely attempting to further their own careers through new, innovative and competitive research. The master’s tools?
I often write as if I know the answers. Often I can see the environment, the underlying infrastructures, that makes otherwise perplexing behavior of humans seem perfectly rational and understandable. When I can, I try to elucidate those structures in the hopes that a better understanding will enable the empathy we need to improve our world. However, in this case, I am at a loss. Why do we cling so desperately to a notion of the world that causes us pain, despair, and a rotting of our spirit inside our still living bodies? Why do we resign ourselves to inaction as all the beauty and joy in our lives is sacrificed on the altar of economic progress? I DON’T KNOW!
I don’t know why we worship competition. I do know, though, that there is another way. I know that we as humans have access to something greater than the scraps that are thrown to us from the rich and the powerful on high. Our world is big enough and, despite all we have done to it, still healthy enough to support all of us in abundant life. Rather than design our lives around the act of getting enough money to pay the bills, we could design our lives around to goal of abundant life. Instead of fearing nature, we could venture out into it to collect our food as it grows wild in the earth, rather than buying it prepackaged and marinated in synthetic chemicals in a grocery store. Instead of spending our hard earned money on brand name items that we wear as a symbol of our success, we could buy products that give our bodies immediate physical comfort. Insteand of blaming ourselves for not being competitive enough, we could acknowledge that the rules are against all of us and instead work together to achieve the happiness that seems to elude us as individuals.
Living in perpetual competition amounts to accepting that their is not enough for all of us, and it is a sour deal. There is no rest for the competitive lest they fall behind. There is no enjoying the spoils of victory when they could be invested into even more competitiveness. Worst of all, when we are always competing, always banking our joy on the outcomes of our endeavors, we are not enjoying the process that is being alive along the way. Humans were never intended to live in perpetual competition. Even hyenas find time to play.