The Case Against Competition

How We Lose the Race to Win


A great many writers, thinkers, pundits, and powers-that-be have publicly theorized and discussed the potential ramifications of the Y2K (Year 2000) crisis we may face next year. Many professionals have predicted a fault in computer dating abilities that may lead to catastrophe on January 1, 2000. According to theory, the most critical computer systems controlling most major functions in our society will not be able to read a date starting with "20" instead of "19." When this happens, everything from electricity in our homes to international air travel may cease functioning. In the handbook "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide" (Utne Reader Books, 1998), this crisis is described as an event unlike any in recorded history. This will be a "failure of complex systems," and any solutions "require new collaborations." The Utne booklet leads off with an essay by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers of The Berkana Institute, Provo, Utah. They propose that previous governmental approaches to crisis have involved secrecy, stockpiling, and competition. Simply consider the rush to build bomb shelters in the 1950s; the flight to hippie communes in the 1960s; and the emergence of isolated paramilitary or religious compounds over the past twenty years. These responses to previous doomsday scenarios were based on competition for resources, isolation from society, and a survivalist mentality.

In their recipe for surviving the Y2K crisis, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers argue that cooperation must be explored as the most effective way to approach this looming danger: "They require collaboration, participation, openness and inclusion. These new systems' problems force us to dissolve our past practices of hierarchies, boundaries, secrecy, and competition."

How do those of us so culturally immersed in competition learn these cooperative skills? Perhaps the most expedient pathway may be through watching our children. Children learn and use these skills very easily, but that we tend to dismiss rather than reinforce them. The reasons we do so are complex and astonishing. I have observed that most children involved in "free" play (as opposed to organized team activities) are very skilled at cooperation and consensus, generally because they have a mutual goal they wish to achieve. As adults, we might observe or even comment on these skills, but we do not take them seriously because they involve "play," which we tend to exclude from the realm of "real life." Many experts, however, describe play as "the work of children," and thus the very essence of "real life" for them. I am convinced that if we can reinforce the cooperative skills we observe in children, we will prepare them to be much more effective problem solvers.

I recall an experience from the nursery school one of my sons attended. From their first days together, these three- and four-years-olds are taught creative, cooperative problem-solving. This practice came to light one day when my son came home from school and announced that he had "really good ideas for solving problems." He explained how this group of twenty-five children and two teachers coped with the inevitable conflicts that arose in the class. The first job of any member was to point out problems they saw. If they saw two children fighting over a toy, their job was to tell everyone else in the room, "We've got a problem over here!" At that point, everyone stood around the two people who were fighting. This action resulted in two very powerful effects upon the competition for the toy. First, it was a clear indication that the rest of the group thought the problem needed to be solved. Second, it communicated unmistakably to the two children involved that others had a stake in their conflict and could help them resolve it.

Having encircled the two who were fighting, the collective's task became to brainstorm solutions. No one was cheering, choosing sides, or egging on the contestants. Everyone was there to help--and help took the form of "good ideas." Of course, three- and four-year-olds can come up with all kinds of good ideas. Not all of them are effective, or even reasonable, but the good-faith offerings provide combatants a reasonable way out of their conflict. Cooperation and mutual problem-solving became desirable to the children because their ultimate goal was to play, and the problem interrupted the realization of that goal. Cooperation allowed the play to continue--a benefit to all.

The principles that render cooperation more effective than competition in resolving a problem remain just as powerful when applied to the efforts of production and creativity. Alfie Kohn writes in No Contest, "Consider the question of artistic creativity. The little research that has been done suggests that competition is just as unhelpful here as it is in promoting creative problem-solving." Despite the fact that so many artists are forced to compete for awards, grants, recognition, or even the time they need to do their art, there is no scientific (and very little anecdotal) evidence that such competition improves the quality of art in our culture.

As with free play and games, so with theatre: the way we achieve cooperation is through agreement on a mutual goal. Anyone who has been in a play knows how important it is to realize that you can count on others if you need help. What a comfort that can be if you forget one of your lines: it's in the best interest of everyone else to make sure you remember it. It's also in your best interest to help everyone else when they need it. Despite the excitement and the exhilaration of a performance, I have always found rehearsals to be the most enjoyable part of any production: that's where the participants develop their community, set their goals, and determine how they will cooperate.

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