Today, we use competition in many aspects of society as a way to rank individuals so that they can be compared against each other. Some competitions are for fun (school tournaments), some are for prestige or prizes (the Olympics), some serve as a way to filter people (college exams), and some serve no legitimate purpose at all (economic competition). There is nothing wrong with competition in itself, however, the way in which it is implemented is often counter-productive, wasteful, and sometimes downright absurd.
Activity Competition: Ranking Pure Happenstance
A competition that ranks individuals by their performance, such as the Olympics, or Chess tournaments, is one that investigates differences in performance so as to find who's "the best". However, is it not obvious that some people are going to be faster, stronger, or wittier than others? We're all born with unique bodies and brains and we're all raised in unique circumstances, so of course there will be differences in how we perform various tasks — what is the value in highlighting those differences? Stated differently: When someone is able to win a competition, what can be meaningfully said about that person? Let's use an example to make it easier to talk about: let's consider a person who competes in ice skating. What are the factors that lead to any given skater winning a competition?
- For one, they are within the right age range for the competition — which just comes down to happenstance (it's not something they chose, you don't choose to be the right age for a competition, you just are or are not).
- Second, it's likely that this person happened to live in an area where there is an ice skating rink open much of the year. Again, just happenstance — obviously, the interests we choose to pursue in life are limited to the options available to us. It is no mystery why colder countries tend to compete more in winter sports than warmer countries.
- Third, not only was there an ice skating rink nearby, but the competitor themselves also happened to be interested in ice skating — not everyone is of course, and whether we are interested in anything is also just happenstance, for we don't choose what we are interested in; we just are or are not. It's not like when our teachers ask us in kindergarten what we'd like to be when we grow up, kids raise their hand and say "I choose to be interested in ice skating!" or "I choose to be interested in mathematics!" and from that moment we then set out to pursue those things. No, we are just interested in things or we aren't, for whatever reasons — perhaps our parents took us to ice skating competitions when we were younger and we were inspired by the skaters, perhaps we saw a touching movie about ice skating, or perhaps our parents themselves were ice skaters... there are countless reasons why someone might be interested in a given activity, but it all comes down to the simple fact that on some level a person A) needs to know about the activity and B) for whatever reason they must find it interesting and worthy of pursuing — neither of which a person "chooses". The notion that no one chooses what they are interested in cannot be emphasized enough: You may choose among a list of things which of those items interests you, but note that you are choosing items which already interest you — you are not deciding whether to find something interesting or not. If deciding your own interests simply came down to a personal choice in any given moment, then one could simply exclaim with enough conviction, "I choose to be interested in bagpiping!" and voila, that person would thereafter have an interest in bagpiping… but it obviously doesn't work like that — you cannot force yourself to be interested in something, you just are or are not. There are ways to deliberately attempt to cultivate an interest in something, but our interest in a thing never comes down to a choice we make — it depends on what kinds of things interest us based on the structure and function of our particular brain and the experiences we've had in our particular life.
- Fourth, the competitor is fortunate enough to have parents who saw the value in ice skating and allowed them to skate at an early age so they could develop their skills. Again, just pure happenstance. There may be many people out there who would have been ice skating champions, but for whatever reason their parents thought it was not worthy of their time, perhaps because they thought it was too dangerous or that there are more worthwhile activities to do.
- Fifth, the competitor is fortunate to have the financial means to afford equipment required to ice skate, along with being able to afford lessons. Ice skating isn't the most expensive activity, but there are without a doubt many more people who would have been ice skaters — and possibly championship ice skaters — had money not been an obstacle.
- Sixth, the competitor also needed to be fortunate enough to have a fully functioning body that allows them to ice skate. What's more, to win the skating competition they need to have a particularly fit body. No one chooses the body we are born with, so again that's just pure happenstance. A person can exercise and train their body — they can have the determination to practice day in and day out — but no one chooses to have the determination to do so or not — we just do or don't, for whatever the circumstances of our life. If it were simply a choice to be determined or not, then no one would ever fail their New Year's resolutions — but of course we do all the time. The fact is that nothing about our body's is something we have any real choice in: we do not choose who are parents are, we do not choose the genes they pass on to us, we do not choose how tall we end up, or how many fast twitch or slow twitch muscle fibers we have, we do not choose how quick our minds are at processing math equations, or at calculating chess moves, none of it. As has been mentioned, we can of course train ourselves if we want to — we can practice math so we can do it faster, we can exercise to be stronger, but the choice to do so is not really ours to make. If it were simply down to "choice" whether we did anything we wanted, then no one would ever not do anything they wanted. When a person tells themself, "I need to lose weight, so I will exercise everyday for the next month — that is my choice." you would then expect if it were really down to their "choice" that they would then exercise every day for the next month. But how many people do you think have said something like that only to not do so, or only partially do so? Virtually every person on the planet. The reality is that there is more to our decision making than "choice" — in fact choice is arguably an illusion entirely...
There are more factors that can be identified, but hopefully the point is already clear by now. We have competitions and we rank competitors by their performance, but nothing about their performance can be laid at their feet — it's all just happenstance. A person just happened to be born in a colder climate that had an ice skating rink they could practice on, they just happened to be interested in ice skating, they just happened to have parents who supported them in their ice skating interests, they just happened to have the right body and determination to practice and develop the skills to win the competition… and yet, we want to celebrate/glorify/reward this series of happenstances?
Competition can be fun — I love a good competition to test my skills just as much as the next person — and I understand it can be used as a tool to assess someone's skills (i.e. colleges use entrance exam scores as a crude way of filtering out only those who happen to have just the right circumstances to perform well on the exam, which may be loosely correlated with certain desirable traits in an applicant), but to assert that competition says anything about a person other than mere circumstance is absurd.
Economic Competition: Nothing but waste
Competition in the worst case isn't just absurd, it's also often wasteful. Think about how many different companies compete with each other making the same products. When a company wants to build a product, first they must spend a great deal of effort on research and development to figure out how to design and build the product. However, companies rarely share the results of their R&D with others, because that effort spent is their competitive advantage — if they were to simply give it away freely, they would be at a disadvantage because they had spent time and money and other companies did not have to so they could spend more on other things like marketing. As a result, companies do not share and ultimately repeat the same R&D efforts over and over for the same products, and as consumers we end up mostly with a bunch of mediocre products. Even if one company makes a great product, you cannot argue that they couldn't have made a better product had all the companies decided to pool their resources and work together. Think about how much wasted time and effort would be saved if every company just shared all their R&D findings, and think about how much better our products would be if instead of each company starting from scratch, they were always building on the work of those who came before them? Imagine all the amazing products we would have had by now if instead of competing with each other, all companies worked together… what a tragic waste that they don't!
The truth is, a big reason we compete today is the belief that competition is the driving force behind innovation. There's no logical explanation to justify such a conclusion, but even if it was true, competition is still so much less efficient than collaboration it still wouldn't make sense to compete with each other vs. when we could work together on things. But the reality is that competition has at best a tenuous relationship with innovation. Yes, if there is money to be made in a given field, people will try to make money there, and in our current world that usually means they must compete with other people also trying to make money in that field — but that's only because that's how things are structured today. If we simply designed things such that all people who worked in a given field always worked together, innovation would still happen, but on a much, much faster level. If you had 10 companies competing with each other making the same kind of products, which situation do you think would result in a better product in the end: all those companies competing against each other, or all those companies working together? There is simply no justification for economic competition if innovation is truly what we seek.