Sunday, September the 12th, 2004

You probably already know I am not a big fan of competition. This is especially true for physical competition, sport, where attributes like strength, flexibility and endurance dictate who comes out on top. Since I have my I-detest-sport reputation to upkeep amongst my immediate circle, I had to utilize some extreme stealth during the past few weeks, because I was curious.

So here’s my dirty little secret – I did catch quite a bit of the Olympics.

At points, I was quite excited by what I saw (and I don’t mean the young nubile gymnast sorts doing their thing). I was cheering, I attached myself to some of the participants and rooted for them to win. I felt happy when they did, and almost sad when they failed. Within 10 minutes of seeing a sport I had never known existed prior, I would become some sort of expert and comment on how poorly or well the athlete was doing, in “technical” terms. Now that got me thinking. I seemed to be almost having fun, what was it I really detested? Was it the concept of competition? or the realization that there are various things in this world out there at which there are a ton of people who are insanely better than me.

There are a couple of competing schools of thought in my head, and I always end up picking the “better” one purely as a matter of convenience. On the one hand, you realize competition helps people push boundaries, and gives them clear goals to make themselves better and better at various things. Forget sport, this is entirely valid across most fields. Even something weird like military technology or space exploration. It’s fair enough to believe we’ve made progress at the rate we have in such areas purely because you’re always in competition with your “enemy” to be better (or in this case, too scared to be worse) than them. So when our lil-green-alien friends attack, for instance, we might be ready with the thermo-nuclear war head (or enhanced communication skills to con them into believing we’re a peaceful and harmless race) or whatever it takes to save our behinds. If you’re still not out of sport mode, let’s assume said lil-green-aliens have firepower that moves at (the appropriately convenient rate of) 10 m/s on small ranges. At least, as a result of competition like the Olympics, we will have the Maurice Greens and the Yuliya Nesterenkos who can outrun said bullets and survive to procreate later and repopulate the earth.

All this is nice and all, but I usually lean on the other school of thought, the one that avoids competition and declares it evil. You see, it is just as possible even greater progress could have been made if the bright minds on these “enemy nations” trusted each other and openly shared intelligence. That way, ideally, they’d be no duplication of work and no great ideas would be missed because of stupid trivialities like that country being wiped out in a war. And once you’re smart enough to do what you want, you have little to fear from our lil-green-alien friends. No matter how slow we run, or how unfit we are, or how far we can’t throw a heavy ball-and-chain.

I might not be a big fan of sport, or always understand the subtle nuances of most of them, but I do realize it feels good to win. Being better than someone (or everyone) at something and knowing everyone knows this does tend to make people all warm and fuzzy on the inside, at times. It’s too bad that Phelps can’t represent the uni because he’s pro. It’d have been nice to dominate.

Even if it isn’t you doing anything toward it. Or actually dominating anything.

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4 Responses to “Lil green men and dirty lil secrets”

  1. anita says:

    i once asked my dad why he was so competitive with the whole ping pong thing, and he said that it wasn’t really about winning – it was just this desire to play the best that he possibly could. even when he loses, if he knows he played a great game, he feels really good about himself. (and of course, he gets a bit annoyed when he doesn’t play well and makes a lot of mistakes)

    anyway, what i’m getting at is…sometimes it’s less about winning and more about competing with yourself. like, even if you’re playing a game, doesn’t it feel good to beat your high score? don’t you ever play the game hoping to beat that score, or go further or whatever?

    and aside from all that, there’s the whole “team” thing – some athletes strive to do their best not for themselves, but for their teammates. because they care about them. (take for example, natalie coughlin, who didn’t swim in her best event because she wanted to be a part of the relay instead and help the team.)

    competition isn’t all evil.

  2. wahgnube says:

    OK, agreed, competition can be good. I think I then have a problem with some people who extrapolate … I don’t know how to put this in words, but I’ll try.

    I agree that competition helps us become better at things, as individuals. This is to a certain extent true even for small teams, like you mentioned. So they tend to be better as a group than they were before.

    Now people tend to extrapolate this to larger groups, and to other things, like progress. Team based things aren’t on the .. same level of “overall productivity” globally as collaborated, non-competitive, fully open and shared sort of thing when it comes to “progress”. Yet people will say things like, let Pfizer and Drug company B fight it out to cure cancer, and let’s reward the winner with a big bag of money. As in that’s somehow better than company B AND Pfizer working together and curing cancer, both sharing money. They end up taking away the emphasis from curing cancer faster. As in somehow competition is better than collaboration here because running races make people run faster.

    I have no idea what I am talking about and why I am attempting to muddle things of varied origin. I will put attempt to put this down better soon. Sorry.

  3. anita says:

    no problem, i get what you’re saying. but you can’t just combine all competition as one thing. obviously, there’s good competition and bad competition…

    i think perhaps there is some link between them in the sense that a lot of americans grow up being really into competitive sports and then when they grow up and run companies or whatever, this “bad competition” results from the competitive attitude/culture that has developed. if that makes any sense.

  4. wahgnube says:

    That’s pretty much it. Too much of society (and not just corporate America) runs on a culture that’s crudely extrapolated from this “bad competition” you mention.

    And it sucks to be in such a world.

8,938,079 people conned into wasting their bandwidth.