I had a friend - the most gifted natural athlete I've ever known - who grew up to despise competition and became a practitioner of Tai Chi in his search for spiritual peace. His college thesis was based on interviews with grade school kids suggesting that competition was bad for mental health.
Pressures to succeed and the "winning is the only thing" philosophy no doubt have produced a plague of neuroses. Sharing and cooperating have a powerful appeal. And competition has its brutal aspects. But competition is also the parent of progress. The trick is to harness it in the service of the common good.
In a recent New Yorker profile, Paul McCartney talked about how competition between him and John Lennon turned out to be fruitful for them both. In the first year of their friendship, they had an ongoing song-writing duel which produced 100 songs.
"If he did something good, I'd want to do something better," McCartney said. They pushed and prodded one another. They traded ideas. A Lennon grimace saved McCartney from the unfortunate original lines, "She was just seventeen/She'd never been a beauty queen." Although their relationship soured, McCartney remembered a moment when Lennon casually said, "That's a good one there," in reference to one of McCartney's songs. "And I just felt great," said McCartney. "That was true praise." A nod from Lennon meant more that the adulation of a stadium filled with fans.
In the world of business there have been few more bitter rivals than Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. An article in the Wall Street Journal referred to their "mano-a-mano/catfight" association over the years and quoted Jobs' barb to the effect that Microsoft had "no taste." But in a recent meeting the two tossed bouquets to one another. Gates said he'd "give a lot to have Steve's taste : The way he does things is just different, and I think it's magical." Jobs acknowledged Mr. Gates' role as "a software pioneer and pointed to the deep history the two men have as catalysts of an industry revolution that brought cheap, easy-to use computers to the masses."
It's hard to think of two individuals who've created more global wealth and opportunity for others than Jobs and Gates. And yet, some politicians characterize such entrepreneurs as "rats in the barn," as if they just plucked low-hanging fruit and picked the pockets of struggling workers.
A list of productive rivalries would include Picasso-Matisse and Ali-Frazier. When he won Wimbledon recently, Roger Federer paid tribute to the "great rivalry" that is evolving between him and Rafael Nadal. Many great discoveries have been the outcome of rivalries between scientists. According to Harold Bloom, all great writers and artists compete against the "canon," measuring themselves by the achievements of their predecessors.
Some educational programs today seek to protect kids from competition on the grounds that it might lower their self-esteem. Kids are encouraged to feel as if mediocre efforts are worthy of a happy face. But the kids aren't fooled. They can see that it's the winner who gets the praise. Many super-achievers have said that failure, rather than easy success, inspired them to excel. So here's to the real world dynamics of dog-eat-dog.
Of course, like everything else, competition can be carried to excess. The ice skater accused of hiring someone to attack her rival with a steel pipe comes to mind. A grotesquely wealthy executive recently boasted of wanting to "inflict pain" and "kill off" his rivals. This attitude is not recommended as the path to lovability and friendship.
I might add that I recommend the bracing tonic of competition to everyone but myself. Personally, I'm not fond of competition. And I don't appreciate criticism. When I make some stupid pronouncement, I want everyone to swoon and tell me how brilliant I am. I'd rather be automatically declared the winner, even if the competition leaves me in the dust, even if I approach the finish line of this mortal race in an aimless, leisurely stroll.