The Myth of Competition 5

The Myth of Competition 5

Yesterday we saw that cooperation, and not competition, is the real secret to all social activity, and that by replacing competition with cooperation, we can often achieve superior results.

Today I want to discuss the small but growing group of thinkers that is challenging the dominance of the Myth of Competition, the ways we can resist the pressure of society to conform to this Myth, and what we can do to increase the influence of cooperation in society.


Competition long known to fail in many areas of life

More than twenty-five years ago, Alfie Kohn published a book entitled No Contest: The Case Against Competition.⁠ (Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986 and 1992.]) Kohn drew together the results of hundreds of research studies done throughout the twentieth century in order to show that our obsessive orientation toward competition fails to produce good outcomes in every area of human life. His fundamental question was: Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others than when we are working together with them or working alone? And he found the evidence to be overwhelmingly clear and consistent that the answer had to be: almost never. “Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.”⁠ (Ibid., 46-47.)

Kohn found that many studies confirmed this conclusion in the fields of education (“children simply do not learn better when education is transformed into competitive struggle”⁠ [ibid., 50]), business (“the data ‘dramatically refute the contention that competitiveness is vital to a successful business career’”⁠ [ibid., 53]), art (“contests do not promote excellence among performing artists”⁠[ibid., 54]), journalism (“news stories are more likely to be inaccurate and even irresponsible as a result of competition”⁠ [ibid., 55]), and economics (“the assumption that a competitive economic system is productive presupposes that competition stimulates optimal performance—something we now know to be false”⁠ [ibid., 75]).

Since the publication of Kohn’s book, a small but growing number of scholars have begun to question the unquestionable Myth of Competition. Among them are Robert Axelrod, Herbert Gintis, John McMurtry, and Michael Tomaselio. It is long past time that people should join the revolt against competition, because the Myth of Competition, like the other Major Myths, is making it more and more difficult to put the breaks on the freight train of competition that is barreling toward a wreck.

Resisting the influence of the Myth of Competition

How can we resist the powerful influence of the Myth of Competition for ourselves, and take part in making the world more accessible to cooperative creativity?

First of all, we need to understand that habits of thought are very difficult to change. Changing our presuppositions about competition will take will power and lots of attention to your daily habits of thought. The outside world will continue to try to force you into competitive reactions, and it may be difficult to extricate yourself from external situations that stimulate conflict. So it will take some industriousness to stop thinking mostly in terms of competition.

But you need to bring into your mind at the start of every day, and remind yourself as often as you can during the day, that competition is not the matrix of existence. You need to remind yourself that, in fact, very few situations in life actually demand competition. Other people, and especially those who believe the Myth of Competition implicitly, will keep trying to stimulate competitive responses in you. You need to constantly remind yourself that you don’t need to rise to the bait, and that creative thinking can almost always find a way around competitive situations.

Never engage in competition unless you choose it. It does not matter whether you choose it it as a tool for improvement, or as a game, or even as a prudent response to an implacable adversary; it only matters that you choose it as one of an array of possible activities, rather than letting it choose you. This keeps you in control of your competitive impulses. Then you should start choosing it less and less, start exercising creative non-competitiveness more and more.

You can become creative in non-competitiveness simply by refusing to engage with someone who attempts to set up a competition with you. If there is any way you can help the person get what he or she wants without compromising yourself or your values, offer to do so. This will disarm most competitors. If you can’t help them without compromising yourself, try explaining your reasons, and offering your assistance with a slightly modified goal. This will disarm even more people, because just discussing the possibilities tends to generate sympathetic connections.

On the other hand, when someone is determined to attack you—which, by the way, is not competition, but violence—even then you can learn to turn their violence against them. Study the psychology of the martial arts. In the last resort, if fighting is necessary, you should fight. But learn how to do it while losing the minimum amount of your own energy and extracting the maximum amount from your adversary.

This is only common sense. We can remove most competition from the world by learning not to see everything as some sort of struggle, and by not responding in kind to those who want to compete with us. Less competition will make the world more pleasant and more satisfying for us all, and will free up lots of energy for the cooperative creativity that we desperately need in order to free ourselves from the debilitating effects caused by belief in the Major Myths.


This completes our consideration of the debilitating consequences of the Myth of Competition. Tomorrow we will begin to look at the fourth Major Myth of so-called Conservatism, a Myth that does tremendous damage once it gets into the heads of fearful, selfish, and competitive people—the Myth of Independence.

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