Life is not a contest

 

Last year, I made a New Year’s resolution that, in hindsight, was both vague and overly ambitious. The resolution was “Get better at everything.” The theory behind it was that I’d been slacking off a bit in my twenties, enjoying the social events, short work weeks and lazy Sunday mornings a little too liberally. Now it was time, I told myself, to grow up and buckle down.

 

In practice, it was quite simple. At work, I arrived early, left late and kept a close eye on my co-workers to make sure I wasn’t being outdone. When I went running with my best friend, I made sure to do a few extra laps around the park after she quit, no matter how tired I was. And gone were the cheap wine and frozen pizza I used to serve when friends dropped by. Now I wowed guests with homemade ceviche alongside a specially chosen Prosecco.

 

Six months later, I was proud that I’d stuck to my guns. But I was also miserable, lonely—friends seemed to be avoiding me—and confused. I actually had gotten better at doing many things in my life, so why didn’t I feel any better? The experts would say I’d become too competitive.

 

“Whenever we compete, we come to see other people as potential obstacles to our own success,” says Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition. “And that’s bad for all of us, regardless of who happens to win today.” It turns out that I’d confused getting better at things with getting better than other people at things. Research increasingly shows that not only are competition and excellence very different things, but they tend to pull in opposite directions.

 

The fact that sharpening your competitive edge is the best way to get ahead is seldom questioned in mainstream culture, but a growing body of research shows that competiveness can interfere with both performance and well-being in the classroom, in the workplace and even on the playing field. A closer look at why this happens, and how to change it, can lead us to a better understanding of what it really means to “win.”

 

Appropriate competition 

Competition itself isn’t inherently damaging, according to Pauline Rosenau, author of The Competition Paradigm: America’s Romance with Conflict, Contest and Commerce. It just depends on the type and the situation. Competition is generally benign in three situations: when it’s goal-oriented competition, wherein you’re competing against yourself and trying to do your best, as when playing golf; when it’s appropriate competition, wherein all participants stand to gain something they value by participating, as with running a race for charity; and when it’s low-anxiety competition, wherein you have sufficient information about and input into the competition, as with any game in which participants decide on the rules together.

 

Other types of competitiveness, however, have the potential to be harmful. Robert L. Helmreich and colleagues at the University of Texas discovered, to their surprise, that highly competitive people—those who agreed with statements like “It is important for me to perform better than others on a task” and “It annoys me when others perform better than I do”—were less successful in many areas than participants who simply valued hard work and challenging tasks.

 

Helmreich and fellow researchers believe that competitiveness interferes with performance for several main reasons: because focusing on other people takes attention and effort away from the task at hand; because it can keep you from trying your hardest when competition is weak or from trying at all when competition is strong; because it interferes with the gains that come from collaboration; and because it makes you anxious. This means that despite the fact that competition is both widespread and widely accepted as improving performance, it can actually work against you in many situations.

 

And competition starts early. The grading and ranking systems used by most schools have kids competing against one another from a young age, and this may not serve them well. When Helmreich turned his attention to students in grades 5 and 6, he found that highly competitive kids scored lower on standardized achievement tests than their less competitive peers. The anxious, competitive kids seemed to focus so much on where they were ranked that they had less attention left over to focus on the actual work they should have been doing.

 

“The United States is a competitive society, and the desire to win over others pervades the culture,” says John Mowen, a psychology professor from Oklahoma State University. “It is in our capitalistic system, in our legal system, in our preoccupation with sports and in how we grade everything.” The tendency to view schools as training centers for future workers who will help raise our ranking in the global economy only exacerbates this issue, he says, because it implies that our goals should be framed merely in terms of beating others rather than doing well.

 

More entitled to rewards

In a study by Carole Ames and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 40 fifth-grade boys solved puzzles in either a competitive or noncompetitive environment. They worked in pairs in which one was fixed to win and one to lose. The losers in the competitive condition ended up seeing themselves as less capable and felt bad about themselves. The winners, in turn, saw themselves as smarter and more entitled to rewards than their peers. Students in the noncompetitive condition did not experience these attitude adjustments.

 

This can be an ineffective way for kids to learn. For one, being competitive cuts kids off from other people, and many studies show that children can perform many tasks—such as solving anagrams, writing poetry and generating new ideas—more effectively in a cooperative environment. In one study, when 7- to 11-year-old girls were asked to compete for prizes while making collages, their work was rated by professional artists to be less spontaneous, complex and varied than that of girls who were doing the project for the fun of it. Apparently the frame of mind that enhances creativity isn’t as easy to access when you’re pitted against your peers.

 

Excessive competition also raises stress levels by releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which can trigger our “fight or flight” response. Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif of the University of Oklahoma demonstrated this through the Robbers Cave experiment. The researchers brought 24 unacquainted 12-year-old boys to a Boy Scout camp and divided them into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles, arranging opportunities for them to compete against one another for prizes. The two groups quickly became hostile toward each other, raiding each other’s cabins, making verbal threats and refusing to eat in the same mess hall.

 

Scientists point to our natural evolutionary tendency to feel attached to members of our “in” group and distrust members of the “out” group as one explanation for this behavior. It could be that having a common enemy unconsciously helped the boys bond more strongly with their own group, thus -increasing their chances of success.

 

During another stage of the experiment, the boys attended group activities designed to encourage rapprochement, like watching a movie together. But the boys remained entrenched and uncooperative. It was only after the Sherifs rigged situations in which sustained, combined effort was necessary—such as removing bags of sand from a “damaged” pipe that supplied drinking water—that the Rattlers and Eagles began to warm to each other. It is likely that the combined cooperation that this effort required from the boys helped them see themselves as a single “in group” instead of two. Several other opportunities to cooperate were presente
d to the boys, and each time their intergroup bond grew stronger. By the time the study was completed a few weeks later, not only had the two groups voted to travel on the same bus back to town, but the Rattlers used their winnings from the bean-toss contest to buy malts for all the boys. This shows that, although competitiveness can be fostered quite easily, it can also be tempered by cooperative efforts.

 

External rewards

In addition, children can often be intensely involved in projects that have no clear rewards, both independently and cooperatively, which you can see any time you watch a bunch of kids on the beach building a sandcastle or a child with a stack of blank paper and a new set of crayons. Because kids are highly motivated to work on activities for sheer pleasure, focusing on results can undermine motivation, according to Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford and author of Mindset. Her research has consistently found that as soon as you introduce external rewards, such as prizes or rankings, children often lose interest in the activity. This happens because when kids are rewarded for something they already enjoy doing, they can switch their motivation from intrinsic enjoyment to the extrinsic goal of winning approval. This can lead them to avoid striving to reach challenging goals that could have the potential to make them look bad in the eyes of their peers and teachers. Children can also come to see learning not as a gradual building process but as a game of “winners” and “losers.”

 

This result doesn’t just hold true for the classroom. A highly competitive atmosphere can also turn some less competent or confident kids away from sports, especially in situations where teams are divided up by age, so a child on one team can be a whole calendar year younger than those he or she is competing against. Since new research shows that an active child is much more likely to grow up to be a healthy adult, the consequences are more far-reaching than the humiliation that goes with getting picked last for the team in gym class.

 

“Kids who are active when they’re young are often much more motivated to stay in shape when they grow up,” says Richard Keegan, director of teaching and learning at the School of Sport, Coaching and Exercise at England’s University of Lincoln. “The weight people often attach to winning or losing can be very damaging. There is nothing inherently wrong with losing. In fact, you can learn a lot and improve that way.”

 

If you treat losing as feedback rather than failure, Keegan argues, you can examine where you went wrong and adjust your efforts accordingly. A child who tells herself “I lost again; I’m no good” will likely approach the next game a lot differently than the child who thinks, “I need to work on my wrist shot if I want to do better next time.”

 

Competing can even mask other issues of concern. When people act aggressively after playing video games, for example, it is often due to competitiveness rather than the violent nature of the game. In a recent study published in the journal The Psychology of Violence, students were placed in one of four video-game categories: violent and competitive; violent and noncompetitive; nonviolent and competitive; and nonviolent and noncompetitive. Those subjects playing the competitive video games were more likely to act aggressively, regardless of the violent nature of the game. The very nature of competing means you automatically see others as adversaries, even if they aren’t the ones you are competing against.

 

Willing to help others

Many of us carry this kind of competitiveness with us into adulthood. People who take it too far are “neurotically competitive,” Oklahoma State’s Mowen explains. “These individuals are programmed to find a contest in everything. Not only do they want to win, but they also want to win big and, if possible, humiliate an opponent.”

This approach can pay off in the short term, especially in inherently competitive jobs such as sales positions that rely on commission. But neurotic competitiveness comes at a cost. Overly competitive people typically show less altruism and kindness to others, and have a lower general tendency to be agreeable, because they see everyone else as potential adversaries instead of collaborators, he says. So they are less willing to help others unless they benefit as well.

 

The effect: Co-workers and friends are cautious in their dealings with these types of people. Since the killer instinct can create animosity among “opponents,” when things go wrong, others are less likely to come to their aid. “This can happen for companies as well as for individuals,” says Mowen. “Enron was known as a hypercompetitive company, and when it fell, no tears were shed.” Enron was upfront about its highly competitive atmosphere, and senior executives often spoke proudly of their “rank and yank” policy, which had employees rank one another on a scale of 1 to 5, with the bottom 20 percent getting fired if they didn’t show improvement within six months.

 

In the end, good managers will notice the difference between someone -perpetually -trying to outperform others at the expense of being helpful. They will also notice that, in the long run, competitive behaviors often lead to substandard performance, because “the competitive person seeks easy wins rather than stretch assignments,” says Tom Fletcher, an industrial and organizational psychologist who studies the link between competitiveness and stress in the workplace.

 

In addition to alienating co-workers, being overly competitive means you’re probably doing a lackluster job compared with someone who is working to improve his or her own performance, says Fletcher. Highly competitive people have poor coping skills and are particularly subject to the effects of stress. Experts believe that when you focus on winning at all costs, you give up any control you have over a situation. For the most part, you don’t get to decide whom you’re trying to beat or how well the other person will perform on any given day. You can run the fastest race of your life, for example, and still be beaten by a faster and more -experienced marathoner. On the flip side, you can put in very little effort and still come out on top if the competition is weak. But in this case, what have you learned that you can apply in a more challenging situation?

 

No Contest author Kohn recommends monitoring your thoughts and catching yourself in the act when you start to focus on beating others as well as keeping a few positive pieces of information at the ready. If your boss praises a co-worker’s performance even though you feel you deserved the -attention instead, remind yourself that you’ve doubled your productivity in the past six months and that you recently got a raise. These specific, personally relevant facts are indicators that you’re making good progress at your job, no -matter what is going on in the next cubicle.

 

As for me, even once I realized that I was making myself and those around me miserable, it still took a while before I was able to kick the competitive habit completely. The strategy that worked best was to catch myself in a competitive thought and then turn it around and do the exact opposite. When I was out for a run with my friend (once I’d convinced her to run with me again!) and I’d catch myself thinking about outrunning her, I’d immediately suggest something cooperative, like doing speed trials and timing each other.

 

In fact, when I started turning my competitive streak into a cooperative effort, amazing things started to happen. After a few weeks, co-workers started sharing ideas, and friends seemed to enjoy my last-minute potluck events much more than the fancy -dinners I’d been slaving over. In short, the more I helped others, the more good seemed to come back to me. And the whole
experience taught me a very valuable lesson: The only person worth competing against is the one staring back at you in the mirror every morning.

 

By Araina Bond 

 

Photo: flickr.com/photos/hinnamsaisuy 

Solution News Source

Life is not a contest

 

Last year, I made a New Year’s resolution that, in hindsight, was both vague and overly ambitious. The resolution was “Get better at everything.” The theory behind it was that I’d been slacking off a bit in my twenties, enjoying the social events, short work weeks and lazy Sunday mornings a little too liberally. Now it was time, I told myself, to grow up and buckle down.

 

In practice, it was quite simple. At work, I arrived early, left late and kept a close eye on my co-workers to make sure I wasn’t being outdone. When I went running with my best friend, I made sure to do a few extra laps around the park after she quit, no matter how tired I was. And gone were the cheap wine and frozen pizza I used to serve when friends dropped by. Now I wowed guests with homemade ceviche alongside a specially chosen Prosecco.

 

Six months later, I was proud that I’d stuck to my guns. But I was also miserable, lonely—friends seemed to be avoiding me—and confused. I actually had gotten better at doing many things in my life, so why didn’t I feel any better? The experts would say I’d become too competitive.

 

“Whenever we compete, we come to see other people as potential obstacles to our own success,” says Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition. “And that’s bad for all of us, regardless of who happens to win today.” It turns out that I’d confused getting better at things with getting better than other people at things. Research increasingly shows that not only are competition and excellence very different things, but they tend to pull in opposite directions.

 

The fact that sharpening your competitive edge is the best way to get ahead is seldom questioned in mainstream culture, but a growing body of research shows that competiveness can interfere with both performance and well-being in the classroom, in the workplace and even on the playing field. A closer look at why this happens, and how to change it, can lead us to a better understanding of what it really means to “win.”

 

Appropriate competition 

Competition itself isn’t inherently damaging, according to Pauline Rosenau, author of The Competition Paradigm: America’s Romance with Conflict, Contest and Commerce. It just depends on the type and the situation. Competition is generally benign in three situations: when it’s goal-oriented competition, wherein you’re competing against yourself and trying to do your best, as when playing golf; when it’s appropriate competition, wherein all participants stand to gain something they value by participating, as with running a race for charity; and when it’s low-anxiety competition, wherein you have sufficient information about and input into the competition, as with any game in which participants decide on the rules together.

 

Other types of competitiveness, however, have the potential to be harmful. Robert L. Helmreich and colleagues at the University of Texas discovered, to their surprise, that highly competitive people—those who agreed with statements like “It is important for me to perform better than others on a task” and “It annoys me when others perform better than I do”—were less successful in many areas than participants who simply valued hard work and challenging tasks.

 

Helmreich and fellow researchers believe that competitiveness interferes with performance for several main reasons: because focusing on other people takes attention and effort away from the task at hand; because it can keep you from trying your hardest when competition is weak or from trying at all when competition is strong; because it interferes with the gains that come from collaboration; and because it makes you anxious. This means that despite the fact that competition is both widespread and widely accepted as improving performance, it can actually work against you in many situations.

 

And competition starts early. The grading and ranking systems used by most schools have kids competing against one another from a young age, and this may not serve them well. When Helmreich turned his attention to students in grades 5 and 6, he found that highly competitive kids scored lower on standardized achievement tests than their less competitive peers. The anxious, competitive kids seemed to focus so much on where they were ranked that they had less attention left over to focus on the actual work they should have been doing.

 

“The United States is a competitive society, and the desire to win over others pervades the culture,” says John Mowen, a psychology professor from Oklahoma State University. “It is in our capitalistic system, in our legal system, in our preoccupation with sports and in how we grade everything.” The tendency to view schools as training centers for future workers who will help raise our ranking in the global economy only exacerbates this issue, he says, because it implies that our goals should be framed merely in terms of beating others rather than doing well.

 

More entitled to rewards

In a study by Carole Ames and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 40 fifth-grade boys solved puzzles in either a competitive or noncompetitive environment. They worked in pairs in which one was fixed to win and one to lose. The losers in the competitive condition ended up seeing themselves as less capable and felt bad about themselves. The winners, in turn, saw themselves as smarter and more entitled to rewards than their peers. Students in the noncompetitive condition did not experience these attitude adjustments.

 

This can be an ineffective way for kids to learn. For one, being competitive cuts kids off from other people, and many studies show that children can perform many tasks—such as solving anagrams, writing poetry and generating new ideas—more effectively in a cooperative environment. In one study, when 7- to 11-year-old girls were asked to compete for prizes while making collages, their work was rated by professional artists to be less spontaneous, complex and varied than that of girls who were doing the project for the fun of it. Apparently the frame of mind that enhances creativity isn’t as easy to access when you’re pitted against your peers.

 

Excessive competition also raises stress levels by releasing the stress hormone cortisol, which can trigger our “fight or flight” response. Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif of the University of Oklahoma demonstrated this through the Robbers Cave experiment. The researchers brought 24 unacquainted 12-year-old boys to a Boy Scout camp and divided them into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles, arranging opportunities for them to compete against one another for prizes. The two groups quickly became hostile toward each other, raiding each other’s cabins, making verbal threats and refusing to eat in the same mess hall.

 

Scientists point to our natural evolutionary tendency to feel attached to members of our “in” group and distrust members of the “out” group as one explanation for this behavior. It could be that having a common enemy unconsciously helped the boys bond more strongly with their own group, thus -increasing their chances of success.

 

During another stage of the experiment, the boys attended group activities designed to encourage rapprochement, like watching a movie together. But the boys remained entrenched and uncooperative. It was only after the Sherifs rigged situations in which sustained, combined effort was necessary—such as removing bags of sand from a “damaged” pipe that supplied drinking water—that the Rattlers and Eagles began to warm to each other. It is likely that the combined cooperation that this effort required from the boys helped them see themselves as a single “in group” instead of two. Several other opportunities to cooperate were presente
d to the boys, and each time their intergroup bond grew stronger. By the time the study was completed a few weeks later, not only had the two groups voted to travel on the same bus back to town, but the Rattlers used their winnings from the bean-toss contest to buy malts for all the boys. This shows that, although competitiveness can be fostered quite easily, it can also be tempered by cooperative efforts.

 

External rewards

In addition, children can often be intensely involved in projects that have no clear rewards, both independently and cooperatively, which you can see any time you watch a bunch of kids on the beach building a sandcastle or a child with a stack of blank paper and a new set of crayons. Because kids are highly motivated to work on activities for sheer pleasure, focusing on results can undermine motivation, according to Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford and author of Mindset. Her research has consistently found that as soon as you introduce external rewards, such as prizes or rankings, children often lose interest in the activity. This happens because when kids are rewarded for something they already enjoy doing, they can switch their motivation from intrinsic enjoyment to the extrinsic goal of winning approval. This can lead them to avoid striving to reach challenging goals that could have the potential to make them look bad in the eyes of their peers and teachers. Children can also come to see learning not as a gradual building process but as a game of “winners” and “losers.”

 

This result doesn’t just hold true for the classroom. A highly competitive atmosphere can also turn some less competent or confident kids away from sports, especially in situations where teams are divided up by age, so a child on one team can be a whole calendar year younger than those he or she is competing against. Since new research shows that an active child is much more likely to grow up to be a healthy adult, the consequences are more far-reaching than the humiliation that goes with getting picked last for the team in gym class.

 

“Kids who are active when they’re young are often much more motivated to stay in shape when they grow up,” says Richard Keegan, director of teaching and learning at the School of Sport, Coaching and Exercise at England’s University of Lincoln. “The weight people often attach to winning or losing can be very damaging. There is nothing inherently wrong with losing. In fact, you can learn a lot and improve that way.”

 

If you treat losing as feedback rather than failure, Keegan argues, you can examine where you went wrong and adjust your efforts accordingly. A child who tells herself “I lost again; I’m no good” will likely approach the next game a lot differently than the child who thinks, “I need to work on my wrist shot if I want to do better next time.”

 

Competing can even mask other issues of concern. When people act aggressively after playing video games, for example, it is often due to competitiveness rather than the violent nature of the game. In a recent study published in the journal The Psychology of Violence, students were placed in one of four video-game categories: violent and competitive; violent and noncompetitive; nonviolent and competitive; and nonviolent and noncompetitive. Those subjects playing the competitive video games were more likely to act aggressively, regardless of the violent nature of the game. The very nature of competing means you automatically see others as adversaries, even if they aren’t the ones you are competing against.

 

Willing to help others

Many of us carry this kind of competitiveness with us into adulthood. People who take it too far are “neurotically competitive,” Oklahoma State’s Mowen explains. “These individuals are programmed to find a contest in everything. Not only do they want to win, but they also want to win big and, if possible, humiliate an opponent.”

This approach can pay off in the short term, especially in inherently competitive jobs such as sales positions that rely on commission. But neurotic competitiveness comes at a cost. Overly competitive people typically show less altruism and kindness to others, and have a lower general tendency to be agreeable, because they see everyone else as potential adversaries instead of collaborators, he says. So they are less willing to help others unless they benefit as well.

 

The effect: Co-workers and friends are cautious in their dealings with these types of people. Since the killer instinct can create animosity among “opponents,” when things go wrong, others are less likely to come to their aid. “This can happen for companies as well as for individuals,” says Mowen. “Enron was known as a hypercompetitive company, and when it fell, no tears were shed.” Enron was upfront about its highly competitive atmosphere, and senior executives often spoke proudly of their “rank and yank” policy, which had employees rank one another on a scale of 1 to 5, with the bottom 20 percent getting fired if they didn’t show improvement within six months.

 

In the end, good managers will notice the difference between someone -perpetually -trying to outperform others at the expense of being helpful. They will also notice that, in the long run, competitive behaviors often lead to substandard performance, because “the competitive person seeks easy wins rather than stretch assignments,” says Tom Fletcher, an industrial and organizational psychologist who studies the link between competitiveness and stress in the workplace.

 

In addition to alienating co-workers, being overly competitive means you’re probably doing a lackluster job compared with someone who is working to improve his or her own performance, says Fletcher. Highly competitive people have poor coping skills and are particularly subject to the effects of stress. Experts believe that when you focus on winning at all costs, you give up any control you have over a situation. For the most part, you don’t get to decide whom you’re trying to beat or how well the other person will perform on any given day. You can run the fastest race of your life, for example, and still be beaten by a faster and more -experienced marathoner. On the flip side, you can put in very little effort and still come out on top if the competition is weak. But in this case, what have you learned that you can apply in a more challenging situation?

 

No Contest author Kohn recommends monitoring your thoughts and catching yourself in the act when you start to focus on beating others as well as keeping a few positive pieces of information at the ready. If your boss praises a co-worker’s performance even though you feel you deserved the -attention instead, remind yourself that you’ve doubled your productivity in the past six months and that you recently got a raise. These specific, personally relevant facts are indicators that you’re making good progress at your job, no -matter what is going on in the next cubicle.

 

As for me, even once I realized that I was making myself and those around me miserable, it still took a while before I was able to kick the competitive habit completely. The strategy that worked best was to catch myself in a competitive thought and then turn it around and do the exact opposite. When I was out for a run with my friend (once I’d convinced her to run with me again!) and I’d catch myself thinking about outrunning her, I’d immediately suggest something cooperative, like doing speed trials and timing each other.

 

In fact, when I started turning my competitive streak into a cooperative effort, amazing things started to happen. After a few weeks, co-workers started sharing ideas, and friends seemed to enjoy my last-minute potluck events much more than the fancy -dinners I’d been slaving over. In short, the more I helped others, the more good seemed to come back to me. And the whole
experience taught me a very valuable lesson: The only person worth competing against is the one staring back at you in the mirror every morning.

 

By Araina Bond 

 

Photo: flickr.com/photos/hinnamsaisuy 

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