Sunday, May 29, 2016

The problem with competition

It became obvious to me that one of the most popular and common ways of "winning" consists in changing the definition of what that means. See capitalism for example, boasting that a group will benefit if each of its members attempts to improve their lives. The "winners" will pull everything up and will expand while the "losers" will just fade gently into the background. Allegedly, the greatest demonstration of this is the victory of capitalism over socialism and communism. But it's all a fallacy, as their reasoning can be translated as follows: "We measure success in capital, others don't. In the end, we have more capital, so we win". It's not who is better, but how you ultimately define "better". I find it disturbing that an economic model that attempts to optimize happiness has not emerged at any point in history.

This not only happens at a macro level between countries or economic systems, it happens between people as well. "Successful people" proudly announce their recipe for success to people who wouldn't really consider that a good thing. See people that cheat and corrupt and kill to "get ahead". One might covet their resources or power status, but how many of the "losers" would actually condone their behavior, take the same risks or appreciate the situation you get when employing such tactics? Same applies to heroes. We want to save the world, but we are more afraid of trying and failing. Heroes go past it, maybe not because of courage, but because that is their set goal.

Yet competition is the engine of evolution. Doesn't that prove competition is the solution? I say not. Look at the successful animals in nature: they are perfect for their niche. Crocodiles spend huge amounts of time motionless just beneath the surface of the water only to jump and snatch their prey when coming to the watering hole; cheetahs are faster than anything with legs, catching their prey in a matter of minutes; sharks roam the water, peerless in their domain. And yet all of these creatures are far from perfect. They age, they get sick, they don't build anything lasting more than their own lives, their only legacy are offspring just as flawed as them. And guess what? All of these creatures are getting less and less because of humans: weak, pathetic, inoffensive hairless monkeys who can achieve more than any others just by banding together and sharing their resources and their results. If competition would be the ultimate solution, then there will be a creature strong, tough, intelligent and immortal. Yet there isn't one.

I submit that competition is great only if two elements are fulfilled: a) you have the ability to evolve, to improve. b) there is someone better or at least equal to compete against. If b is not available, complacency will turn competitivity towards the weak. Instead of getting better, you will stop others getting to where you are. It's a simple application of available force. If point a is missing, you will be the one that a stronger competitor will stifle. And yet, what I am describing is not competition, but having a purpose. Behind the appearance of competition, when you try to catch up with someone better, you actually set a goal for yourself, one that is clearly defined. It is irrelevant if the target is a person or if they even consider themselves in competition with you. One might just as well choose an arbitrary goal and improve themselves by reaching it.

Why am I writing about this? For several reasons.
One is to simply make evident that if you envy someone for their success it is either because you can't get possibly there or because you won't - you have determined that to take that path would take away something that you value more. For example comfort. People envy the position of others less so, but they basically are not prepared to make the effort required to get there. Yet laziness doesn't disappear. Why? Because one reaches a goal after many attempts and failures, not in a straight line. Only once someone got there, it is much easier to follow their path sans the potholes, the setbacks and the mistakes.
Another is to show that the purpose defines the path, not the other way around. Setting a goal defines both success and failure and that is why many people with responsibility prefer to not set one. However, without the goal, people just stagnate, go around in circles. Look at space exploration: each successive US administration comes with another idea, abandoning what their predecessors did, going nowhere. When did they do anything that mattered? When they had a clear goal of doing better than the Russians. If someone were to go and colonize Titan and start living there, they wouldn't find it so expensive and pointless to go to the Moon, asteroids and Mars. Without someone to do that, though, they don't do anything.

Laziness is in our nature. Evolution is lazy. Competition is ultimately lazy. You can get comfortable in your lead, while occasionally shooting other racers in the foot when they get close enough. The opposite of laziness is not work, but direction. Once you set a goal, you know how far you go and how fast you get there. A group benefits more when all its members work towards a common goal. Funny enough, in such group scenarios competition between members is often cancerous. I find it also amusing that there is always someone better or at least equal to compete against: yourself.