Competition – Growthful or Destructive?

Competition – Growthful or Destructive?

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” – John Milton

I have had reason to reflect much on the whole idea of competition recently. It has been relevant to me both at a personal level, in relation to my own business, the Link Centre, and at a more global level where groups or countries compete (not always in a healthy way) for resources. As I think about this, I am reminded of the Jesuit parable of the long spoons. This gist of this story is as follows:

A rabbi was allowed the opportunity to visit both heaven and hell. The first land he encountered was beautiful and abundant. In this land there was a great dining hall, with tables laden with all foods imaginable. Seated at the table were people with long spoons attached to their arms. Unfortunately, these spoons were too long to allow them to feed themselves. The people around the table were gaunt and miserable, eyeing the food that they could not eat. This was hell.

The second land the rabbi encountered was beautiful and abundant. In this land there was a great dining hall, with tables laden with all foods imaginable. Seated at the table were people with long spoons attached to their arms. These spoons were also too long to allow them to feed themselves. However, the people around the table were well fed and happy, enjoying the abundance around them. This was heaven.

The difference? In heaven the people had learnt to feed their neighbours.

In the west, people mostly live with a culture of abundance. Many people have far more than they need. However, so often the idea of competition is seen as problematic and negative, and the world of humanistic therapies, such as Transactional Analysis, is not exempt from such views.

For me the challenge is two-fold. Firstly, humanistic therapists tend to focus on valuing people, seeing everyone as having worth, and as a result the more negative aspects relating to competition which can be ignored, and pushed into the “shadow”. Secondly, those people who want to bring attention to this often frame it as “competition” itself as being the problem, rather than looking at the negative (as opposed to positive) associations that people may have around competition and the resulting behaviours. However, accounting and being able to openly talk about all aspects of competition, helps us both appreciate its advantages, and recognise and manage the more destructive forces at play. It is important to acknowledge that competition can stimulate innovation, and develop opportunities for everyone. Also, when managed well, it can serve as an example within communities and the wider world of good ethical practice. Conversely, it is also important to acknowledge how people’s past experiences of scarcity, sibling rivalry, and winning and losing can all feed into this process. To manage these tensions it is important to speak about both the growthful and more destructive elements of competition. This then can enable a process which benefits all parties involved.   I believe that it is through such dialogue that we are more likely to sit at the table of the well-fed and happy, with both our colleagues and our competitors, rather than the table of the starving and miserable!!

Mark Head

 

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