Does Competition Bring Out the Best in Us?

Artwork by: Merrell Hatton

A proverb states that “competition is the whetstone of talent” and Henry Clay said that “of all human powers operating on the affairs of mankind, none is greater than that of competition.”

On the other hand, it has also been said that “though competition brings out the best in products, it brings out the worst in people,” [David Sarnoff], and an unknown author observed, “Those that want to win have a horrible tendency to punch the best player on the other team when nobody is looking.”

Maybe it’s simply the makeup of the human brain that makes us this way, but it seems that competition has always been in our nature. We compete for glory, money, popularity, and sometimes even survival. We often enjoy watching others compete. It seems that where there are people, there is competition. The question that we have pondered for ages, though, is whether or not competition is beneficial, or even necessary.

CAN everyone really be equal? This notion is very well communicated by Kurt Vonnegut in his satirical story “Harrison Bergeron.” Within this story, those who succeed are handicapped by various devices, in order to be brought down to the level of everyone else. Those who are unfortunate enough to be handsome are forced to wear masks. Gifted athletes are burdened by heavy and uncomfortable weights. And those who are intelligent are forced to wear earpieces that emit sounds that quite rudely interrupt their train of thought. Is this really fair?

CAN everyone really be equal?

Many believe that competition is the oil behind the wheels of effective civilization. This is because it powers economies, encourages businesses, ensures that the best possible work is done, and even gives cause to get outdoors and have fun. Healthy competition can be found in everything from sailing to baseball to business. Take, for example, the famous rivalry between the baseball powerhouses, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Without this rivalry and others like it, the entire sport of baseball would consist of no more than a group of grown men running around rubber bases on a well worn infield. Who would want to watch that?

Others, though, may say it is competition that is tearing civilization apart. Nowadays, employees are so terrifyingly obsessed with outselling each other that they seem to be far too occupied with work to spend time with family. For instance, in the United States, working over 40 hours per week has become the norm. This is often viewed as one of the major flaws of the capitalist system. While it rewards innovation, capitalism places far too much emphasis upon work. As the German philosopher Karl Marx noted, “Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer.”

Children, too, fall victim to the downside of competition, whether it is sports, fashion, or academics. For example, sports players often spend their afternoons practicing rather than doing homework, or hanging out with their family. Many young children even carry this notion of winning to ridiculous extremes, such as war games. Is something wrong with our society if four-year-old children will go so far as to spend entire summer days pretending to kill each other, out of “the fun of competition”?

However, the biggest problem that many people have with competition is that the winner takes all, while the loser is left in the shadows. With every loss, these shadows deepen, until at some point the loser is swallowed, and the winner is standing alone in the limelight. Being the loser in this situation would be extremely degrading. For this reason, both losing and winning are an art. Wouldn’t you rather be the humble and accepting loser, rather than the pompous and sneering winner? For many, the answer is no. They would rather be the winner at any cost. It is altogether difficult to master the act of accepting defeat, or embracing victory. Unfortunately, the art of competing is not often taught. We are left with the raw emotion of either being on a pinnacle, or being left, alone, by the wayside. From an emotional standpoint, it seems that competition may either build you up, or tear you down.

Because of all of the emotional damage that competition causes, many people find themselves wishing that our world was completely competition free. When we think about this, though, isn’t it a bit like punishing those who succeed for being successful? While capitalism may have its problems, communism also has its pitfalls. If everyone is equal, then how, and by whom is the world to be governed? Diana Moon Glampers, the “Handicapper General” in Vonnegut’s story, has no handicaps herself, despite the fact that she is athletic and extremely intelligent. Translate this to the real world. Communist societies, based on equality for all, are often run by dictators. The balance between communism and capitalism is difficult to achieve. A world without competition would not only be unfair to those who are successful, but it would be close to unworkable in reality.

It is impossible to say whether competition is beneficial or detrimental. If practiced in excess it can be ugly, but it could be argued that our world wouldn’t be the vibrant place that it is today without competition. Can we fulfill our potential as humans without competition? That is for you to answer.

Ben Decker is a seventh grader at Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth, Maine. He enjoys playing soccer, reading, writing, and spending time with his siblings and friends.

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