I went for a bike ride last Saturday. I rode on up to Central Park, and started cruising around the 6 mile loop there, which is closed to cars on the weekends so all I had to watch out for was slow-moving families. I’m cranking along, pedalling away so that I get a good workout. Then two guys on road bikes blow past me. Of course, even though I thought I had been riding hard, I immediately started pedalling much faster so that I could try to keep up with them, which I did for a couple miles before falling back.
What’s the moral of the story? Competition is good. I never push myself as hard as other people do. It takes the thrill of competition and the threat of losing to make myself push my limits further than I think they will go.
The same holds true in sports. One of the reasons why I prefer playing sports to individual workouts is that I go much harder when playing sports. When I play ultimate frisbee, I’ll be running for hours, with intermittent sprinting because I want to catch the frisbee and/or keep my counterpart from doing so. When I go jogging by myself, it’s an achievement when I can force myself to trudge along for 45 minutes. I get a much better workout when it’s framed as a competition.
Some people are self-motivated, able to push themselves to their limits without any outside influences. I think they’re probably the exception, though. Most people need the threat of competition to raise their game, to seize the moment. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
American society is based around competition. We compete for class rank or to be on varsity sports teams as children. We compete to get into colleges. We compete for jobs. Our companies compete with each other endlessly. We prohibit monopolies to ensure that there is always competition, so that companies are always pushing each other to do better. And it seems like this competition has spurred innovation and wealth creation at a level unprecedented in history.
A story I really like, I think from The Art of Project Management, is that a certain factory was performing poorly, with its production not matching other factories in the company. The company’s president visited the factory to find out what was going on. He poked around a bit, didn’t see anything obviously wrong with the factory. He told the plant foreman that he was going to increase productivity, but he needed a piece of chalk. The foreman quizzically gave him chalk. He then asked the night shift, which was leaving, how many widgets they had made on their shift. They said 6. He drew a big 6 on the wall in chalk. The day shift came in, saw the big 6, and asked what it meant. When they finished their shift, they erased the 6 and put up a 7. The night shift came back with an 8. Soon the factory, once a laggard, was exceeding other factories in productivity. Competition.
Sometimes our society takes it too far, where there is not a sufficient safety net to catch those that fall. And I’m not sure about the effect of constant competition on our happiness and contentment levels. But it certainly pushes us to achieve more. And I think that’s a good thing, being the overachiever wannabe that I am.