Musings on a Competitive Culture

From a local message board, the common criticism of participation medals:
"Everyone's a winner... we are raising a nation of mediocrity."

While a "nation of mediocrity" may be the result of our intentions, I think that the message culture sends to individuals and especially young folks is loud and clear. If there is a cultural dogma today that everyone believes, it is they must achieve at the very highest levels in order to be a successful member of society. In my practice as an academic adviser, it has become clear to me that young people today hear adults talk about competitiveness and winning ad nauseam, and they are afraid that they won't be strong enough to survive. See, for example, the trailer for the movie "Race to Nowhere."

The effect of dogma, all too often, is contrary to the intentions that motivate it. The young person, upon hearing this lesson, rationally and intelligently surveys his abilities. When these abilities turn out to be more or less like everyone else's, the young person makes a rational decision according to the dominant cultural tale. He accepts mediocrity. Obviously, logically, everyone can't be a winner. And in this way, we learn to accept our compensatory and banal participation medal, and just hope for the best. Thus the paradox is explained: although no society in human history has ever extolled to such a high extent the value of the competitive spirit and individual effort, no society has ever been so filled with human beings that seem unable to give any effort at all. 

Perhaps that's because winning is a complex human practice that requires the long development of a variety of virtues. It also requires dependence on other people, on friends, coaches, families, and sometimes an entire community of support. This fact is obvious to anyone who has ever won anything. But, for some strange cultural reason, a victory is almost always seen as an individual achievement and sold to the next generation as the effect of a single variable: the competitive individual will.

Of course adults--sane adults--know that success in life has as much to do with compassion as it does competitiveness. They know that a competitive spirit that is not balanced, friendly, full of good humor, and able to lose well will be unhappy with himself and won't be able to achieve his own goals. They also know that the value of winning is measured by the strength of the relationships formed in the effort, not in the glory that may redound after the fact to the winning individual.

If the worry is social mediocrity, perhaps it would be better to assess the mediocre goal that our own society has set for itself: the private accumulation of money. Somewhere along the way, the American ideal of freedom to live as your please, the implementation of democratic ideals of social opportunity, rich experience, and self re-creation got repackaged and sold as the dream of making enough money to not to have to worry about social problems. The American ideal of individuals taking responsibility for the social outcomes and opportunities in their communities got replaced by the flat ideal of individuals taking responsibility for their own private financial health. 

What does winning mean today? Why don't people put forward the effort to win? Why do they lack competitive spirit? Perhaps the cause of mediocre efforts is the unworthiness of the goals that are most commonly offered as the outcomes of those efforts. After all, the value of any effort or will can only be taken in terms of the actual results that the will accomplishes. Maybe the reason people are lazy has very little to do with the innate character of individuals and more to do with a social structure that is unable to show the relation between an individual drive and the social soil out of which that drive rises and to which it must return.

The dirty little secret of champion distance runners? They love to run. They love their training partners. They love their coaches. They follow the history of running, and they participate in the community. Their running is a rich social practice that develops the whole individual, not just lungs and hearts, but mind and spirit. Sure, they are competitive sons (and daughters) of bitches. Absolutely they have individual talent. Yes, they are willing to sacrifice certain elements of themselves to the desire to win. But the real challenge that they were able to meet was the the refinement of the desire to win into a practice that leads to joy, meaning, and individual human flourishing. The only way that the desire to win can be maintained is by connecting it to moments of compassion, by weaving it through moments of genuine friendship, and by opening one's self up to the aid of others. 

That's the promise of democracy: it is built on the insight that social concern and individual achievement are intertwined concepts. The great irony of the distance race is that it takes the efforts of hundreds of people to create even the possibility of a winner of the race. Streets have to be cordoned off. Timers have to be set. Awards announced. A race is a social construct precisely designed to bring out the best in human beings, to inspire them out of their laziness, and to allow them to discover their own wills. It is an organization crafted to bring out great and noble extremes of human effort. This fact is too easy to forget these days, but if we forget it, we end up with neither social organization nor individual achievement. Only lazy wealth, hopeless poverty, and mediocre attempts to bridge the gap.


  1. Jeff, this post doesn't sound as positive as you frequently sound. There's a lot of anti-Rand (is that even a word) in it. Thank goodness everything is not quite so black and white and perhaps a little gray--at least at times. I enjoyed your latest post a lot. Horse--nay. More like an old, grey mare!


  2. Hi Hara,
    Indeed, most of the time I try to kinda get myself in that non-reactive affirmative state when I write, but I guess sometimes all the political mumbo jumbo gets to me.

    I read The Fountainhead back in my youth--9th grade, I think--and it made quite an impression on me. Since then, I've read some more and lived some more and the black and white got a little grayer and more colorful, too!

    Thanks as always for reading!

  3. People place too much emphasis on things that they think other people want, and think nothing of what they want or need. Having wealth in and of itself is not necessarily bad nor good. But if you strive for wealth so that you can somehow show it off to other people, then you fall into the trap of being focused on what other people desire (or your own impressions of what other people desire, which is usually based on your unchecked desires).

    The successful runners, as you say, are the ones who run out of sheer love of running. This idea, of course, is the same for any pursuit. If you lack passion and interest, you're never going to put forth any significant effort. I suppose the question is, what is your motivation for doing what you do? Is it intrinsically motivated, or is it based on external factors?

  4. I've been reading Emerson quite a bit lately and thinking about the project of self-culture, which was something the stoics passed on. There is tremendous social benefit in self-culture: that's the true meaning of democracy. Unfortunately, these days, self-culture seems to have been reduced to a purely pecuniary process. Running is a way to resist that and take up the task of self-culture in a way that is non-conformist in that deep democratic way that Emerson offered.

    Thanks for your comments, Scout. Maybe I can wring another post out of you one of these days.


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