Two decades ago, a scholar named Alfie Kohn wrote a book titled No Contest: The Case Against Competition. In his book, Kohn defines competition as mutually exclusive goal attainment where the success of one party requires the failure of another. He then examines four popular myths about competition: 1) Competition is an inevitable expression of human nature. 2) Competition is necessary for excellence, productivity, and creativity. 3) Competition is the best or only way to have fun. 4) Competition builds character. After reviewing hundreds of empirical studies that debunk each of these myths, Kohn concludes that we need a radically new vision for society, involving new attitudes as well as new social structures, based on cooperation rather than competition.
In many ways, my own book, Beyond the Culture of Contest, picks up where Kohn’s book leaves off by examining the social and ecological consequences of the prevailing culture of contest and by exploring alternatives to this culture. People who read my work sometimes ask me: “Don’t you think there is any positive role for competition in human affairs?” Ultimately, the answer to this question depends on how one defines competition. The problem, as I see it, is that when people use the word “competition” they tend to conflate: (A) the self-interested pursuit of mutually exclusive goals that results in winners and losers, with (B) striving to overcome challenges in the pursuit of excellence, productivity, and creativity.
Based on all available empirical evidence that Kohn and many others have presented, my conclusion is that there is no positive role for A in a just and sustainable social order, while B is central to the construction of such an order. The good news, in this regard, is that B does not depend on A. On the contrary, the evidence shows that self-interested competition actually tends to undermine excellence, productivity, and creativity. Rather, these outcomes tend to spring from a range of other motives – such as the intrinsic rewards of excellence, productivity, and creativity; and the motivation to contribute to the betterment of the world; and a sense of a higher meaning and purpose in life.
Furthermore, self-interested competition is not an inevitable expression of human nature. Rather, the evidence shows that humans have the capacity for both competition and cooperation, and which of these we develop is largely a function of our social environment. In this context, the main questions that remain in my mind are the same questions posed over a century ago by Bahá’u’lláh from his prison cell in Akka:“How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society? The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective.”