How Competitive Are You?

Are you watching the Olympics? The Olympic Games are all about competition. It’s thrilling to watch the best athletes in the world compete in everything from swimming to track and field to fencing to discus. There is no doubt that the competition raises the level of performance.

Competition has many positives: it’s a powerful motivator, spurring people to do more than they would otherwise. Winning a competition provides tremendous satisfaction. In a team competition, deep relationships develop among teammates as they strive to do their best.
Competition exists in many arenas besides sports, of course. I was never in sports, but I was always competitive about grades in school. Siblings compete for their parents’ attention. Businesses compete for customers. Sometimes churches compete for members. Competition in all of these arenas, like sports, may be a useful motivator, and give people energy to do important work.

Still, competition can bring out our immaturity. The doping scandals show the disadvantage of the win-at-any-cost approach. Winning can be a very serious matter, and losing can destroy someone who has everything vested in winning. When our sense of identity depends on winning, we can find ourselves in trouble. What happens if I lose? Who am I then?

James Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games (Ballantine Books, 1987), suggests, “There are at least two kinds of games….A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” He also says, “A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.” He is really talking about zero-sum games and non-zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, there is only a certain amount to be won: only one gold medal per event. By contrast, in a non-zero-sum games, what can be “won” can be multiplied, like building community.

We all experience elements of both games in our lives. In a business, there may be a limited number of customers we could win. A church in a small town only has so many people it might be able to reach. A student can only take so many classes in his or her schedule. Conversely, we can experience an infinite amount of growth in our lives. There’s an infinite amount of love. The most important things in life may be about learning from experience and maturing emotionally and spiritually, not about winning any competition

For most of us, being the best in the world is not an option, no matter what our field. Still, I can be the best me I can be, competing only with myself. I can play the infinite game with strength, as Carse suggests. I can increase my own strength in a way that isn’t at the expense of others. That’s in everyone’s best interest.

7 replies on “How Competitive Are You?

  • Jan Nesse

    I think the “biological” thing that we’re talking about is what theologically we call original sin…that need to focus on the self as number 1. But what I was really impressed with in this article is the direction to which it calls churches as “living organisms.” Phyllis Trickle wrote an article in the latest Sojourners about the church of the 21st century being more of a network than an institution. It moves us out of the competitive mode and into a more cooperative place where discipleship becomes more important than grandiosity. Thanks for the insight.

  • Tripp Hudgins

    “A leap of faith” and this is grace, no? This is why Calvin speaks of depravity and others speak of fallen-ness…It’s all of a piece. Without God we cannot get there. Invariably we need Christ to intercede for us. Thanks for the response, Margaret. I appreciate it. I think today’s lectonary reading speaks to this issue as well…Matthew 15:10-28…Competition turned on its ear by faith.

  • Jason Gamble

    I agree that there is something biological about competition in humans, among individual humans, and among human systems. When a baseball team wins the world series, it’s members often comment on the level of ‘team effort’, although our culture forces a new Chevrolet on one member in recognition that they are the MVP.
    I was thinking last night that the European conquest of North America was the most ‘successful’ invasion of all time. Within a few hundred years white Europeans decimated the competing indigenous populations as well as wildlife populations of this enormous continent, restructured its ecosystems, and vastly increased the total population of the land. But in the end, having done so may lead to our own demise. Can we control the lizard brain that wants us to do more, get more, have more than our immediate and distant neighbors? No, we can’t. At least, not without God’s help.
    I believe that the way of Jesus Christ disengages from the competitive and moves toward a cooperative ‘kingdom’ where there can be enough for all if we check our obsessions with getting enough.

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Thanks, Tripp, for this thoughtful comment. I do think there is something biological about competition that we will never get away from completely, but cooperation also has biological roots, as I understand it. Both are probably hard-wired to some degree.

    I may not have explained Carse’s idea of the infinite game well enough. I think he would say that an infinite game has room for both of us to do better and better (however you want to definite “better”), and that in this kind of game the other doing well is just as important as my doing well.

  • Tripp Hudgins

    Good morning. Thanks for posting this. I struggle with competition. I have never been a competitive person and tend to shy away from any posture the church might take that would speak of competition. I am a HUGE fan of collaboration and cooperation within and without the church. The notion of “infinite game” is interesting, but it still speaks of the “Anything you can do I can do better” or “look at me!” Maybe I’m jaded.

    Thanks again for this post. I appreciate it.


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