Thursday, 25 January 2018

Competition and Cooperation

In my experience, Friends are keen to emphasise cooperation over competition. Whether it be with our children and young people, or in our approach to the world at large, it is obviously true to the Quaker way of thinking that working together is better than working in opposition.
And yet, competition and cooperation are not inherently opposing concepts. Competition has its positives, and a preference for cooperation to the extent that we lose those advantages will do us, and wider society, less good than we might hope. Competition does not preclude cooperation, and need not even be in tension with it; seeing them as alternatives is both reductionist and counterproductive.
Competition is not always adversarial. Where we have different ideas of how to do something, and enough resources to try both, then we ensure the best outcome by making a sincere trial of both ways, and see what works best. It is no censure to those who suggested the idea that “lost”, but rather a validation of the possibility that their idea was worth listening to, even if another idea ended up performing better. If we had insisted on deciding on just one of those ideas, so that we could fully cooperate on a single strategy, we would not know if we had chosen correctly – and however spirit-led or consensus-driven the decision-making had been, those supporting the idea passed over may feel that they lost, at least as much as if the idea is tried and doesn't measure up. It is often better to feel trusted enough for your ideas to be worth trying, and see that they didn't work as well as you might hope, than to have your idea dismissed without a chance.
Friendly competition more generally also provides a fillip for self-improvement that is hard to replicate otherwise. Two or more people, striving to do better than the other – even if they wish no harm to the other, and do them no harm by winning, and take no harm by losing – will push themselves to do so. That ongoing interaction represents not opposition, but a yardstick to measure against that is external, and capable of its own growth.
Competition and rivalry can easily be taken too far, especially in younger people, but they are not anathema to growth and happiness. But when part of a cooperative, nurturing and constructive culture, they can promote self-improvement, learning and development.
Written January 2018
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