Reflecting on competition

Is it possible to neither accept nor reject the notion of competition? Zurab Janelidze approaches competition from the perspective of abstract mathematics.

Illustration by Zurab Janlidze

Competition measures the success of those who compete based on criteria set out in advance. Without setting out the criteria in advance, the competition will not be fair. If I am taking part in a competition, I need to know against which criteria my performance will be assessed. Once I know that, if I am determined to have a meritorious achievement in the competition, I will focus on fulfilling those criteria. The goal of succeeding in the competition will have a principal influence on what I will do in my preparation for succeeding in the competition. My activities in such preparation will thus be geared towards getting myself to excel in the criteria that have been  set out. I will be careful not to get side-tracked in this process so that I do not shift away from the goal.

The word ‘competition’ can be understood in a broader sense too, with the elaboration above being still applicable. Here are two such examples:

  • Meeting a deadline can be seen as a competition. In this competition, you either win or lose.
  • Preparing for an exam can be seen as a competition. Here, the results of your performance are typically graded. Achieving less than a certain grade is a definite loss, and more — a definite win.

In principle, we may think of anything where rules that determine success have been set out in advance and where there is a definite point in time where your performance will be judged against these rules, a competition. In this way, one’s life itself can be seen as a competition perhaps: the rule is to remain happy, and the point in time when the assessment will take place is the time of biological death. Now, here is a question: do you think you will have a meaningful life striving to be happy as an outcome of your life? Replace happiness with anything else which may be more important for you and ask the same question. For me, the answer to this question is ‘no’. Am I saying that I prefer not to know what the criteria are by which my success will be measured? No, I am not saying that either. For, if I said that, then it would follow that if I live a life where I do not know what it means to have a successful life, then I would consider having lived a successful life. Put simply, neither do I accept competition, at any level in fact, nor do I reject it. But how is this possible Is this logically sound? Must it not be so that competition is either good or bad? Not at all. Abstract mathematics shows that quite beautifully. This is how.

First of all, through abstract mathematics, we come to know that anything logical must begin with a system of beliefs, which in mathematics are called ‘axioms’. As much as we want to be logical, we must come to terms with the fact that the only way to confirm those beliefs is to base it on another belief system — so beliefs always come first. Confirming a statement based on a set of beliefs means being able to build up to that statement using logical rules (which are themselves beliefs); in other words, to find what in mathematics is called a ‘proof’ of the statement. There are numerous examples in mathematics where for a given axiomatic system (in ordinary language, for a given belief system), a given statement neither has a proof nor its negation has a proof. So, it is quite normal for something not to be true and neither to be false. When this happens, we usually think of the framework described by the belief system as ‘abstract’. For instance, if we talk about an abstract human being called Peter (so the only axiom on Peter is that he is a human being), then neither it is true that Peter speaks English and nor it is true that he does not speak English. If it had been a concrete Peter, then one of the two would be true. But our Peter is an abstract Peter — he could be the English Peter or the Japanese Peter who does not speak English.

Illustration by Zurab Janelidze

Because since our Peter is an abstract Peter, whatever conclusions we make about him would have to apply to all Peters, not just some of them. So if we say he speaks English, then all Peters must speak English. If we say that he does not speak English, then no Peters should be able to speak English. So clearly, neither is it true that the abstract Peter speaks English, nor that he does not speak English. In the belief system that I have in life, neither is it true that competition is useful/meaningful, nor is it true that competition is useless/meaningless. In fact, in my belief system, this concept plays no role at all. You might say then that based on the discussion above I have a very abstract approach to life — this is relative, but of course, I do; show me someone who has a concrete approach to life and I will (mathematically) prove you wrong.

However, what I said above about my belief system is about to change (our belief system evolves, of course). I am very close to adopting a belief that competition hinders one from acquiring knowledge at a deeper cognitive level. If I adopt this belief, it will have significant consequences on my life. I will then know that every time I have to meet a deadline, the work that I will produce will be of low quality and every time I request my students to write an exam, the knowledge that they will acquire in the process of preparing for the exam will be of low quality too — even if they score full marks. I have not explained why I am thinking of adopting the belief above. Well, if I could reason it out, it means it is a consequence of my existing beliefs, and I already said above it is not. Therefore, I cannot reason it out. The absolute truth is, I just have a hunch, after rereading the first paragraph of this text.

Prof. Zurab Janelidze

Department of Mathematical Sciences,

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