The problem is not competition, but the competitors

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Karin Brand shares her personal reflections on the sources of competition and how competition can be of value.

Is competition still healthy in today’s times where the societal problems are so big that no one-man or woman can solve it alone? Would it not just be better for us to all work together towards a common goal? If you ask these questions the broad spectrum of answers is quite amazing.

Generally, the competitive personalities would answer that it is about the recognition and some not just piggy backing on other’s success without playing an equal part. The non-competitive personalities would, generally lean towards it being all about the greater good, and the experience is more important than the outcome. So, the question must then also be asked is what makes certain people more competitive than others? Inglehart and Baker (2000) stated that despite dramatic economic, political, and social change, the impact of a society’s cultural heritage persists to shape values and beliefs. Then I wonder, are we as a South Africans shaped to be more competitive and is this somehow connected to our heritage of complexities across the cultures or is this connected to our school system that is, in my opinion, loaded with volumes of work that requires an excessive amount of time just to get through it, rather than teaching skills like research and group work.

Illustration by Mieke Verster

Recently my sister visited from New Zealand. She and her family immigrated 10 years ago, one reason being that her husband was a bit burned out from working crazy hours, work pressure and competitiveness being immense in his industry. The move to New Zealand was refreshing as they have such a good family culture, people do not work late and have more family time. This he enjoyed, for a while, but the slow pace and lack of innovation slowly became frustrating as he was himself driven by an internal need to accomplish continuously a goal and move forward. Fast forward 10 years, and he has again worked his way up into a high-pressure position but is once again feeling the pressure of what you have to put in to get into that position. So, the irony for me is that now he is not really having to compete for a job, but he has to be able to handle pressure. He really noticed how his colleagues at work were much worse at handling pressure, having to take regular breaks from work if they were confronted with high pressure situations where he would just (or felt he had to) push through. Why? Probably a combination of personality and cultural heritage.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Timothy Gunn, a paediatric neuropsychologist, said competitions should teach children that it is not always just the best or the brightest who are successful, but rather that those who work hard and persevere can be very successful too. The key for me is thus, in the words of Devan McGuinness (on the website Parents): “When done right, competition can help your children learn skills they’ll use throughout their lives”.

The problem is not the competition, but in how it is presented by parents, teachers, employers and how it is interpreted by the competitors. Healthy competition helps a person to grow and give their best. However, if the benefits and reasons for competition are not explained, especially to young children, competitors may think that they have to be the best instead of realizing that the process of participation (in a competition) is what makes you grow, and that this growth is of value. The person’s self-worth should not be measured by whether they win or lose. It is important to have a balanced life where your roots are in many fields and all the feedback is not from one area. It is being able to pick yourself up and say, I am disappointed, but I have other successes, so it is okay. In that way you can learn to keep going because the prize is personal growth, not an accolade or trophy.

Karin Brand

Psychologist in private practice,

Inglehart, R., & Baker, W. E. (2000). Modernization, cultural change, and the persistence of traditional values. American Sociological Review, 65, 19-51

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