Debunking the Myth: Competition is Not Necessary for Excellence

Is competition really necessary for success and is it human nature to compete? This popular myth has been debunked by researchers who have shown that the attitudes towards competition differ greatly across cultures. While some cultures are extremely competitive, others are more oriented towards cooperation, which supports the fact that competition is not an innate trait of the human species. On the contrary, anthropological research shows that the key to human survival was precisely in cooperation and mutual support. Alfie Kohn, the renowned author of the book “No Contest: The Case Against Competition,” argues that the idea of competition is overrated and harmful.

In his book, Kohn makes a compelling case against the popular notion that competition is necessary for success and growth. He argues that competition often leads to a focus on winning at all costs, which can damage relationships, hinder learning, and stifle creativity.

The Psychological Factors Behind Competition

Alfie Kohn argues that competition can have a significant psychological impact on individuals. In particular, he notes that low self-esteem is a necessary but not sufficient cause of competition. Other factors include a painful need to prove oneself and a socially accepted mechanism for doing so at the expense of others.

Kohn suggests that the desire for recognition and approval, as well as the fear of failure, can drive individuals to compete with others. The need for approval can stem from childhood experiences of seeking acceptance from parents or other authority figures. In adulthood, this need may manifest as a desire for validation from coaches, colleagues, or even strangers. The fear of failure, on the other hand, can be a result of societal pressure to achieve success and avoid being seen as a loser.

Kohn emphasizes the importance of understanding the psychological mechanisms at play in competition and questioning cultural norms that prioritize winning over cooperation and mutual respect. He advocates for a shift towards a more collaborative and supportive approach that values growth and learning rather than simply defeating others.

The connection between competition and self-esteem

One of the primary values that we are taught to uphold is self-esteem. A healthy personality is thought to have high self-esteem, which suggests an unwavering belief in one’s own worth. It is an essential foundation upon which life is built, ideally not dependent on the approval of others or even undermined when we make mistakes.

While cultural norms may contribute to our competitive behaviour, it is important to recognise the specific ways in which we are trained to act competitively and the impact it has on our perception of self-worth.

Alfie Kohn about competition

The importance of self-esteem in psychological well-being and interpersonal relationships

Alfie Kohn starts from the assertion that we compete to overcome fundamental doubts about our abilities and, as such, competition can be seen as a mechanism of defense against low self-esteem. In this sense, competition can provide a temporary boost to self-esteem, but it is also fragile and subject to the whims of others.

A lack of self-esteem, on the other hand, is at the root of a wide range of psychological disorders. The theorist Karen Horney described all neuroses as a lack of “basic trust” in oneself. Another neo-Freudian, Harry Stack Sullivan, wrote that “ordinary low self-esteem actually makes it hard to hold good feelings toward another person.”

Low self-esteem is thus a necessary but not sufficient cause of competition. The ingredients include a painful need to prove oneself and an approved mechanism for doing so at the expense of other people.

The importance of others’ approval – victory as a condition for acceptance

Alfie Kohn, also emphasises the negative effects of seeking external validation through competition. He argues that relying on approval from others through winning competitions can lead to a lack of intrinsic motivation and hinder personal growth. Kohn suggests that individuals should focus on personal improvement and growth rather than seeking validation from external sources. By prioritising personal growth and development, individuals can build a stronger sense of self-esteem and self-worth that is not dependent on external validation.

Approval is often sought from spectators as well, and this applies not only to athletic competitions. Other types of competitions offer the same type of reinforcement. There are office colleagues who quickly find out about someone’s promotion, dinner companions who listen to someone’s superior game, and other students who see their name on the honor roll posted on the wall. Furthermore, as Stuart Walker notes, competitors seek to be admired and accepted by those against whom they compete.

Challenging Cultural Norms and Prioritising Collaboration and Growth

While competition may be a question of social structure, it has real and significant effects on individuals. It is essential to understand the psychological mechanisms at play in order to mitigate the negative effects of competition and promote healthy self-esteem.

Alfie Kohn suggests that we need to reconsider the way we approach competition and shift our focus towards a more collaborative and supportive environment. This requires us to prioritize the development of positive relationships and teamwork, as opposed to solely seeking victory over others.

The emphasis should be on promoting cooperation, mutual respect, and the well-being of all individuals involved. By adopting this approach, we can create a healthier and more productive environment that benefits everyone involved.