The Case Against Competition

Follow HumanaNatura On Facebook and Twitter

By Mark Lundegren

Having just finished No Contest: The Case Against Competition, by Alfie Kohn, fully twenty years after its first publication, I feel like a person arriving late to a gathering, only to find the event has not yet begun. 

Kohn’s book and urgent theme may not be new, but I would recommend as strongly as I can this provocative, original, and gentle but radical critique of our still increasingly competitive society (that seems increasingly unable to see its alternatives).  Kohn’s many poignant observations, insights, and conclusions are as timely today as when first written and seem perennially compelling.  All have most certainly withstood, and may even have been strengthened, by the proverbial test of time.

However you may feel today about the merits of competition and the alternative of cooperation, you will agree that the implications of your feelings are considerable, for you and, in the aggregate, for us all.  Your feelings about competition are fundamental to the way you will live your life each day, to the world you will wake up to and work to create (and accept), and to how you will think about and treat those of us who are near you, throughout the course of your life.

Across twenty-five online reviews of No Contest I surveyed, spanning a decade, the book garners a solid four out of five star rating, but this average belies a strongly divergent pattern of individual reviews that I think is important and telling.  There are mostly four- and five-star ratings and words of praise and encouragement for what is an excellent and thorough book, but consistently about twenty percent of people who review the work rank it poor and offer comments that are, well, often quite dismissive.  This latter set of reviews seem, in some cases, to lack poignancy and originality, an infraction Kohn cannot be accused of, and some are quite aggressive and even hostile.  I suspect that if No Contest was more widely read in our time, and more frequently reviewed, the percentage of detractors would be far higher.

I bring up this persistent pattern of negative reactions to No Contest, not to belittle its detractors, but because it underscores a central hypothesis of Kohn’s work: that competition, and the competitive structures and mindsets it fosters, works to alter us.  Empirically, they bias us to be reactive and aggressive, closed to new ideas and inimical to alternatives, and resistive to and even obstinate about changes to the rules of the games we play (even to the games we are made to play).  Kohn challenges us to imagine a new game, called cooperation.  Does this game sound strange, uncertain, and threatening to you?  Many people seem to think so and to think, perhaps idealistically themselves, that it is an idealistic proposition.

In his remarkable book, Kohn catalogues extensive research into the ways competition makes us less sensitive, less productive, less creative, and even less intelligent.  He documents findings that suggest competition narrows our personal focus and thereby makes us less able or likely to see our frames of reference for what they are – constructed frames we refer to – frames that are enabling and necessary, but also that are ultimately limiting and expandable, and as such, ultimately indefensible.  Life in competitive structures, life in competitive worldviews, even may make us less engaged in life itself, as it almost certainly and near universally makes us less engaged in others and their lives.

I came to discover No Contest on the recommendation of a friend, after a brief but lasting conversation on the practical virtues of cooperation, and after some months of thinking about competition and its role in and impact on our health and social environment.  As a friend, though we may not have yet met, I will recommend this important and thought-provoking book to you as well, and invite you into my original, still echoing conversation about the alternative of cooperation. 

As I make this recommendation to you, it is with a conviction that Kohn’s No Contest will at least give you an interesting perspective on contemporary life, that it may provoke and irritate you, and that it may, as other reviewers have noted, cause you to wake up and live differently each day.  I certainly feel this third way.  I feel that Kohn has nurtured, expanded, better grounded in science an earlier notion of mine:  cooperation, not competition as has been held for centuries, is the natural and most beneficial state of human beings.

As a book, No Contest is nearly flawless technically, especially given its generally uncharted or at least unassimilated subject, the then young age of its author, and even after twenty years of opportunities for alternatives and even as it is a disagreeable work to many people. I found the book well planned and elegantly written, finely passionate, carefully reasoned, worth having for the bibliography alone, and of course potentially mind-altering in its assembled evidence and conclusions.  The book was not what I expected, and it will likely not be what you expect now, with divergent views and reviews apt to continue for as long as the book is read. 

A divergence of views of this sort seems inevitable and should be perpetually welcomed as an opportunity to illustrate and give force Kohn’s thesis, as I have done.  No Contest counters the vast and driving weight of our modern intuition and sensibility that competition is good, and the now abundant extrinsic benefits of advanced technology and global commerce, attributed to competition but perhaps only superficially true.  And even as Kohn has, firmly on his side, the increasing intrinsic poverty and despair of people across the world, as the lives and traditional communities are globalized.  This last set of facts seems, to me, to be an important and stunningly overlooked piece of evidence, amidst all the familiar pronouncements on virtue of competition. 

Some earlier reviewers have criticized No Contest for not offering enough practical guidance, but I am happy to be left to think about and act on its many ideas and conclusions for myself and with others.  Still, we all live in a practical world and so do need to wonder a bit:  if cooperation is superior to competition in category after category of human affairs, if it consistently produces more creative and satisfied, and healthier and saner people, why is there simply not more of it around us?  Perhaps cooperation is more widespread than we realize, undergirding but frequently overshadowed by more obvious acts of competition that attract more attention.

As I said, I am willing to consider this question and the many others Kohn’s book engenders, and I hope you are too.  Computer modeling and game theory of the last two decades may offer new insights into the apparent patterns of competition and cooperation around us today, but as yet not a path to the new and more beneficial states of ubiquitous cooperation posed as possible, more sustainable, and more desirable by Kohn. (I would welcome being updated on advances in game theory and systems modeling).

The organizational psychologists Chris Argyris and Donald Schon wrote, beginning in the 1970s and well before Kohn’s book, about typical “Model I” and, far more effective, “Model II” group dynamics.  I always was comfortable with these tidy non-labels.  Having read No Contest, though, I am now inclined to think they could have named, and that we should rightly now name, these interactive styles for what they really may be: competitive and cooperative group dynamics.  I’ll leave you to consider this idea too, one of many that spill out, into heads and rooms, during a reading or discussion of No Contest.

To end somewhat near where I began, No Contest is an awakening for many people and an irritant and even an outrage for probably many more of us today, no doubt to all who are disciples and ideologues of economic liberalism and committed to the game and ethic of competition.  In me, No Contest stirred both a child and an old man, each wiser in the way children and elders can be wiser than us in mid-life, in their propensity for innocence to new ideas and in their indifference to so many external, accepted, and seemingly emphatic things in our lives.

I hope No Contest will be this for you, and still more. 

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!

Health As Odyssey

Follow HumanaNatura On Facebook and Twitter

By Mark Lundegren

Does it ever seem that natural health is a test of sorts? 

By this, I mean a personal challenge of discovery and learning, even if only by trial and error at times.  How about if I asked if you ever see your quest for health and well-being as an adventure or an odyssey, like the original? 

I have found the first idea fairly common among health-minded people today, people at many different stages of uncovering their health.  The second idea, however, is far less common, even though it is often much closer to the truth of pursuing health in our time and over our lives.  This often overlooked, but often quite accurate perspective, that our quest for health is an odyssey, is thus an opportunity for learning and potentially for new health in our lives too.

HumanaNatura advocates exploration of our natural health in a pragmatic and iterative way, encouraging us to reconsider our health as it improves and matures throughout the course of our lives, in what we call the practice of natural living.  Natural living can be summarized as the pursuit of health, in and with our lives. This phrase highlights the idea that health in our lives is related to, but distinct from, health with our lives. 

Creating health in our lives involves replacing unhealthy habits and outlooks with new behaviors and approaches that more directly and immediately promote our health – in other words, improving our health amidst our lives.  Pursuing health with our lives is more than this, and usually begins after we have eliminated obvious impediments to our health and well-being.  These impediments may unnatural eating and activity patterns, as well as specific personal and cultural habits and biases that directly inhibit our health.  Natural health with our lives comes next.  It is the changing of our life and its course for still fuller and more authentic expressions of our health and self.

Pursuing health in our life can be seen as health as a means, while health with our life is health as an end.  Together, they can combine to form a progressive and open-ended approach to pursuing new and healthier life.  When we speak of health with our life, as an end and destination and not simply as a means, it is obviously a far bigger and more personal commitment to growth and change.  In committing to our health in this larger way, in fact, we open ourselves to the potential for and even the near certainty of new and challenging perspectives and experiences.  We open ourselves up, in other words, to the prospect and likelihood of odyssey.

As we commit to seeking greater health, to health in and then health with our lives, we soon learn that this requires us to become far more attentive and observant as people – attentive in the way we perceive both outwardly and inwardly. We must look outside ourselves to nature and the science and facts of our human history, to better understand the natural origins and many dimensions of our health.  We must observe carefully our society today, and civilization before our time, to understand the many impediments to our health, rooted in our history and present in our modernity. 

We must equally look outward on the world for opportunities for new health and life, ones now possible or that will be possible in the future – in both cases, ones that should be set out for today.  Because our outward look is first to and a learning primarily from nature, new opportunities for health are often quite ancient and recurring pathways, rooted in nature and our past and available now for expression in new ways.  Aspects of our natural health are thus often correctly seen as returnings to nature, even as they are adventures and movements forward, much like the protagonist Odysseus’ own legendary and adventurous forward movement of returning.

When we attend inwardly in our pursuit of natural health, we find similar hints of personal odyssey and ancient pathways in waiting. To become healthier and to live more fully, we must better understand ourselves and uncover inner feelings and impulses that may have been repressed earlier in our lives, especially as they might either mobilize or inhibit our health and well-being over the course of our lives.  Our health requires us to become more deeply aware of ourselves, exploring ourselves for ideas and new feelings, and then to summon our creativity and commitment in lifelong progressions to new growth and higher life.  With greater mastery of our inner life, new choices open and are made possible to and through us, choices leading even to our greatness as people, to adventure, and even to new expressions and ideas of human greatness.

To find or to create human greatness, the naturalist Emerson once advised that we must be willing to be heroic and to refuse as needed to reconcile ourselves with the world.  In our returning and progression to our natural health and vitality, this refusal certainly involves shunning the many unhealthy and even demeaning human norms and patterns that we see in the world today.  This refusing is often at the cost of old friendships and familiar ways of living, but is not yet the heroic.  Heroism, instead, must at least involve our working to change these unhealthy and dehumanizing patterns, whether they are old or new, in our communities and the world as we can.  Transcending them for ourselves alone is refusal only, and unlikely to engender greatness. 

In its higher reaches, our natural health has a selfless and even heroic quality, compelling us to help others to become healthier, to be freer and more open in the lives and closer to the natural world that contains us and is the source of our health.  Often, the cost of this selflessness and heroism in the name of our health, measured in ease and comfort, is high.  But this has always been true – the price of higher life has always been the many appeals of lower life.  Only with a heroism of sorts, only with both our refusal and our commitment to change, can we hope to not just achieve our health, but to help others find their health, and in doing so, fulfill our own full potential for health.  The alternative is to stop at refusal, in withdrawal and regression, and not to move forward in the unending and outward progression that is our health and the mark of all vibrant human life.

With this talk of commitment and heroism in mind, I’d like to return to the idea that the full pursuit of our health inevitably leads to and culminates in a life of adventure and challenge, and the prospect of personal odyssey.  This idea, of thinking of our health as the choice of a more challenging path for ourselves, of health as an odyssey-like movement forward in and returning to nature, is the inspiration for my title and the theme I wanted to leave with you today. In practice, all sustained and creative acts, including acts of pursuing new health and fuller life, form odysseys – personal, heroic, and transcendent journeys.  Creative life is a quest and test of our spirits, as odysseys are.  Life that demands a certain amount of fortitude and refusing, as odysseys will, from wherever they begin and across whatever expanse they traverse.

In a sense, it is not such a leap to say that the pursuit of health is akin to odyssey, a path of challenges and surprises.  After all, we each begin our pursuit of health with only a general sense of our destination and needed direction, or even with entirely incorrect beliefs about this direction, about the true nature of our health. The goal of true health and well-being, the goal of truth, is therefore always a path of unexpected turns and learnings, with shoals and sirens we must pass and pass successfully.  Our health is a challenge to us and our ideas about ourselves, as we proceed along our own length. Practiced fully and deliberately, creatively and vitally, our rise to the opportunity of our own health is also never formulaic. It is always personal, varied, uncertain, unfinished, and sometimes dangerous.  It is always a passage, and it is often an odyssey.

The original odyssey is, of course, the Odyssey.  The story of wily Odysseus’ long journey home from the Trojan War, still an engaging tale and a surprisingly easy read after more than 2500 years. Blown from his planned route with his ship and crew, and then finding himself alone in the wilderness and on the sea, the first odyssey is a tale of hardship, discovery, and triumph.  It is framed by our protagonist’s unrelenting desire to return from war, to return to his life and wife, even as this return is delayed and convoluted by remarkable encounters and turns of fate.   In these turns and encounters, so many of life’s lessons and patterns unfold.  The story is as penetrating and thought-provoking today as it has ever been, a classic from classical times.  It is a reminder that the quest for greatness and our own overcoming is perennial and universal in human life.  Though our challenges are of the present and future, as they always are, much has come before us that can remind and benefit us.

Our personal quests for health and fuller life, coming in modern times, can be like the original odyssey from classical times. The ascent to our health and truer self is often a journey of many years, of passing through strange and unfamiliar settings, and of difficult and sometimes even heroic and even life altering choices. Our progressions to health are often stories of triumphs and returns from conflict too, even if our wars are with our times and with misunderstanding.  Our war may even be our own inability to understand and foster our basic nature and needs as people, a conflict that may have began early in our lives and in centuries before our time. Our journeys to health and well-being are perilous at times too, when we must make hard, life-altering decisions, or venture into the unknown and risk being blown astray by unexpected forces.  In our search for health, as in the original odyssey, we almost certainly will encounter odd and even seductive entrapments, some seemingly standing for our health, but in reality obscuring its true nature, delaying and belaboring our returning.

The philosopher Nietzsche, a dedicated student and strong believer in ancient Greek culture and art, once suggested that, if we find ourselves adrift and exposed on an undulating sea, such as the many barren seas that pock our modern world – in other words if we find that we are caught up in personal odyssey – we should make land, promptly and even at high cost.  He advised us to seek safe harbor and shelter without delay. His presumption, metaphorically, was that with firm ground beneath us once again, we could begin to build new lives, and for Nietzsche not re-build old ones, in the aftermath of our estrangement on whatever was our odyssey and stretch of sea.

Odysseus’ lesson to us regarding odysseys and seaborne life is different.  It is more spirited and ambitious than this, befitting the younger and more spirited time in which he lived and the audacity of his sea-faring people.  His older example suggests that we should seek not just firm ground but ideal ground, high ground, and avoid all imperfect and even comforting lands.  Odysseus’ example to us is to suffer ordeal as we must, to stay on the sea and prolong our odyssey, as we must, and to fight and undulate with the waves until we reach the ground we need and want.  If we remember that Odysseus sought this high ground, tired and heavy hearted and returning from a ten year war, it is indeed a spirited and ambitious prescription.   It is the heroic ideal of classical times, from many centuries and withdrawls from nature ago, echoing and inspiring us through Emerson and others.  This ideal even berates and belittles us moderns, with all our knowledge and power, coming from a time when people were less knowing and powerful, but more vibrant and daring than many of us today.

Common to both lessons, of course, is our eventual need to find good harbor and to make land, to escape the perilous sea, its nagging winds and thorny beasts, to return from war and to have our returning and homecoming to nature, to endure and succeed in the odyssey of finding our health. As we pursue health and our own vitality, our higher reaches as people especially, each of us must decide if the land beneath or near us is adequate to support our goals of new health and new life, if it is land right for building and not just re-building.  Or if we must re-enter the sea for a time, or cross the land and sky, to find our place and thus complete our returning in truth to ourselves.

However you have begun your journey to health, whether you are creating new well-being in your life or with your life, I will end today by encouraging you to seek clarity and perspective, to be attentive to the world and yourself, as you look ahead and around you to the many possibilities contained in the prospect of your health.  When you can and as you must, climb to the nearest hill if you are on firm land, or to the highest mast of your ship if still at sea, and survey what is in and around you.  Aim for what is healthiest around you and truest within you, again and again, always building and never re-building, ever forward and always as returning.

As with all odysseys, your returning will come, and nature and new life will embrace you.  

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!