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How a competitive person can learn to be cooperative

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Shutterstock | Diego Barbieri

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 09/12/21

If you love competition, here's how to channel that into a win-win situation for everyone.

Growing up, my father had a philosophy. He was bound and determined to defeat me and my brothers in any and all sports competitions until we could legitimately overcome him of our own merits. In basketball, he showed no mercy, and even if he let me score a few baskets I would never, ever be allowed to win.

All the losses motivated me to get better, and I spent a lot of time practicing. I learned how to deal with loss, set goals, and work towards turning a weakness into a strength. Then, one day when I was a teenager, I won a game. It felt good because I knew I earned it. He hadn’t let me win. All that annoyance, all that frustration over the years at not being able to beat him, it drained away in an instant, and to this day I make sure he knows I’m the champ. Some day my own sons will grow big enough to take me down. It’s the circle of life.

Im one of three brothers and we were – who am I kidding, we are – naturally competitive, but growing up it wasn’t all competition. There was also cooperative effort. The boys would team up and wrestle our father. We formed a construction crew to build a clubhouse in the backyard (no girls allowed). We egged each other on to daring physical feats, learned from each other, and generally made each other better.

When it comes to competition vs. cooperation, there’s a balance. There’s great value in experiencing competition at a young age when the stakes are low for losing. I had to learn how to deal with frustration at losing those basketball games and it was best that I did so sooner rather than later. Throwing a tantrum as a child is part of growing up, and we need to go through that phase so we get a handle on it and aren’t still throwing tantrums as adults. It’s important to learn those hard lessons early, because as an adult no employer is going to cut you a break and no friends will find it endearing if we can’t handle setbacks with grace.

Because I’m a highly competitive person, it took me a while to understand that there’s also value in cooperative endeavor. When I was younger, I wanted to destroy the competition. I wanted first prize in the art show, the highest GPA, to get into the best college. I wanted the best possible future, the best career, to be widely admired. If other people had to lose so that I could succeed, I thought that was simply the price of playing the game. It couldn’t be helped. If someone is going to win, then someone else has to lose. I was going to try my hardest to be the winner.

I don’t see it that way anymore. My whole view on the idea of competition and cooperation has shifted, especially now that I’m a father with six children and I want them all to do well. I’ve come to see how our whole family, by cooperating and supporting each other, can win together. I also want my parish to win, and my friends, and my neighborhood. It’s not a competition to destroy everyone else so that I, or my own, can win. Rather, it’s a competition we engage in together, cooperatively, at many different levels in a win-win scenario.

There’s a field of study called biomimicry which deals with the collective behavior of plants. One of the scientific pioneers of biomimicry is Janine Benyus, who points out that nature is not actually explained very well by a Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest theory. Plants aren’t trying to out-compete and destroy each other. What they actually do is cooperate in order to sustain each other, building ecological systems in which the plants depend on each other and help each other thrive.

In fact, the more pressure there is on plants to survive in a difficult climate, the more they cooperate. Benyus writes, “The more stressful the environment, the more likely you are to see plants working together to ensure mutual survival.” One plant will shade other plants, which in turn attract pollinators or enrich the soil. Larger plants block the wind and smaller plants return the favor by cultivating the soil.

There’s a lesson in that for us. So often, when we’re under pressure, we return to those old competitive instincts because there’s a belief that causing someone else to lose means we get to win. It’s a stress reaction, but it’s the wrong one. The actual way to win is to engage in a completely different type of competitive endeavor, which is to fight for the common good.

Other human beings are not my competitors. They’re my family, my friends, my neighbors. They’re people I want to see succeed, and when they succeed that means I also succeed. These are the types of lessons I want to teach my children because I don’t want them to grow up thinking they have to out-compete other people in order to be happy, that they need to create losers so they can be winners. Instead, I want them to see that the goodness of this world is inexhaustibly rich, and the more we share it and struggle for it collectively, the more of it there will be.

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