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Does competition lead to excellence?


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#1    pantodragon

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Posted 03 June 2013 - 04:28 PM

This post is being written as an exploration of the idea that competition leads to excellence.  Basically, I am considering my own experience of competition, and wonder if my experience corresponds with the experience of others.

The most obvious places that one experiences competition are doing exams at school and other academic institutions, and then later when applying for jobs and pursuing a career in competition with others.  But the place that I personally am most aware of competition is in conversation.

We live in such a highly competitive culture that even everyday conversation is not free of it: people compete to dominate the conversation, or to prove themselves better in some way than their neighbour, ‘scoring points’, as it were.

When I was a child and having difficulty socialising, difficulty ‘making conversation’ with people, my mother advised me thus: “ask them about themselves; people always love to talk about themselves.”  I took her advice and have never suffered from social difficulties since because what I discovered is that she was absolutely right: people do love to talk about themselves.  Just keep them going with the odd appropriate question and they will keep talking forever.  Fail to provide the stimulus of questions and they will keep going, still talking about themselves, until they run out of steam and the conversation comes to a dead halt.  I have found this to hold true everywhere I have gone and at all levels of society.

Well, actually, I can think of an exception: I remember, for example, attending the inaugural lecture, and dinner afterwards, of a certain professor who was taking up his post at a new university.  The dinner was a large affair attended by academics from other universities, from this country and abroad, by research scientists from the industrial world, and by friends and relatives of the professor.  These, therefore, were all well-educated people who had much in common (their research interests, for the most part), and one might have expected them to be articulate and well able to converse.  However, it was very noticeable that there was little mixing; people much preferred to stick with colleagues from their own institutions.

The exceptions were the likes of the professor I sat next to at coffee afterwards: he was addressing questions to the people around him, but it was not in any friendly/interested way.  It was more as though he was holding court.  He was using questioning as a means to take top-dog position, and it came over as patronising, at least to me.  At one point, out of interest, or even mere politeness, I addressed a question to him.  There was a shocked silence at this ‘breech of etiquette’.  The professor looked down his nose at me for a few moments, then turned away without answering.  He ignored me for the remainder of the time.

Then there was the time I attended a function at the US ambassador’s residence in Ankara.  Now, it may be stupid of me, but I would have expected that if any set of people could be expected to know how to socialise and make conversation, it would be members of the diplomatic services --- not a bit of it!  The manners were appalling.  Diplomacy, in any sense that I would understand the word, was not what was being practiced.  It was quite palpably games of one-upmanship that were being played.  Lesser beings, such as myself, were largely ignored, to the point that one might consider it a slight.  (the exception was the British Ambassador’s wife, who was Indian, and had impeccable manners and social graces).

This is where I might consider the question my post began with.  Did this competitive behaviour lead to excellence?  Well, from my point of view, excellence would have been the opportunity to find out about all these people, people from all round the world who had very different lives form my own.  Having read Lawrence Durrell’s account of his time in the diplomatic services, Esprit de Corp, I might have hoped for all sorts of funny stories, or at least interesting tales, of life in the diplomatic services, but I came away as ignorant as I went in --- well, not quite, because I had learned how people in the diplomatic services conduct themselves.  So this competitive behaviour was just a social killer; it makes social occasions boring when they could be so much fun.  And that was not just me; it was perfectly clear that everyone was getting bored.

This reminds me, too, of hearing Joyce Grenfell talking about her relatives, members of the British aristocracy.  She spoke fondly of an ‘eccentric’ aunt, who was presented as so disinclined to make much of her social superiority, that she would often invite people from a lower social class to weekend does at her estate.  Being an ‘eccentric’, we were told, she would ‘forget’ that she had invited these people.  Then, when the people turned up, they would be ignored (not deliberately, we were told) and being from a different social class, and therefore not knowing how things were done at these aristocratic affairs, they were like fish out of water and spent the weekend wandering around in an agony of embarrassment.  This ‘eccentric’ aunt, to me, was just a games’ player.  She was getting a kick out of using her own superior social status to humiliate other people, and the result, again, is boredom all round.

Another instance was described by Katherine Hepburn in her autobiography.  She made much of how wonderful life was when one was rich and mixed with the ‘best people’, and as an instance, she described an occasion, at a party, when she was having a ‘conversation’ with Groucho Marx (I think, but it may have been someone else, equally famous.) and Eugene O’Neil.  She was delighted with the way she and Marx had managed to talk across O’Neil and cut him out of the conversation!  I can’t say I was as impressed with Hepburn as she was with herself.  To me, this was just another example of competitive behaviour ruining a social occasion.

But to return to myself: I have followed my mother’s advice and found it to be sterling.  But the interesting thing is that I have rarely, if ever, found the courtesy returned.  That is, I have rarely, if ever, had someone take an interest, a GENUINE interest, in me --- other than the kind of patronising interest such as the professor displayed, or, equally offensive, the interest of those who would curry favour --- and from that I deduce that people simply do not take an interest in each other because they are too busy competing with each other.  The obvious attack would be to tell me that I am too boring, but that won’t hold water because they never take the time to find out --- they are too busy playing games.

However, as far as I can see, the outcome of all this social competition is BOREDOM.  So, from my experience, competition as extremely damaging to people’s social lives, and rather than leading to excellence, leads to people having no social skills and to the destruction of any sort of fulfilling social life.


#2    Mikko-kun

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Posted 03 June 2013 - 05:52 PM

Competitive and strive for excellence dont have to be the same thing, but both can kill sociality. I dont think they always do, I think it's more a matter of taste like most things are, some people dont simply enjoy competition as much as others, nor perfectionism and such. People should have a sense which tells them who are the ones who like and dont like competition and such, but I think it's sometimes not so easy to listen to that sense, and thus we step on each other's toes.

In competitive and excellence most people are bound to fall sooner or later if they keep playing the game so it's no win-win for them. I think both of them, competition and excellence, are good if you aim to surpass yourself instead of lay back and take an easy opponent or challenge in order to feel superiority. It's cool at times but you need to test yourself for real if you want to keep yourself in reality and not finding yourself falling.

The professor experience case you had is an authority thing, someone accustomed to their position, has attached a part of their identity to that position of seniority. Questioning that is rude, at least the one who you question will likely think so, because they see it as a personal attack. He refuses to acknowledge that behind the authority part of him, he's still a human, which you tried to bring out. And humans are more vulnerable and equal than what the authority thing is, and they'll surpass authority that cannot follow them if it doesn't recognice an universal authority above itself. Universal authority being "being human", lying above the authority of "I'm right".

I just think there's very many sorts of competitions and excellence-strivings, ones which you can attach to social situations but still not let them ruin them. Or you can make things up. If you can admit that you're not perfect and can take a step back and say "hey, you know you're right, can you tell me more?" instead of trying to make your case even if it wont serve the issue at hand... I do that too at times, but it's a matter of self-discipline and that.

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One thing there's more room for, is humility. Can you answer the question whether we're the epitome of existence, or extensions of it? Whatever existence, god, holiness, the god particle, life, or whatever it is.

#3    Jessica Christ

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Posted 03 June 2013 - 09:11 PM

Diplomacy, between two formal parties or states, should not be confused with generally getting along with everyone.

Snubbing inferiors happens in other spheres such as not allowing someone underqualified to be hired. The same happens in general conversation since chatting as equals with others of different intellectual capacities could be like playing a chess match with someone beneath your skill level so neither party benefits from the exchange.

On the other hand provision of information is one way so that a more informed party disseminates information to the masses with answering questions only to inform.

Diplomacy itself is a form of soft power directed at another party for benefit so snubbing someone not involved should not be seen as a discredit toward the diplomat or the person being snubbed.

Snubbing or not engaging another should also not be seen as verbal agression which is the domain of intellectually inferior persons or the propagandist who is seeking to influence such persons.

Diplomats are on a mission and have to make the best use of their limited resources. That is not the same as mean girls excluding others simply as a form of bullying.

As far as if competition leads to excellence? As much as cooperation can also lead to excellence. What forms either take will determine success.

Edited by The world needs you, 03 June 2013 - 09:24 PM.


#4    The Id3al Experience

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Posted 03 June 2013 - 10:13 PM

Looking at the history of our species, and what we have aciheved, its not competition that drive this, the competition is the perception of the success. Competition is a primitive social construct that should be out dated in our intelilgence (my opinion of course)

If we stopped competting we might get somewhere. but its like building a house of of sand. The more 1 person tries to add one more bucket of sand to be hight than yours, the more chance there is for the house to collaspe.

My politicial party vrs your (now comes bad politics because one partie wants your votes)

My country vrs your country (wars, false sence of success, judgement)

Im not sure its fact, but its seems the case, that most things that have helped us evolve and understand our universe as we do now come about by chance... Simply in the moment not of competition but in the moment of freedom.

Watch this space

#5    Beany

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Posted 04 June 2013 - 03:48 AM

In another topic, you accused people who disagreed with you of being spineless and lacking self-respect. How does this fit in with your paradigm of competitive conversation and your perceptions of your social skills and your concept of game playing?


#6    White Crane Feather

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Posted 04 June 2013 - 11:15 AM

If you really want to hear people talk ask them about their kids.


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#7    Beany

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Posted 04 June 2013 - 01:48 PM

If you want to hear them talk, ask them about their dog! And if you want them to listen, tell them about your dog. Then let the dog-story swapping stories begin.


#8    pantodragon

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Posted 06 June 2013 - 01:55 PM

View PostThe world needs you, on 03 June 2013 - 09:11 PM, said:

The same happens in general conversation since chatting as equals with others of different intellectual capacities could be like playing a chess match with someone beneath your skill level so neither party benefits from the exchange.

I disagree.  When I am playing games or sports with people who are less skilled than myself, I have to raise my level in order to play in such a way as will encourage them to play better without them realising that I am doing so.  Also, when communicating with people who are less able than myself, the difficulty is often in interpreting their confused communications such as to make sense of them, and again, never allowing them to know that one is more able than they are --- one is, in fact, in such situations, forced to become much more sophisticated.


#9    pantodragon

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Posted 06 June 2013 - 01:56 PM

View PostThe Id3al Experience, on 03 June 2013 - 10:13 PM, said:

Looking at the history of our species, and what we have aciheved, its not competition that drive this, the competition is the perception of the success. Competition is a primitive social construct that should be out dated in our intelilgence (my opinion of course)

..........................................

Im not sure its fact, but its seems the case, that most things that have helped us evolve and understand our universe as we do now come about by chance... Simply in the moment not of competition but in the moment of freedom.

I think there's a lot of sense in what you say.


#10    Jessica Christ

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Posted 06 June 2013 - 01:58 PM

View Postpantodragon, on 06 June 2013 - 01:55 PM, said:

I disagree.  When I am playing games or sports with people who are less skilled than myself, I have to raise my level in order to play in such a way as will encourage them to play better without them realising that I am doing so.  Also, when communicating with people who are less able than myself, the difficulty is often in interpreting their confused communications such as to make sense of them, and again, never allowing them to know that one is more able than they are --- one is, in fact, in such situations, forced to become much more sophisticated.

Fair enough and more generosity that I am willing to extend toward crudeness.

Do not confuse this for thinking you are crude, you are not, and rather sophisticated which can be appreciated by a few of us. The populism which you advocate unfortunately is not.


#11    pantodragon

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Posted 06 June 2013 - 02:12 PM

View PostBeany, on 04 June 2013 - 03:48 AM, said:

In another topic, you accused people who disagreed with you of being spineless and lacking self-respect. How does this fit in with your paradigm of competitive conversation and your perceptions of your social skills and your concept of game playing?

I'm not sure if I've done so on this forum, but I have often covered the issue of competition v. cooperation. The crucial thing to understand is that it is NOT the behaviour itself that is either competitive or cooperative, but the INTENTION. So, for example, a competitive person might take part in a team sport or might play in an orchestra and he might be said to be cooperative but he’s not.  He is competitive but supressing his desire to compete, or quite likely in fact he is competing to be the most “cooperative”.  It is SO clear when you play team sports how difficult competitive people find it to work with others ---- the standard basketball team is a team of prima donas, and prima donas are NOT cooperative.  It is notable also how very difficult and increasingly difficult modern musicians are finding it to play in an orchestra --- the strain can sometimes be heard as the instruments get out of time with one another.


#12    pantodragon

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Posted 06 June 2013 - 02:15 PM

View PostSeeker79, on 04 June 2013 - 11:15 AM, said:

If you really want to hear people talk ask them about their kids.


....swish... 2 points for seeker

2 points for your dream catcher - I've been making some myself recently.

Yes, talking about their kids works.  When I said people like to talk about themselves, I might better have said "people like to talk about themselves and their own interests".  In fact, I would say that when they are talking about their interests, they ARE talking about themselves.


#13    pantodragon

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Posted 06 June 2013 - 02:18 PM

View PostBeany, on 04 June 2013 - 01:48 PM, said:

If you want to hear them talk, ask them about their dog! And if you want them to listen, tell them about your dog. Then let the dog-story swapping stories begin.

Yes.  But you're still going on to their territory and that's the crucial point. They are still the ones that are in control: you MUST go on to their territory or no deal.  This makes for very poor conversation, very impoverished, single topic, no letting the mind and thoughts wander conversation.

Edited by pantodragon, 06 June 2013 - 02:20 PM.


#14    Beany

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Posted 07 June 2013 - 03:11 AM

View Postpantodragon, on 06 June 2013 - 02:18 PM, said:

Yes.  But you're still going on to their territory and that's the crucial point. They are still the ones that are in control: you MUST go on to their territory or no deal.  This makes for very poor conversation, very impoverished, single topic, no letting the mind and thoughts wander conversation.

I'm comfortable going into another's territory, and with listening to someone talk about their experiences or telling their stories. Not everyone is comfortable moving from their own ground and exposing themselves into something new or different, so when I meet those people, I'm usually willing to jump the fence and do a walkabout with them; you know, those who can, do. One of the most important lessons I've learned over the years is that everyone has at least one heroic story to tell, and if I don't accede the conversation to them I'll never hear it. And I sometimes do let someone dominate the conversation, as long as they are not abusive, because even then it's a learning experience for me. Conversation, no matter what the balance of power, reveals things about both parties, and those revelations might be of value. But I always have control in that I can choose my responses and level of participation or non-participation.

Edited by Beany, 07 June 2013 - 03:12 AM.


#15    pantodragon

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Posted 17 June 2013 - 03:46 PM

View PostBeany, on 07 June 2013 - 03:11 AM, said:

I'm comfortable going into another's territory, and with listening to someone talk about their experiences or telling their stories. Not everyone is comfortable moving from their own ground and exposing themselves into something new or different, so when I meet those people, I'm usually willing to jump the fence and do a walkabout with them; you know, those who can, do. One of the most important lessons I've learned over the years is that everyone has at least one heroic story to tell, and if I don't accede the conversation to them I'll never hear it. And I sometimes do let someone dominate the conversation, as long as they are not abusive, because even then it's a learning experience for me. Conversation, no matter what the balance of power, reveals things about both parties, and those revelations might be of value. But I always have control in that I can choose my responses and level of participation or non-participation.

The trouble is that if you go through the front door, if you go on to another person's territory, you learn nothing of value.  All you learn is what they want you to know, what they want to impress you with --- yes, you learn their "heroic" story.  But that is the lie they present to the world.  If you REALLY want to get to know people, warts and all, their horrors and problems, the awful reality of their lives, (and you certainly can't help them in any way at all if you don't find this out) , then you DON'T go on to their territory, you have to be much more subtle than that.  You have to be, in fact, invisible, invisible in the way cats are invisible or little brown birds are invisible.  People don't pose in front of animals, they don't feel the need.  They show their true colours when there's nothing more than a little brown bird to see them.





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