By Jamuna Rangachari
Competition can often be an excessive drive to an illusionary goal. We need to compete, instead, with our own selves, challenging and realizing our innate and unique potential.
A few years ago, a mother and teenage daughter were my companions during my daily commute to office. The mother was a teacher and the daughter a high performer in the same school. The girl was appearing for the 10th boards that year. The mother was extremely proud of her daughter’s performance and was constantly reminding her of her portions and tests and revising lessons with her. The girl always responded with alacrity to her mother’s tutoring. I was quite impressed by the dedication of both the mother and daughter. Later, I was witness to their extreme anxiety while they awaited the board results, and was alarmed when I saw the girl in tears on the day of the result. ‘Had she failed in some subject?’ was my first thought. To my utter astonishment, I soon saw her being congratulated for being the top scorer in her school, but in deep misery all through. Realization dawned when I heard her mother console her through her own disappointment, ‘It’s all right, dear. You will surely be in the state merit list in the 12th.’ It was only then that it became clear that the family had set a firm goal of a merit list ranking and were to be satisfied with nothing less than that.
I later came to know that the girl was so much under pressure in her 11th standard that she suffered from severe health problems and missed many months in college. I had lost touch by then and could only hope that this experience would have taught both her and her family to have a more balanced approach to life.
This incident haunted me for a long time. ‘What a shame that competition can drive people to such limits that they reach breaking point,’ I thought, wondering who was responsible for this state of affairs.
A certain amount of competitiveness is an essential part of our psyche. As Dr Chugh, a leading psychiatrist in Delhi, says, ‘A need to compete is a very basic need that is seen to be existing in every living being, though society and the environment do also contribute to the level at which it exists.’
This, of course, is the foundation of evolution itself, as per Dr Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. Application of this principle to life’s mechanism would mean that the more competitive creature has a better chance of survival. For instance, a gazelle that for some biomechanical reason runs faster than average is more likely to escape predators and will therefore be more likely to produce more offspring than slower ones since the latter would get to reproduce during fewer breeding seasons.
The key difference between human and animal behavior is the delinking of competition and survival. If the gazelle runs to save its life from predators, humans run to test their ability and fitness.In other words, human beings compete not just to survive, but to excel.
Certainly, this has brought in a lot of progress. We would not have had so many athletes doing their best and increasing the standard in virtually all games, had it not been for competition. At another level, the constant improvement that we see in virtually all products is certainly due to the increased efficiency and productivity due to competition. So, is there a problem?
One-Upmanship or Greed?
After 10th, Ketan Chopra (name changed) was forced to take up the science stream by his parents as it was the done thing. He was not really interested in this subject but tried his best to compete with the rest of the class. Miserably failing to do so, he switched to commerce after the 11th. Here, too, as he had missed attending the classes in the 11th, the 12th became difficult for him to cope with. Stress levels shot up again. Finally, he made a realistic assessment and realized he could not drive himself to cope with the level of competition that was being demanded of him and repeated the 11th in the commerce stream. With this, he was able to cope comfortably and went on to pursue his degree in a good college.
There is a Tamil proverb which says, ‘When taken in excess, even nectar turns into poison’. This is truly applicable to the excessive competition that we see today. For, while competition, for the right reasons and at the right level, is healthy, there is a point at which it turns counterproductive, evident in the shooting up of stress levels due to competition at school, college and the workplace.
Many a time, this begins at the preschool stage itself. This message gets reinforced in school, where doing better than the rest of the class/ group becomes more important than understanding the concept or subject. College is, of course, an extension of school and here, several other types of competition, or rather one-upmanship, emerge – competing in dress, style, possessing the latest gizmo, and so on.
Even sports, one of the best ways to teach children a spirit of fair play, healthy competition and the grace to take defeat in one’s stride, is not the same as before. Excessive competition sometimes makes it a stress-maker rather than stress-buster. As Abid Ali, tennis coach, Max Tennis Academy, Delhi, says, ‘The financial possibilities that sports now offers has brought with it excessive parental pressure on children, leading to many instances of early burnout.’
With this scenario, by the time one reaches adulthood, ‘strive to compete’ is firmly entrenched in one’s psyche. Added to that, the recent unprecedented growth of the economy has brought with it a pace in the corporate world that is extremely stressful and demanding. As Nandan Savnal, corporate consultant in Mumbai, says, ‘Economic cycles which were of 10 years earlier are now 18 months. Naturally, this has brought with it tremendous demands on people.’
At the individual level, this gets manifested as a frenzied work pace that leaves no time for family, friends and, most of all, oneself. Anil Bhatnagar, corporate trainer, observes, ‘With the time meant to talk to oneself and to one’s families gobbled up by increasing office hours, often self-imposed, people are fast becoming strangers to themselves and their families.’
Toxic antidotes such as junk food and late night parties only contribute further to the tailspin. Savnal says, ‘The culture of work hard, party harder, only adds to the stress levels.’ He recommends the inclusion of holistic practices such as yoga, early in life for general well-being.
The Western world has, of course, been a witness to this syndrome much earlier. Ira Chaleff, President, Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, USA, points out, ‘The fierce competition between brands and the incessant demand to get new products to market, whether the new products have great value or not, creates great pressure and stress in the corporate world in the United States.’ He also shares his concern on the tendency of institutional investors to demand ever increasing profits which, in turn, puts tremendous pressure on companies to repeatedly downsize staff and to outsource jobs, both of which increases the anxiety individuals have about the future of their employment.
A New Perspective
At a childrens’ party that I attended, all the adults who came to pick up the children wished to make the children eat quickly. One parent announced a ‘prize’ for the child who finishes his food first. One little boy, after struggling to gobble up his food for a while, suddenly got up, and said, ‘We don’t want a prize that does not let us enjoy the food’. Everyone burst out laughing, while we adults were suitably chastened.
This incident sums up the essence of the way we compete today.
It need not be so. Competition, essentially a standard or scale of measurement, can be extremely beneficial, if only it is understood and applied properly. What is required is some self-examination; which is bound to give us a new perspective on who we are, what is it that we wish to achieve, and ultimately, why and with whom we need to compete. Most often, we will find that it is our own performance that we need to improve on. With this perspective, competition becomes a tool rather than a threat.
As with all habits, the sooner we develop this perspective, the easier it would be to adopt.
At school, encouraging children to set their own standards and benchmarks would help them realize their potential and take their rightful place in the world. ‘One cannot force a child to perform in areas that do not suit his interest,’ says Meenakshi Thakkar, counselor, Mother’s International School, Delhi, pointing out that while most children today do wish to perform well, the direction they take must be the one that suits their personality and aptitude and not one which they are driven to by parental or peer pressure.
There would always be people who have achieved more than oneself. But, these are to be seen as inspirations, not threats. As Dr Chugh says, ‘Instead of doing a negative comparison, try to draw motivation and inspiration from achievers.’
At the corporate level, companies need to be more aware and concerned about the holistic welfare of their people, by introducing practices that protect the overall well-being of the staff and encourage a team spirit, instead of one-upmanship.
As far as market competition goes, the market leaders need to take a stand against the short-term interests and greed of institutional investors. As Ira says, ‘A new moral standard needs to be generated that restores a balance of values in company boardrooms.’
If survival of the fittest is a key principle in nature, so is adaptability and interdependence. Just as a creeper sprouts from a wedge in a rocky surface, we too can find our place in the rockiest of terrains, if only we realize that there is place in the world for all of us.
Adaptability is shown in a myriad ways, be it in the thorny skin of the cactus or the bees that fertilize the flowers even as they partake of the honey.
Indeed, of late, the survival of the fittest theory is being challenged by a new one, the theory of reciprocal altruism put forth by Robert Trivers, that explains that the natural pattern of organisms is one in which one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation.
From the spiritual angle, when we accept the notion that all is one, this theory certainly seems more credible than Darwin’s.
Back to Basics
It is time we revisited the basic values of life and ask ourselves what it is that we are chasing. ‘The Bhagavad Gita says a confused mind is the main cause of all stress,’ says Prashant Khanna, meditation teacher, Aurobindo Center. He emphasizes that excessive competition is only due to lack of clarity of the goals of one’s life, while pointing out it is the educated middle class whose aspirations have skyrocketed who are under such severe stress. He asserts, ‘It is only by reducing our needs that we can lead a peaceful, stress-free life.’
Anil Bhatnagar too points out that it is the vacuum in people’s hearts that makes them chase symbols of success, quoting J Krishnamurthi, who said, ‘When the heart is empty it begins collecting things and labels.’
Competition, in its real sense, is about bringing out the best in ourselves. As Dr Chugh says,’The person with a competitive spirit is always raring to go, experiment and is willing to take initiative.’ Naturally, such a person is more likely to learn more, grow more and gain more self-awareness This is the spirit we need to reconnect with, not a stressful, fear-driven, psychotic one.
When a child seeks to take his first step, he naturally strives to improve each day, experimenting and trying new approaches. Such experimentation and initiative is an intrinsic part of our inner self. As we grow older, our benchmarks are the ones set by others and so, we become inhibited, disconnected and therefore stressed.
There is, however, another way.
By (re)connecting to the basic values of life, we would be able to understand ourselves and the journey of life, while appreciating every step of the progress we make on this journey.
Indeed, it’s time we learnt to say like the little boy at the party, ‘We don’t want a prize that does not let us enjoy the food’.
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