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Why today’s mania for all-out competition isn’t going to help us survive

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie wrote: “While the law [of competition] may sometimes be hard for the individual it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

He was wrong.

The notion of survival of the fittest is widely misunderstood. It isn’t about naked competitiveness; nor does it suggest the toughest, most ambitious, most driven people and organizations will succeed long-term. What it points to is the need to adapt to prevailing circumstances.

In a tough world, coming out top of the heap may ensure your destruction, as those you passed on the way up either refuse to support you or actively gang up to bring you down. The most obvious individual is the first target of predators. The biggest, loudest, and most competitive may use up so much energy scrambling to the top that he or she has none left to stay there long enough to benefit.

Maybe you should consider the alternatives instead.

Every winner is a loser in the making

Life is not a zero-sum activity, where any gain by one person can only come from loss to another. Politicians (and many organizational executives) think it is, because they treat winning an election as a victory over their opponent, not a rational choice between equally honorable alternatives. Corporations too seek short-term market share by engineering a corresponding loss by a rival. The resulting spiral of competition usually means everyone loses over the longer term. Every boom is followed by a bust.

Survival of the fittest means fitting the needs of the times, not being physically fit, flat-out competitive, or mentally aggressive. It also properly applies primarily to sexual competition: the need members of a species have to pass on their genes to the next generation. Yet even there, not all species handle the need to produce offspring in a competitive way. Bees collaborate to feed and tend their grubs, as do ants. Amongst primates, chimpanzees are macho and competitive; bonobos much less so.

DNA studies have even shown that, while the macho males battle it out, the females do a little extra-marital shopping around on the quiet. The winner in the mating game too may not be who it seems to be on the surface. The most aggressive male may be best at protecting his offspring, but some of them may not actually be his.

Balance matters most in the long term

Part of choosing the true means for survival is balance, for anything unbalanced is poorly adapted to its task. Competing may be natural, but the basis for successful competition is complex. There are many times when it only becomes plain — if it ever does — long after the event.

In our mania for instant, black-and-white answers, we’ve lost sight of the competition rules. That’s why people feel lost and uncertain. They’re playing one game and the universe is playing something quite different. Short-term achievement may not always be the same as long-term survival. Winning today may be the essential first step in a looming disaster.

Five steps to long-term survival

Try these ideas for replacing needless competition, with all the strains and problems it brings:

  • Accept some voluntary constraints on your freedom of choice and action, instead of demanding to have your own way every time. A time is bound to come when you need support from others — perhaps to ensure your own survival. If you’ve alienated everyone in advance, they’ll be glad to see you crash and burn.
  • Try accepting what is “good enough” instead of seeking perfection. There’s an old Spanish proverb that goes: “Take what you want, says God, but pay for it.” The cost of perfection is usually higher then you think — and often far higher than you can afford. Sadly, the bill only arrives after you’ve committed yourself.
  • Try lowering your expectations and matching them to prevailing circumstances. Any half-competent person can make a fortune when everything is going his way. Any fool can lose it again — and more — if he mistakes good fortune for his naturally ability. It sounds exciting to set the highest possible standards, but it often isn’t realistic. Better to choose a lower goal and succeed than aim for the top and destroy yourself. John Wayne was an actor, not a representative of reality.
  • Remember that almost every decision is reversible. Today’s winner is tomorrow’s loser; today’s partner has a better chance of still being a partner as time passes.
  • Nearly everyone would be better off if they paid less attention to what others around them are doing and more to the consequences of their own actions. Getting to the front isn’t always a bright idea. Sometimes that crowd is running straight towards an unseen precipice. There’s not much survival advantage in being first over the edge.
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