Does competition lead to excellence?

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Does competition lead to excellence?

#1  Postby pantodragon » Jun 03, 2013 4:04 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.
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Re: Does competition lead to excellence?

#2  Postby chairman bill » Jun 03, 2013 5:01 pm

I'm not joining in unless you ask me about myself. Just saying.
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Re: Does competition lead to excellence?

#3  Postby Loren Michael » Jun 04, 2013 8:32 am

pantodragon wrote: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.


That's all very interesting. I think I'm very different from you in a number of relevant ways. I'm very competitive, but I hate to talk about myself for the most part (this kind of post being the exception). I do enjoy talking about subjects that interest me though. I enjoy relating stories occasionally, but with a few brief exceptions, I tend to use those stories to illustrate a point about a topic that exists external to me.

To me, discussions are interesting, arguments are interesting. Things that are boring to me are constant agreement and the sharing of lists and tastes to display social pedigree. ("I like XYZ hipster bands, and this selection of intelligent and highbrow movies and novels"; "oh me too!")

I do occasionally want to dominate a conversation in a sense, but to me that's not something that comes with talking more than anyone else; I am like the professor character you mentioned, I prefer to ask questions. I enjoy listening to other peoples' points, as it allows me to see where we have agreements (and as such things I can skip over) and the places where we have disagreements (which are opportunities for a lively discussion).

To me, dominating a conversation is showing errors in others' thinking, and/or causing doubt in people who I regard as being too self-assured. More often than not, this is something that I try to accomplish by listening and understanding to people, so that I can understand the world through their eyes from their words, and ask pointed and relevant questions.

At the same time, I don't want to bore others, and I don't want to condescend. One doesn't get invited to parties of people one disagrees with by being an uncivil and condescending boor. The people who interest me are the people I feel I can learn from, and those almost by necessity are people I have differences with.
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