Wednesday 5 December 2007

Compete with yourself

Is competition a good thing? We are all scripted to believe it is. People often say things like, "We welcome competition." Is competition a natural thing? Is it a product of society or is it something inherent in all of us? Animals don’t compete. They try to survive – there is a big difference. Animals certainly don’t try and better each other in the process. The leopards, for example, are climbing trees, not the corporate ladder. It’s not about eating more, or catching the antelope faster than the next guy. It’s about eating, period.

Did someone say four-ball? Golf is big in the corporate world. And I mean really big. Have you ever stopped to consider how much wisdom lies in this compelling sport? Golf is not only about having fun and staying healthy, but it is about thought, patience and searching (for the ball that is). One view on sport is that it actually represents a chance for all of us to have other human beings push us to excel. But look at the philosophy of traditional team sports. We love pitting one team against another. The victors get to feel on top of the world and the losers feel like the world has ended. What have our champions achieved in this case? Are they really the best? Perhaps they are only slightly better than the rest. In business we often get caught in the trap where we measure ourselves against our competitors. Is this a good thing? If this is what competition does for our hunger then I am not so sure. What if we end up only a little better than starving?

Let’s get back to golf. Competition is a flawed paradigm - competition promotes win/lose behaviour, which is not good in the long term. This is where golf really makes its mark. Golf is a sport where a person plays against him or her-self. If "competition" is the old way of thinking (just humour me on this one, ok?) then let’s call "stretch" the paradigm of tomorrow. Stretch is about striving to fulfill your true potential. Stretch can be described as a more advanced principle than that of competition. In golf, for example, you can play on your own. And you always try to stretch yourself. You always strive to maximize your full potential. Each time you stretch yourself you realize more of your true potential.

A business represents a group of people - a team. And this is probably where the cracks start appearing. A team should try challenging itself to continually improve on the day before, the week before or the year before. And we need teams. "We" compete better than "I". There is enough competition in the marketplace - there is no need to bring it into your corporation.

I guess we can debate whether competition is a natural principle for hours. Or whether it is it something that is a result of our surroundings and the society we have been conditioned by. There are too many obsolete and incomplete paradigms in the world. Competition is one of them.

We live in a world where we are told that competition is good for us. And it is a powerful, deeply entrenched principle that is old fashioned. It is a not paradigm of mutual benefit, but rather of win/lose. Win/lose is incomplete. All teams need to win. Take a soccer match, for example. Can both teams win? How can this be so? Dig deep into your imaginations here. If the principle was "stretch" and not "competition" then both teams could win. The game could always be a draw and each team would try to do better than they did before and they would stretch themselves and try to realize their full potential. And in the match itself you would exercise, bond, socialize and have fun. In short: we could get 2 teams to play each other and reap all the benefits of social interaction and yet at the same time we could have everyone be winners.

In the company I represent we do not try and clobber our competitors but instead we work at being better all the time (ie, at being better than ourselves, by stretching). When a competitor drops in from another solar system we will be as strong as we possibly can be. And it will take us working at our full potential to beat the unknown. Modern businesses really need to think about their value systems. If you say you value co-operation do you put in place methods to reward internal competition? If you say you value innovation, do you reward conformity? The next time you take to the golf course think about these things.

I found this text floating around on the Internet. Its wisdom guides me daily. The Many Lessons of Golf: Golf teaches that we all have handicaps and that hardly anybody knows what they really are. Golf teaches that the best courses are the ones that hardly change at all what God put there to begin with. Golf teaches that although there are a few people who are honest in golf but cheat in life, everybody who cheats in golf cheats in life. Golf teaches that even people who wear green pants deserve some place where they can go, get a little exercise and not be laughed at. Golf teaches that even though you probably don't have a shot at being the best, you do have a good shot at being the best you can be. Golf teaches that both success and failure are temporary. Golf teaches that success is a lot more temporary. Golf teaches that although practice does not always make us perfect, no practice always makes us imperfect. Golf teaches that no matter how good you are, there is always someone better and that person will usually find you and tell you. Golf teaches that when you are good you can tell people, but when you are great they will tell you. Golf teaches that although patience is a virtue, slow play is not. Golf teaches that even though the best golfers have the most chances to win, the other golfers have the most chances to improve. Golf teaches that, on some dewy morning or some golden afternoon, with the sun warming the world, we can find ourselves walking through an improvised meadow and realise we are not searching for the little white ball, but for a moment where the world of nature and the world of play are one. And then in the dew and sunshine we can understand that even though we can make a ball perfectly white, only God can make a meadow perfectly green.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker