The Nature of Competition:The Foundation of a Strong Economy

Bengal Floricans still dance. Even as their homelands are wiped out and their numbers drop to 500, these critically endangered little Southeast Asian birds continue to hold dance competitions every spring. The rules to the dance-off are exacting and the judges are scrupulous,but when it’s all over the winners get to really celebrate. Never mind that the deserts are growing and that each day’s sunrise is a little muddier than the one before. Never mind that their race is dying—like so many of their cousins from the past who have gone extinct—and that the handiwork of eternity continues to be snuffed out species by species, howl by howl, last rasping cry by final agonizing breath. When all appears hopeless, what will these little birds do on their last day? They will dance and sing. It’s almost like they know something—that something is about to happen, that a new dawn is imminent, that the increasing anguish only means we are that much closer to a new birth.

Why else follow a bunch of rules? Why not just get drunk and go about rioting and plundering? Why bother to keep competing when it seems abundantly obvious that they are going to lose?

 Why bother to compete?


Just to be clear, the purpose of competition is not to win. When I was growing up I often heard the saying, “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” In high school our track coach, Kurt Poole, often told us, “Gentlemen, if you are not happy without the trophy, then you will not be happy with the trophy.”


For example, even if a basketball player like Jeremy Lin ((林来疯) gets cut from his team, he’ll still play a pickup game any time he can. And in such a game, if the score is 47 to 4, then even the winners are going to want to stop and change the teams in order to make them more even. Because their goal is not to win; instead, it is to compete. Similarly, if in an economy the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, even the rich are going to want to stop and level the playing field—not just because otherwise everyone is doomed (and everyone knows it) but also because it has at its core no striving for life, no competition.


Even in warfare we have standards: there are things that we humans are simply never supposed to do in order to win.
So if the purpose is not to win, then what is it? Why follow all the rules? Look at the Bengal Floricans: even though they are losing big time, they’re still trying to dance and sing.


Literally. A curious characteristic of nature is that it seems oblivious to its own demise. Even as their breeding grounds are ravaged and their homelands are smoked out, even as their air is poisoned and their kinsmen annihilated, all the species continue to waltz to the harmony of a future hope. Seemingly deaf to the drums of a war that trash-talks their destruction, they continue to follow the same rules that they have used since the day we met them. Like athletes who truly do not care whether they win or lose, they seem to run just for the joy of running the race. As Eric Liddell put it, “When I run, I feel his pleasure.”


Athletes—competitors—don’t cheat. If they do, then they are not athletes. In our culture of millionaire ball players and celebrity superstars it is tempting to be cynical about such ideals. And yet the undeniable, non-negotiable fact is that if there were no rules, there would be no games. There would be no re-creation of joy.

And that is, after all, the purpose of good competition—not to survive or to conquer or even to win, but rather to create something new, something good, something better. That’s why we call sports re-creation.

Eric Liddell in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. He died in the Weihsien Internment Camp.

A Strong Economy

And what is true in in nature and in sports is true everywhere else in society. Indeed, it is the

foundation of a strong economy. For whether in business or the arts or technology, if there is not a drive to compete, then there will be a disregard for the rules. Then there will be no growth, no new developments (not to mention advancements in medicine or science).

So for the shop owner trying to build his customer base, and for the engineer trying to build a bridge, and for businessman trying to build his team, and for the student trying to build her resume—for all of us, we must dig deep and search out the purpose of it all. If tomorrow we’re just going to lose, then why not just eat, drink and be merry? Why bother to keep going? What is the purpose for it all—the purpose that is greater than gold or fame or pleasure, the purpose that says the rules are




By Matthew Connally    Oct, 8, 2012

(The author is an American teacher at NUST)