"Anything you can do
I can do better,
I can do anything better
I switched on
my television set while trying to
decide on a topic for this essay. There was Rosie O'Donnell engaged in
a "name that tune" contest with a member of the studio audience. I switched
to an investigative report about "bank bandit barriers" (which are small
entranceways to banks that have metal detectors and automatically lock
both behind and in front of a potential robber if sufficient metal is detected).
I switched channels again and came upon a Seattle Mariner baseball game.
It struck me that
central to each of these was a concern about winning or avoiding losing
(which are complementary but different efforts). Then it occurred to me
that this is true for a very large part of what we see on
television and, for that matter, of all we see, hear, say and do.
The number of
such efforts in our lives to win or avoid losing is absolutely enormous:
In addition we
engage in a plethora of contests (the Internet is full of them), such as
beauty contests, "The Great Chili Cookout," and the Publishers Clearinghouse.
In many stores, cashiers win bonuses if they catch someone using a credit
card that isn't their own. Even Christianity, much lauded for its solicitude,
involves a struggle against Satan, against temptation (in other words,
against one's self), against heathens, and so on. What I think is notable
beyond the ubiquity of such win-lose situations is that they are very often
actually sought out rather than avoided.
with threats of punishment
and other gambling
up with the Joneses
and Protestants in Northern Ireland
Koreans and South Koreans
Chinese and Taiwanese
and Tutsies in Ruanda
Serbs and Albanians
to the moon
networks competing for viewers
competing for profits
competing for limited "love supplies" (we call it "sibling rivalry")
competing for grades
of Fortune" and "Jeopardy"
Court" and "Judge Judy"
I have belabored
all this to really bring home to you that our lives are hugely concerned
winning and losing: We structure our lives —
school, at work, at play and in our personal lives —
contests, battles, struggles or wars, in which someone wins, but someone
also loses. (Or if my fight is against myself, when I win I also lose).
Our preoccupation is reflected in the ubiquity of such themes on television,
in the movies, theater, opera, ballet, books, music, etc.
In my view, one
of the most important
books I've ever read is about just this subject. It's Alfie Kohn's 1986
book, "No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Why
We Lose In Our Effort To Win)." Kohn reviews a vast amount
of research on competition. He finds that it is neither more productive
nor more enjoyable than cooperation. Instead of building character, as
is often claimed, he finds that it most likely leads to people going "outside
the boundaries that have been established to delimit acceptable ways to
win" (p 159). In other words, it leads us to cheat. He concludes that competition
is actually "devastating to individuals and society" and, moreover, that
it is not an "unavoidable part of 'human nature.'"
Since we seem
to confuse winning and succeeding, I want to
differentiate them here: Succeeding is the achieving of a desired outcome
through striving. Winning is a specific subset of succeeding in which my
success is the outcome of struggling against or trying to
surpass someone else. In other words, winning involves
succeeding at someone else's expense: When I'm promoted
and get the raise or get accepted by the college of my choice, someone
else has been denied and so loses out.
It strikes me
then that since the struggle to win is a struggle against someone,
to that degree it is necessarily an effort devoid of care and has
no genuine life-enhancing value. In competitive sports, for instance, whether
someone wins or loses a tennis match or tournament will have no genuine
life-enhancing value. In fact, I suggest that by their very nature win-lose
efforts are significantly life- and love-devaluing.
I think that this
is clearly exemplified by the adversarial legal system. The
prosecution and the defense struggle against one another, purportedly to
discover the truth. However, I think it's become quite evident that in
practice they are more likely to be striving to win the jury over to their
side (as evidenced by the common use of jury consultants, attempting to
change the venue, or trying to get unfavorable evidence ruled inadmissible,
all aimed at increasing the likelihood of a more favorable decision for
their side, rather than discerning the truth).
In an adversarial
legal system —
in all efforts to win —
is "pressure" for each side to try to gain an advantage over the other
in ways not directly related to the contest at hand. This
includes "demonizing" and otherwise distracting and pushing the other side
off-balance. For example, in the O.J. Simpson trial the defense demonized
many of the those who collected
and analyzed the evidence (e.g., Barry Scheck's scathing "What about
Mr. Fong?" with regard to an error Fong had made with the evidence).
The defense also demonized detective Mark Fuhrman by focusing on his possible
racist attitudes, which further distracted the jury from the massive evidence
of Simpson's guilt.
In addition, with
its imposition of fines and incarceration as punishment for transgression,
the adversarial system also inexorably encourages deception
and breeds rage, resentment and a desire for revenge. These lead to still
more transgressions —
what the system is supposed to prevent.
disdains cooperation with and care for one's adversaries and, although
it is often praised for encouraging and supporting cooperation with and
care for those on one's own side, it often actually leads to and perpetuates
jealousies and rivalries between teammates. (How would you feel if you
were playing "second fiddle" to someone who gets all the attention, like
The fight over
abortion similarly exemplifies the devaluing effects of the struggle to
win. As a result of the adversarial stance taken by both sides, the struggle
over abortion has become ever more polarized and intensified. This effort
to win will inevitably continue to be the occasion for verbal and physical
violence. Ironically, it seems to have led some people who claimed to be
supporting life to murder other people who were performing abortions.
As long as there
are two "sides" struggling against each other, no one side
will "win" for long. Whatever gains one side takes pleasure in will give
way to losses in the long run.
It seems to me
that we are very two-faced about winning and losing. We hear that "it's
not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game"
and we are encouraged to be "good" losers. But I don't think that anyone
really can be a good loser. When I lose, I'm bound to be distressed in
direct proportion to how much I wanted to win. Consequently, all that efforts
to be a good loser can achieve is a pretense at being glad
that the other person has won or at being indifferent about who's won.
On the other hand,
we seem to buy into the famous statement of Vince Lombardi who, when he
was coach of the Green Bay Packers football team, asserted that "winning
isn't everything, it's the only thing." (This same sentiment
was addressed very recently by a student at Columbine High School, in Littleton,
Colorado, who complained that the school's motto was "success at
any cost"). Most of us are convinced that we get the goodies (for
instance, the raise, popularity, acceptance into the college we choose,
the girl or boy) only when we win.
We seem similarly
two-faced about how we feel about cooperation. We often coerce
our children to cooperate. ("Now be nice! Share your toys with your
brother!") But at the same time we push them into numerous activities
in which the essential goal is to win, and we praise them when they participate
and criticize them when they don't. As a result, many of us have become
cynical about the idea that it doesn't matter whether we win or lose, and
are convinced that Lombardi was right.
It seems to me
that there is an evolutionary explanation for all this: Before the invention
of language, and before our basic needs were as easily satisfied as they
are today, the possibility for cooperation was inherently limited. Indeed,
there was significant survival value in being competent at winning the
competition for the necessities, as well as in the "Alpha-Male" sorting
out of who was the strongest and therefore most likely to succeed, survive
and perpetuate the species.
however, language has provided us with a remarkably increased ability to
resolve conflict cooperatively instead of competitively. At the same time,
societal structures such as the police and fire-fighters, the military,
insurance, and the Red Cross and Salvation Army have helped make us seem
much less vulnerable and needy and therefore much less threatened by and
threatening to each other (albeit, as I've suggested, the police and military,
to the degree that they create and maintain sides, also increaseour
have also made us less threatening to one another, particularly television
and speedy travel, which have influenced us profoundly. Before television
it was very easy to imagine that people from other cultures —
those different from ours —
less than human and therefore disposable. But television enables us to
recognize each other's humanness —
the ghetto and the mansion, locally and worlds away —
more readily realize that rather than being monsters, others are as vulnerable
as we are and embody the same human strivings as we do. Similarly, jet
transport, which has made us all tourists and virtually every spot on earth
a tourist destination, has permitted us to discover these things first-hand.
No War Toys
is an organization with roots that go back to the 1960's. In focusing on
the effects of war toys, it has shed some very important light on winning
and losing. It defines war toys as "playthings which are used to solve
conflict, gain power, or win through the use of violence." It tells us
that war games teach children:
It's clear to
me that at this particular moment in our evolution whenever we create sides
is deal with a situation in a win-lose
disagreements by fighting
and reward the use of violence and physical strength"
fights and make enemies"
war seem like an OK thing to do"
some people "seem better than other people" to "make boys seem more important
will pay a price greater than whatever benefit may come from it. For instance,
the gangster may gain spoils and "power," but pays with ongoing fear of
vengeful attack as well as with a reduction in the ability to love and
to experience love. Similarly, punishing or demeaning parents push their
children away, but end up isolated and starved for love and connection
do their children. The anti-abortion bomber may temporarily slow the pace
of abortion, but will ultimately bring about an increased effort on the
part of pro-choice people. The improved methods of the counterfeiter simply
lead the police to improve their detection methods.
The win-lose structure
has numerous costs. These include: 1) polarizing into "us vs. them,
demonizing, 3) shame, 4) mistrust, 5)
obstruction of maturing, and 14)
ability to love.
call this the "Archie Bunker" syndrome. It includes polarizing into
vs. them, and into the good guys and the bad guys.
This strategy might be effective in motivating people to fight an enemy
or a competitor, since we're not likely to oppose someone who we see as
like us or with us. But an adversarial stance simply invites the opposing
side to reciprocate with an opposing adversarial response. So while this
may attain short-term gains, it always results in long-term losses that
frustrate the gains. I suggest that the never-ending struggles between
the Israelis and Palestinians or the Serbians and the ethnic Albanians
are examples of this. So too are the struggles of corporations against
their competitors or their workers.
One of the casualties of polarizing into "all of mine is valid and none
of yours is" is that neither side is open to recognizing or considering
the legitimate desires or qualities of the other. (Consider the last argument
you had with your child, spouse or lover.) In the case of commerce, it
would be surprising, indeed, if either side were to help potential customers
with the truth about its competitor. Consider Avis' slogan "We're number
two; we try harder." It asserts, without evidence, that number one (Hertz)
doesn't try hard and it obscures the fact that Avis is not the underdog,
but part of one of the biggest and richest corporations in the world.
If I'm trying to win, there is significant pressure for me to demean my
to make the other bad. "We try harder" is just one example of such demonizing.
Wendy's famous "Where's the beef" commercial implied —
again, without evidence —
that the other hamburger sellers were stingy with their meat.
Demonizing is an essential strategy during wars. For example, during World
War II, the Japanese and German people and soldiers were depicted in Allied
lands as subhuman, cruel, and not valuing life. Tojo, Hitler, Goehring
and the others in charge of waging war against the Allies were depicted
as objects of derision, ridicule and scorn. At the same time, no patriotic
person had a moment's concern about the grief of a Japanese or German mother
whose father, husband or son was a casualty of the war. In fact, in order
for me to be patriotic, I must take sides against the other. On the other
hand, if I am deemed unpatriotic, I am seen as unworthy;
that is, I am demonized.
adulation poured on the winner in a sports contest, particularly in a "championship"
contest, tends to distract us from recognizing that losses are moments
of shame. (the shadow side of Lombardi's "winning is everything"). When
Steffi Graff lost to Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon yesterday, she was
perceived as a failure, even a has-been. (Yet having lost, she is now rated
the second-best female tennis player in the world.
That this is hardly a less impressive achievement —
which could have been reversed on any given day —
completely disregard.) This shame is symbolized by the fact that the loser
characteristically receives a much smaller financial prize than the winner
does and by the fact that we are much less likely to remember the runner-up
than the winner. At the Olympics, for instance, if we remember at all,
we are likely to recall who won the gold medal, but not who won the silver
or bronze medals.
I suggest that it was just this shame that motivated many of the people
who lost their fortunes in the stock market crash of 1929 to commit suicide.
is an early victim of the effort to win. From the perspective of
winning and losing, the other person is my enemy, opponent or competitor,
and is striving to defeat me: Mistrust is an inescapable consequence. It
goes with the territory, then, that I must strive to conceal myself —
strategies, desires and discoveries —
my opponents. ("You've got to keep your cards close to your vest!")
I suggest that this is to everyone's detriment.
It follows that if I don't trust you and I must win, I cannot safely be
truthful with you, I must deceive you. (Does Macy's tell Gimbels?)
and Gimbels have long been competing department stores in New York City.
This expression was often used to assert that competitors don't reveal
what they're up to to one another —
assertion which was questioned by Santa Claus in the movie
on 34th Street). From the win-lose perspective, it cannot be fathomed
that it could actually be of value to be helpful to someone who is trying
to defeat me.
world in which others are opponents or enemies is a scary world. If I have
been winning, it's inevitable that I will be scared of losing the reward
and regard provided to me as winner. (For example, one Internet CEO, when
asked today how he feels about the damage that the competition could do,
replied "I wake up scared every day.") On the other hand, if I am losing,
I will be scared that I will be ever-deprived of the reward and regard.
If I am involved in winning and losing, I will inevitably harbor resentment
towards both those whom I beat and those who surpass me. I resent those
whom I who surpass because they require that I be ever-alert to the possibility
that they may overtake me. I resent those who surpass me because, in faring
better than me, they deprive me of the goodies that come from winning (money,
acclaim, the girl). The Nerd and the Jock resent one another.
who lose inevitably seek to "even the score," to get revenge. Since in
almost every endeavor there are few winners and many losers, there are
many among us who are seeking revenge (or waiting for the opportunity to
do so). Consider, for example, road rage, drive-by shootings, shop-lifting
and white collar crime.
When a conflict is "settled" in a way that is not mutually
satisfactory, the side or person that views the settlement as a loss will
harbor a residue of resentment and shame and a desire for revenge, and
will act to "even the score" by defeating those who did the defeating.
This is amply evident in the 600 year struggle between the Serbs and the
"ethnic" Albanians in Kosovo, or the similarly endless struggles between
the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the Iraqis and Iranians.
long as I am caught in the win-lose trap, I must continue to strive. If
I am the loser, the only way I can exceed my shame and get the "high" is
to continue striving. If I am a winner, the only way I can avoid "coming
down" is to continue to win. I think that the fact that many sports stars
become involved with drugs —
though these are ostensibly a threat to their careers —
to the addictive character of these people. I suspect, too, that the attempt
to avoid coming down is also why sports stars and many "movers" and "shakers"
frequently act outrageously in their private lives.
prevails in all winning and losing. It is very evident when we look, for
instance, at the "contest" between cops and robbers. In counterfeiting,
for example, law enforcement's increasing ability to recognize counterfeits
has simply led to the counterfeiters using more sophisticated means to
counterfeit. In turn, this has led (and, I suggest, will continue to lead)
to evenmore sophisticated means to keep counterfeiters from being able
to successfully counterfeit. This is true, as well, in the competition
between drug traffickers and "narcs." The more sophisticated the means
of interdiction have become, the more sophisticated have become the means
of avoiding interdiction. The same progression is also evident with regard
to weapons of warfare, where through the centuries there has been a steady
increase in the power and sophistication of such weapons. At times it was
believed that such increases would somehow put an end to war. For example,
Albert Nobel expected this would result from his invention of dynamite.
It was also thought that the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs would put an end
to war. But clearly none of this has made war any less likely and the escalation
Modeling of violence
of rendering our lives more loving, winning and losing perpetually provides
models of and urgings towards violence. Rather than diminishing violence,
it perpetuates and escalates it. (Consider, for instance, the outbreaks
of spectator violence at soccer matches.)
Obstruction of maturing
I am hooked into striving to win or to keep from losing, cooperating in
searching for solutions seems to mean risking losing; it seems like a weakness.
In being locked into striving for solutions through being adversarial,
I am kept from recognizing those possible solutions not dictated by winning
and losing. Unable to deal with conflict in a genuinely cooperative
way (that is, in a mutually respectful search for mutually satisfying solutions
a "hidden agenda" and without attempting or accepting gain
at the other's expense), I am robbed of the possibility of discovering
and experiencing my genuine connectedness and responsibility to others.
to love Love requires mutual
openness. The competitive context makes this openness uncertain, perhaps
impossible. In turn, this makes it difficult —
me to recognize whether someone's seemingly kind act comes from care or
is part of a strategy to take advantage of me. Since I'm unable to trust,
I'm (most often secretly) afraid that the other person's care is not genuine,
and that he or she will forsake me when in some way I inevitably fail to
The only way to
effectively resolve conflict is for the people involved to cooperate
in seeking solutions that are mutually satisfying. This method
of resolution has none of the drawbacks of the struggle to win and it is
made invisible by the competitive struggle.
But how can we
ever accomplish this if every win-lose transaction increases our level
of mistrust and untrustworthiness? Although the answer is very clear to
me, I'm not very hopeful that it will ever gain widespread use. But I am
confident that there are people discovering it every day.
I suggest that
the first opportunity occurs early in a child's development. A two-year-old's
spontaneous response to being hit or to having his or her toy taken away
is typically to hit back or to grab back the possession —
try to win, rather than dialogue. This is what we mean when we say derisively
of adults, "They're fighting like children!
Some parents may
cheer on their aggressive kid. ("You've got to let them know they
can't take advantage of you!" "If he hits you, hit him back!" "Be a man!")
But the more common parental response to a child's aggression is to hit
the child, physically or verbally. ("Bad boy!" "Now play nice!" "I
want you to apologize!") Either approach damages the child's ability
to mature with regard to striving to get what he wants in a world with
Such a child most
likely obeyed his parents' demands —
example, to be "good" or polite. Ironically, this performance only masks
the child's urge to use force to get what it wants —
win. It thus renders the child prone to use force whenever it deems it
safe to do so. Consider, for example, the experiments in which a child
will coerce another child who is smaller, whenever he or she believes that
detection is unlikely. Consider, too, the plethora of religious leaders,
such as Jimmy Swaggert, who have paraded themselves before their congregations
as next to God, but also secretly cavorted with prostitutes. Or consider
evangelists like Peter Popoff, who used modern electronic trickery to convince
his followers that he was personally enlisted by God.
When grown, then,
such a child is very unlikely to deal with others in a genuinely cooperative
way. Instead, it's likely to get trapped in the win-lose structure in virtually
every facet of its life.
However, the result
will be very different if the care givers: 1) avoid punishing or demeaning
the child when it attempts to get what it wants by winning; and, instead,
2) engage in the dialogue, beginning with acknowledging
child feels. (For example, they might first acknowledge to their child
that what the other child did must have hurt or made him or her angry:
"That really hurt when Johnny took your toy, didn't it? And you're very
angry at Johnny for taking your toy?" Following this, they might share
their view —
there are more effective ways for the child to get what he or she wants,
might role-play with their child, might offer to mediate between the two
children, etc; and, 3) demonstrate true care by genuinely living out with
the child and others in their world the cooperation they prize. Ironically,
when violent-win/lose-urges are accepted, the dialogue engaged in and cooperation
modeled, such urges to oppose will actually diminish.
Those of us who
didn't grow up with such enlightened parenting are in some ways the "walking
wounded." We are more concerned about getting what we want —
not losing what we have —
than about mutual satisfaction. We tend to mistrust others' beneficence
and tend to be at-the-ready to manipulate others in order to get what we
we think we can get away with it. We are perfect recruits for being hooked
into winning and losing. Consequently, even when we want to, we are not
likely to be able to maintain a cooperative stance for very long, particularly
when we have a lot at stake, for example in our relationship with a parent,
child or lover.
We need first
to finish our "unfinished business." That is, we need (in a safe "place,"
of course) to complete our unfinished expressions of pain at being invalidated
when we were young (for example, being told not to cry or be angry): Among
other things, we need to express our pleas for them to love us instead,
as well as to complete the interrupted expressions of our desire to take
and have what we want, when we want, undistorted by fear or politeness
or other demands. Only then will those desires be acknowledged and validated.
Only then will we truly recognize our right to reach out for what we want.
And only then will we discover our kinship to others and our genuine concern
for their welfare —
our desire to shun winning and losing. The most effective means for finishing
unfinished business that I know of is the Organic Process, a form of psychotherapy
that I've been enthusiastically practicing for 22 years.
But even if we
forgo finishing our unfinished business, we are not helpless. We can still
attempt to deal with others cooperatively, to seek to make mutually satisfying
agreements. This will require that we learn and practice the dialoguing
skills, the major tool for cooperating. However, it will be much more difficult
to carry out, since we will find it hard to believe that we can get what
we want without competing. In addition, although we might try to shun competitive
situations, we will often find these difficult to recognize and, in any
case, disturbing to abandon.
is the core of cooperation, and since few of us have yet to learn how,
I think it's essential that all of us be encouraged to take and pass courses
in the communication skills through such devices as income tax deductions
and required courses in all public school and university curricula. Essential,
too, are university programs and "think tanks" dedicated to searching for,
designing and disseminating information about the ways in which governments,
companies, families and individuals can deal with one another cooperatively.
There are some
signs that even large competitive companies are actually becoming more
cooperative. For example, more than a few companies in the computer industry
have actually made agreements to share their discoveries and inventions
for their mutual benefit. Perhaps they are beginning to realize that they
are in it together and that the only way they will ultimately succeed is
I would be remiss
if I concluded without
Games, an organization headquartered in Mendocino, California
(707/937-3337). New Games conducts workshops in Europe, Asia and the U.S.
and has compiled an extensive catalogue of cooperative games in print and
on CD that I highly recommend.
E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People
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