Competition As American as Apple Pie

September 8, 2000
Seeking a pleasant pause recently, I sat down with a cup of coffee and my daily newspaper. What a mistake. I ran smack into three sad reminders of our national obsession with competition.

First was a front-page picture of six little-leaguers. They were maybe ten years old, and all were hanging their heads and wearing looks of utter rejection. The caption reported that these teammates had been enjoying a winning season -- until they lost the "big game." Someone had snapped the picture moments afterward.

Let's make sure we're not playing musical chairs.

Several pages later, I encountered Ann Landers. A letter-writer was telling her about his Tae Kwan Do meet. He had won a series of matches and ended up in the final championship. He wanted to win so badly -- but he didn't. And his letter gushed with disappointment as he told Ann how he now felt like a big loser.

I hurried to the comics, hoping for relief. But I saw another photo. Two people were holding up their freshly baked apple pies. These were the two finalists in the pie bake-off, and it looked to me as if one of the bakers was a bit distressed. The caption confirmed it: The person with that forced smile had come in second place.

Grade school is where I started learning the dynamics of competition. Then came high school, with its endless contests on the field, the court, the diamond, and in the classroom. But the sheer force of it hit me when we had our first child -- and I could look at the world through her new eyes.

We recently went to her five-year-old friend's house for a birthday party. The kids were having a great time on their own when an adult stepped in to orchestrate a game of musical chairs. After a minute's worth of instructions, the music and motion began. Around and around they went, dutifully following the shouted instructions.

Then the music stopped, the kids clamored for the chairs, and guess what? My daughter remained standing, looking lost, trying to figure out what the heck had happened. "Okay, move to the side," the musical-chairs expert told her. She did as she was told, but she wore the same expression as those "loser" little-leaguers.

Okay, I confess, I'm an overly sensitive dad. Surely she's not scarred by coming up one chair short at a birthday party. And we know she's going to face competitive situations nearly every day as she grows up and moves into adulthood. I understand reality.

But I don't entirely accept it. Why create systems -- at birthday parties, in schools, on fields, in workplaces -- that pit people against one another? Why turn winning into a mutually exclusive proposition? Is there any reason we have to guarantee a certain number of losers? Let's be honest here: Does this really bring out the best in people?

My daughter received another birthday party invitation soon after the chairs ordeal. I went to this one too, and it seemed so different. In one of the games, each child received a home-made cardboard puzzle piece. The group of five-year-olds huddled on the floor, working together to make the puzzle whole.

Once they did, a series of pictures tipped them off to the location of a secret treasure. These kids worked hard, they joined forces, they had a ton of fun, and they shared the joy of "winning."

In our organizations, we talk a lot about teamwork. Let's make sure we're not playing musical chairs.


Other columns by Tom Terez: