We usually think of competition in terms of individuals winning or losing: “every man for himself.” But to win meaningfully and progressively, we must turn to the Latin root of competition: “to strive together.”
We do our best when we help each other. (More)
We think of competition in terms of winning and losing: “every man for himself.” It is one of the strongest paradigms in our culture. We often treat winners as if winning proved their superior human worth, and treat losers as if they didn’t even show up.
Sometimes winners just got more lucky breaks. As Ann Richards said of George W. Bush, “Poor George. He was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.”
Or as John Raese, the loser in the West Virginia Senate race said, “I made my money the old fashioned way. I inherited it.”
What about the rest of us? If you weren’t born on third base or didn’t inherit a family fortune, are you destined to be a loser? Does this way of thinking about competition – “every man for himself” – serve our progressive values or help us grow as a country? Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you are saying, “NOT.”
I was one of twelve out of a public high school class of over 800 whose parents thought that four years of Latin was an important part of a good education. Fourth-year Latin was not a cool class, but the language has helped me. Latin is very good for crossword puzzles and for rethinking how we use words. The roots of words often have important lessons for us. The Latin root for competition is competere. The com prefix derives from cum, meaning “near, with, or together.” The word petere means “to strive, to seek, to desire, to aim at.” So competere means “to strive together.”
Stop and think about this for just a moment. To Strive Together.
If we viewed competition in that light it would be a strong progressive value. It wouldn’t be about winners and losers but about everyone getting better together. Picture runners in training. Keeping up with a slightly stronger runner helps bring out your best, as does setting the pace for a slightly weaker runner. By “striving together,” both runners improve.
My oldest son was a collegiate rower. As a freshman at NYU there was a dry land meet that included West Point. The West Pointers had the best gear and a certain swagger. They had every right to feel proud of their school and their admittance. This meet was conducted on rowing machines, with computerized boats advancing based on the rowers’ efforts.
My son had already won his heat, but one of his teammates was struggling. My son went over and stood behind his NYU teammate. He started by saying “Breathe” and “Pull,” and established a rhythm with those two words. He gradually increased the tempo. Occasionally he would say “You’ve got it,” “You’re good,” or “You can do this,” but he always came back to “Breathe … Pull.” His teammate won her heat.
The NYU crew were in it for each other. They took turns standing behind each other and setting the pace. The NYU teamwork worked. The West Pointers came in expecting to win, but each of them was on his/her own. For some reason, they didn’t copy NYU’s successful tactic.
Oddly, my son might have gone to West Point. Paul Wellstone’s daughter Marcia was his high school Spanish teacher. At one sporting event Paul was working the bleachers. He had recommended one of my son’s friends for Annapolis. Paul asked my son why he hadn’t applied to a military academy. My son said, “Well, I hear that they bounce a quarter on your bed to see if you’ve made it properly. My bed, you can bounce on and probably a quarter will fly out. I don’t think I’d pass bed making.”
Wellstone laughed loudly and said, “Be yourself. Be the best you you can be.” Truly memorable advice for all those sitting around us.
We need to reclaim the original meaning of competition. And we need to learn how to help each other “be the best you you can be.” The notions of “every man for himself” and predestined winners and losers will not create a future that includes all of us. Learning “to strive together” may just be the new paradigm that we need.