Competition and the hack

In a computer programming forum recently, I was chided for being competitive when I asked if anyone had managed to solve a particular problem in less lines than I had done. My critic then poked fun at another forum writer, suggesting that the amount of time spent working with computers was an indication they didn’t have a girlfriend, ending with “I’ll lend you a few of mine…”

I’ve spent a fair bit of time pondering questions on the nature of competition, and what purpose it serves.

So, what exactly is competition? And is there such a thing as healthy competition?

When I was younger I was much more competitive in general. I nourished a strong sibling rivalry, and consistently judged my own performance relative to that of others. I was also more interested in team sports, getting into the spirit of cheering for “my” team and against the presented enemy.

But over the last ~5 years my perspective has changed drastically and one major cause of my shift is my love for playing hackey sack (aka footbag) and its approach to competition.

In the most basic game of footbag one or more people try to keep a small weighted sack, often filled with beads or sand, from hitting the ground without using their hands. The foot is the most common gravity defeating instrument, hence the name footbag. As the number of players increases, their formation tends to resemble a circle… and I use the word circle loosely! Generally, each player takes turns kicking the bag a few times before passing it to someone else. If the bag reaches everyone in the circle before it hits the ground, we have achieved a ‘hack’ and it is generally considered a ‘good thing’.

In my group of friends we play with only 3 basic rules, though our adherence isn’t exactly hardcore…

  1. Don’t hit or catch the bag with your hands
  2. Don’t serve to yourself to start a session
  3. Don’t say sorry

The first rule seems obvious given the nature of the game, and the second only seems fair to make sure nobody hogs the bag. But the last rule catches a lot of people by surprise.

The third rule isn’t intended to excuse anyone from apologizing for careless or callous behaviour. Rather it encourages people to understand that their attempts and enthusiasm are more appreciated than any perfect execution. That is, we’d rather have someone giving their all and coming up short, than thinking they shouldn’t try because they might not succeed. It is also a conscious effort to defeat the notion that some number of failures is an obvious indication that you “just can’t do it”.

By recognizing that everybody in the circle drops the bag, people learn to pre-empt the natural apologies that slip out when they drop it themselves. This leads to the understanding that they’re only ever really competing against their own inherent expectations of themselves, usually based on past achievements or perceived lack thereof. It also helps to level the playing field across skill levels when everybody learns to share in even the smallest successes of everyone else.

This is the teaching of a simple game which places a greater value on success built by cooperative behaviour.

Approaching life as a great competition has limits. By defining my own success based on the shortcomings of others, I never really have to do better than anyone around me, and I’m even encouraged to surround myself with those I can overcome easily. I am also continually encouraged to seek my own benefit in the failures of others.

This last point is eventually what wore me down. I realized that defeating others had a limited ability to make me feel good about myself and that I was more interested in seeking metres of accomplishment that included everybody’s success.

That doesn’t mean I am unwilling to participate in competition, but even now I find myself more interested in celebrating both the victor’s win and the challenger’s effort in helping to produce it.

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One Response to “Competition and the hack”

  1. pearl says:

    I know what you are writing about. I think that competition can be a great boon to those who are able to celebrate the successes of others as well as themselves. Competition in this view is similar to the drive that any individual possesses to practise and improve (no matter how misguided this might also turn out to be). The desire to compete for ultimate glory is ultimately foolish; lives are finite, so being the best at something is always only temporary. The desire to compete in order to inspire oneself or others is a kind of generosity of spirit, which is fantastic! Recognizing that people have skills is better than false humility too, because it allows everyone to potentially benefit from these skills.

    I don’t mean to lecture, I just want to convey that I agree completely with what you’re saying, and I’m also trying to figure out what role competition plays in my own life.

    Thanks for the blog

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