The Role Of Competition in Human Endeavor
—by Victor Preuninger
One of the few universal truths in the fitness industry is that a person walking into the gym their first time is always prompted to be there by a reason. No one ever walks into a gym out of sheer, blind impulse. There first exists a problem, however grand or minute, for which that individual is seeking a solution. In their journey to solve that problem, some will succeed, many others will fail. In either outcome, there were at the start good intentions. So what really differentiates those who fail from those who don’t? A great many factors are at play, but let’s take a look at one of the main reasons people succeed, starting with a brief digression into our collective past.
Human beings have accomplished incredible things in our history, feats of the mind as well as feats of the body. We have travelled to the moon and back (on multiple occasions), we have constructed buildings that reach the heavens, we have climbed the highest mountains and explored the depths of the ocean. Men have lifted half-ton weights off the ground with their hands, they have run faster than anyone ever thought possible. We have explored the nature of life down to it’s most basic component parts, and by learning to split the atom, we have realized ways to end life that almost overwhelm the imagination.
In every possible way, man has striven for higher, faster, stronger, farther, smarter, cleaner, deeper, deadlier, more inventive, more beautiful, more creative, more efficient and more powerful. At any given time, if there is a limit to something, there is a human being seeking to exceed it.
What is it in us that (for better and certainly at times, for worse) has driven such advancement?
To a large extent, we may thank our curiosity for bringing us out of the primordial slime. All of our knowledge at some point was gained as a by-product of our natural curiosity. Our constant sense of wonder leading us to ask how something works or why it was that way. Whether something could be done, and if so, when? Our big brains and our nimble fingers set to work from the dawn of man figuring out the nature of the world around us.
And yet, that really only gives us the “why” of our question. The practicial issue of “how” lies in another element.
In answer to a query as to why he climbed Everest, Sir Edmund Hilary famously replied “Because it is there.” But no one ever thought to ask him why he sought to be the FIRST to climb it, or to phrase it another way, how did he accomplish that which no one else had been able to do before. I imagine that the answer they would’ve gotten would be a little different.
Why did the United States succeed in placing a man on the moon? It wasn’t because we were curious as to our ability to do so. If it were merely that, it likely would not have happened for decades, if at all. If we simply wanted to know what was up there, we could’ve spent a few more years working on the type of robotic technology that we use nowadays to bring us back rocks and moon dust. The true answer is obvious. It was because the Russians were trying also and we wanted to do it first.
Similar examples can be found everywhere. The nuclear arms race, the telephone, AC current, the Polio vaccine, the Empire State building. Countless patents, theorems, works of architecture and exploration have arrived as the direct result of someone trying to do it faster or better than someone else.
Does this seem immature? You could say that. But in the scope of history, it cannot be denied that it certainly has gotten things done, and for the most part, it has been for our greater good. If neccessity is the mother of invention, competition is the father who’s hurrying it along the way.
Of course, there are exceptions. Many great accomplishments have arrived without this form of direct competition, at least not on the surface: In 1952, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, a South African cardiac surgeon, became the first person to successfully perform a human-to- human heart transplant. As far as I know, there was no “race” to be the first surgeon to do so. Yet a quick look at his academic history will tell you that this is a person who was in all likelihood highly competitive in nature, if not directly with others, then with himself. Medicine being one of the highest fields of human endeavor, requires years and years of fierce academic competition, which in the end forges the most elite minds and talents history has to offer. Those individuals go on to accomplish things that change the course of history. Competition ultimately allows the cream to rise to the top.
The art and music which is closest to our hearts has typically arrived from a more altruistic place. Yes, art can be competitive, fiercely so. Yet for every ballerina seeking greater prominence amongst her peers, or violinist struggling to make it to first chair at the NYC Philharmonic, or painter yearning for reknown, there are Van Goghs, Basquiats, Cobains and others who, not seeking to beat anyone else, are merely doing that which they felt compelled to do. But even at the core of those examples, is a great deal of competition, with themselves, with their own perceptions of their self, with other’s perceptions of that self, with a dissatisfaction with conventional modes of inner expression.
These are intangible qualities to strive against. People who achieve greatness in this rare, and so often tragic way, are few and far between. As a practical matter, this falls outside our context.
By and large, competitive people want to be better than something. Better than who they are right now. Better than the average Joe. Better than they were yesterday. Better because they are never satisfied with being just good enough. Yet in this day and age, where motivational posters and feel-good pep talks are a dime a dozen, that sentiment begins to sounds trite. We ALL want to be better people than we were yesterday. It is different to merely want something, however, than to feel so utterly compelled that every moment in which further pursuit of that desire is squandered becomes painful, unbearable. Competition brings that sense of urgency with it, a sense of immediacy that begins to take priority over all the little things that can stand in it’s way. Training is no longer a pasttime or a chore, it is a neccesity. The willingness to do what must be done no longer seems like a lofty ideal, it becomes merely routine.
So become a competitor. Stake the results of your training to a contest, a challenge. Something with a date that will limit prep time to only what you really need, leaving no room to fall off for months or even a few weeks before said date arrives. Pay an advanced entry fee. Make your challenge known to others so they will hold you accountable in their esteem if you fail. Imagine every day the other people who are training even harder than you, with even more heart and determination. Resign yourself to outdoing them.
Whatever the challenge may be, if you commit in earnest, your training will evolve from being something you “just do” to something that carries intent and purpose. Looking at the date on the calendar and feeling the intoxicating mix of fear, anticipation, self-respect and determination that comes with it will drive you to train harder.
Sign up for an inter-office or online weight loss challenge. Join a rec sports league. Commit yourself to a 10k run. Enter an amature fitness show. Run a Spartan Race. Try a powerlifting meet. Complete a triatholon.
Attempt to bite off more than you can chew. Pick something that scares you a little bit. Maybe pick something that scares you a LOT. Pick something your family will think you’re crazy to even try. Bet someone who thinks you will fail $100 that they’ve never been more wrong in their life. Do something that you will be PROUD to look back on having achieved.
It doesn’t matter what you try, and in the end, it doesn’t even matter if you win or lose. The battle you fight as you walk along the path will be the greatest reward.