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What is incompetence and why is it important?

Take out a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side, list all the positive things she has experienced from competing (whether it be in sports, school, business, politics, etc.). These can include things like fun, excitement, challenge, camaraderie, and pride. On the right hand side, make a list of the negative things you have found in the contests. These can include internal things like stress and anxiety, as well as external behaviors, like fighting, cheating, lying, etc. So ask yourself this: Why does competition sometimes lead to such positive experiences and sometimes such negative results?

Some people believe that competition goes bad when people get carried away; when they get too competitive. Problems arise, it is said, when people want to win “whatever it takes.” There is an element of truth in these statements. Still, they are more myth than reality. And it’s a myth perpetuated by the media, like sports broadcasters, who like to praise people’s competitiveness until something ugly happens; then they blame the culprit for being too competitive.

After years of working with athletes and coaches, I have come to a different conclusion about the sources of the problems that all too often mar competition. Here’s the takeaway in a nutshell: There are two very different ways to think about the meaning, purpose, goal, and value of competition. Each of these two forms has its own very distinctive (and highly predictable) characteristics and consequences. One of these two ways leads to results such as excellence and enjoyment. The other will not always result in deceit, antagonism, and corruption, but will nonetheless open the door to these negative outcomes. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that there is more than one way to think about the competition. “Isn’t it just trying to beat other people?” Not precisely.

The first form, which we call “true competition”, is based on the original meaning of the word. Please bear with me for a moment as I get a little academic. The term “competition” comes from Latin roots and literally means “to fight with.” It is important to note that it does not mean “to fight against”, but rather to fight with. Competition involves fighting with your opponent. In true competition, the contest allows all participants to strive for excellence. When we are true competitors, the challenge of a worthy opponent and the effort we make to try to win are valued because they help us reach the limits of our abilities. True competition is mutually beneficial to all involved. Everyone wins by striving for excellence and by experiencing the enjoyment that comes from vigorously pursuing a worthwhile goal. Sure, winning is more fun. But win or lose, we win.

The second form, which we call “discompetence” (short for decomposed competence), is the antithesis of the actual meaning of the word. Instead of “fighting with”, decompetition arises when we “fight against”. Discompetitors see competition as a miniature war. They see their opponents as enemies. The objective is reduced to conquering others. While the gulf between “strive with” and “strive against” can be experienced in a variety of quiet and subtle ways, it’s still a yawning chasm, as wide as it is important.

Most people exhibit both tendencies to some degree. We can vacillate between being true competitors and being non-competitors. But our inability to recognize that these are really two quite different, quite distinct processes, has limited our ability to understand when, why, and how negative behaviors occur in competitive settings. Of course, in this short article, I can only hint at the profound differences between them and how to gain control over thought processes at work. But I will conclude with an essential point.

If you’re interested in doing your best, if you’re interested in peak performance, and if you want to maintain your enthusiasm and enjoyment, then true competition is a much more reliable path to get there. There’s an old locker room mythology that “nice guys finish last,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Thinking of competition as a miniature battle promotes distracted thinking, constant lack of focus, unreliable motivational patterns, undesirable tensions, and a lack of proper impulse control. True competition is not only based on strong ethics, but results in excellent performance.

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