Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The need to win - a disguise for the hunger to be seen

You don't have to look too far in our society to see people competing with each other. Whether we are trying to out-do someone at work, playing team sport, or even cooking and house renovating these days, there is a pervasive milieu of competition. (Currently in Australia our television networks all seem to have some version of a cooking show that pits people against each other in some kind of 'cook-off' or teams of renovators, back-packers, dancers, singers, business entrepreneurs - you name it there's a competition revolving around it.) You even hear of parents being banned from children's sporting matches due to their unruly behaviour when their kid's team starts to lose.

So what's wrong with that? Where do I start? Perhaps with the underlying principle that is the culprit. I call it the 'see-saw principle' and it is essentially that, for me to be up, you need to be down...and vice versa. Where there can be only one winner, I have a vested interested in you failing, so if there's anything I can do to bring that about I will do it. From a dharmic point of view that sounds like harmful intention and harmful action.

A slightly less extreme version of this principle is the 'keeping up with the Joneses' tendency. Here I might not be trying to beat you but at least I need to show you aren't beating me. Psychologists call this 'social comparison' and there is abundant evidence that it generally makes us unhappy.

Apart from the see-saw principle it also undermines my own achievement because instead of focusing on the possibilities of what I might be able to do, I let you set the bar - as long as I beat you then I'm happy. I may have achieved nowhere near a personal best, but if I beat you, my work here is done. Rather than striving for a goal, or even better, striving to enjoy what I'm doing or the experience of doing it well, I strive to come out superior to you.

Let me showcase this in a few different settings starting with leadership and the corporate world. For decades now, there's been research to show that competitive behaviour among employees diminishes performance. One of the ways I earn a living is to run leadership programs and as part of this I put groups of leaders through a simulated problem solving challenge. Those groups that engage in competitive behaviours (among others) routinely do worse than those who focus all of their attention on finding the best solution, regardless of who contributes the 'best' ideas. More broadly, competitive behaviour encourages employees to withhold information from each other, encourages the diversion of energy into keeping up appearances and diminishes cooperation. When people lose, they are motivated to make excuses rather than to learn from their failure.

Another example comes from my soccer team. We are currently half way through our third season as a reasonably stable team with the same coach. For the first two years our coach was terrific. He focused us on a small number of key things to do, gave us loads of encouragement and very rarely criticised us. He excited us towards being better and the enjoyment of being on and contributing to the team also grew. In the first year we were nowhere on the ladder. Last year we were one point away from the finals. This year he has decided that not only are we going to win the season but we are going to do it from the top of the ladder.

You may think, well, yes, it's a competitive sport, isn't that a legitimate place to be competitive? Well, let me share with you my observations of the behaviour that is now emerging as a result of our coach's need to win. From the very first training session this year he has been grumpy and very easily frustrated. Whenever we do anything wrong, he criticises us and expresses his frustration emotionally. He gives almost no encouragement any more. On the sideline at games he moans and growls and sighs and criticises. Last weekend we faced a team that was short a couple of players. By half time we were up 3-1 and he yelled and screamed at us. Instead of scoring another 3 or 4 goals in the second half, we scored only one. I believe we could indeed win the season this year but the biggest obstacle to that is our coach's desperation to win which has diminished his focus on how to get the best from us.

If we look closely at the desperate need to win, we can see that it has lots to do with the dharma. An easy way to access this is to ask the question: if I lose, what is the problem? For our coach, I think his ego has become interwoven with the triumph of our team. For us to go from nowhere on the ladder to champions in three seasons would show just how good he is - probably in the eyes of the other club members (he is the Secretary of the club and very enmeshed in it as his social world). I think for many people (putting aside professional athletes whose income can rely on it), the main pay-off for winning is that we get to be a 'somebody' in other people's eyes. The pay-off is the perception that we will be elevated in others' esteem - that we will matter and be admired. This is smack-bang in the middle of ego/selfing territory (spun-identity - see the post Bloody Not-Self for more on this).

I am currently engaging in dharma practice on the athletics track. This year I have joined a masters sprinting team and have set myself the initial goals of 1) enjoying sprinting; and 2) getting fit. If I can achieve goal #1 soundly then I might think about competing.

When I was a child I was very good at athletics. In my first season of Little Athletics I won everything and was either Age Champion or runner up in every year of high school. However I never really enjoyed it. I had, and still feel the echoes of, a great deal of anxiety around competing on the track. Because I was so successful so early in my life, I spent my whole (short) athletics career in fear that I wouldn't win. As the second of six children (sandwiched in between two brothers) with a father who was pretty disinterested in kids unless they were good at something, to win meant to 'be seen'; to be a somebody. As I entered my teen years, of course being a 'somebody' in the eyes of my peers was also pretty important to my sense of self esteem.

According to the dharma, the hunger or thirst to 'exist' is one of the three core 'cravings' that leads to the clinging that causes our (optional) suffering. In an interpersonal sense, to 'exist', is to be seen, recognised, admired, appreciated, desired etc. So for me, sprinting on the track was associated with the ever-present possibility of a slide into the unpleasantness of being a nobody. I craved to be seen (was often criticised by my brothers for being an attention seeker) and I clung to winning athletics as a means of feeding this hunger. Having now walked a good way on my own personal journey, and having proved myself to myself over the past couple of decades, I can honestly say that feeling competitive with others is now a rare experience for me. However to resume sprinting will bring me face to face with the shadows of that old demon.

So with my intentions planted firmly in mindfulness and getting to know (and therefore disempower) that old demon, I've returned to sprinting now - 25 years after I last sprinted on a track. I'm learning to know my mind's habits in this setting and I'm quite enjoying being able to observe and get to know this terrain from a place of emotional safety. I'm observing what kinds of things cause me to switch into 'competitive mode' and how that feels in the body. I'm also observing what it's like when I'm present to the body's motion and I'm focusing on building my joy habit. In fact I've found myself a little motto - 'the joy of flight' - to help keep me focused on being present to and enjoying the act of sprinting. When I'm up on my toes and balanced, it really does feel like flying, and there is definitely a joy in that.

An interesting feature of this adventure for me is that the masters squad I've joined is coached by the current world #1 male masters athlete, Peter Crombie. The reason I tell you this is that Peter has spent most of the current athletics season recovering from injury. As I write this he is probably checking in to his hotel in Sacramento for the World Masters Games as the top masters athlete in the world, knowing that he probably won't win and may not even get a medal. Over the past 5 months I've had the privilege of not just training under his guidance but discussing with him my dharmic goal of looking this demon in the eye and knowing it well so that it no longer scares me. Peter is not a Buddhist nor has he explored the dharma as far as I know - yet his own trajectory to World No. 1 has led him to the same place - a focus on the process - on the journey - and a realisation that an attachment to the outcome/destination is a recipe for suffering.

I remember going to a seminar on outstanding achievers a few years ago. One of the common features of these people, whether they were piano virtuosos or Olympic athletes was that they didn't focus on the prize. They focused on the process. Indeed I remember an interview with Cathy Freeman (Australia's female Olympic gold medallist in sprints at the 2000 Olympics) after she had run her 100m heat. The journalist asked her whether she thought it was a good enough time to make the final. Her response was, something like 'oh, I don't know, but I'm really happy with how I ran, it felt really good'. She later won the Olympic gold medal. Apparently on her mirror in the change room, she had written the letters 'PB' (Personal Best) and her target time. So not only is focusing on the process the best way to avoid the creation of uneccesary doses of suffering, it's also the best way to achieve excellence.

While I do think this need to win has gotten a bit out of control in our modern society, it's not like it's a new thing. Indeed Chuang Tzu, the influential and respected Taoist sage wrote of its drain on us in around 250BCE:

Not working for personal gain
When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets --
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting--
And the need to win drains him of power.
(19:4, p. 158)

So a few (hopefully helpful) questions to help apply this thinking to daily life:

1) in what circumstances or compared to whom do I feel the need to win (or whom do I need to feel better than)?
2) if I lost or looked like I wasn't better than them, how would I feel? If the answer is some form of anger (e.g. frustration, annoyance), what softer emotion lies beneath that? What am I afraid of if I don't win?
3) whose opinion of me does winning/losing affect?
4) why does their opinion have such an impact on me?
5) what aspect of my self concept (identity) does this threaten? (For more on this see the post Bloody Not-Self).
6) what evidence is there from my life that I am loveable, worthy, credible and respectable even if I'm not consistent with this bit of my self concept all the time?

Another suggestion for anyone who finds this topic interesting: Peter Crombie recommended a fabulous movie to me - The Peaceful Warrior.


  1. Great Post Nor. Brings back memories when i was a child of your always amazing athletic body & mind. All the best with the running. As i look around me, oh so many people live like this. I feel they are only punishing themselves & living in fear. Feeling comfortable in our own skin can be such hard work for some, but well worth the journey when love comes to fruition. Cat Elliott ps: keep the posts coming!

  2. Hi Cat. Lovely to hear from you and to have you sharing my blog journey. Thanks for your comments. Nor x

  3. Namaste Lenore,

    It's uncanny how a lot of your posts seem to mirror situations in my life. I'm currently dealing with a similar situation that while it is more ill will than competitiveness, my natural instinct is to have to have the last say and "best sledge". Today I managed to break the interaction when arguing with a friend today. It was so hard as he was being so hurtful and in front of my other friends. I'd like to think it's a turning point but I don't want to be arrogant. But this post made me think, did I get upset because he was wrong, or because I didn't get the best insult/reply?

    Interesting food for thought.

    In metta,