I think I first learned about the concept of competition in the abstract when I was in eighth grade. I was in science class, and we were learning about Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species, the work that established the renowned doctrine of natural selection (or "survival of the fittest" as it was later described). I was fascinated, and bizarrely deeply comforted by the way Darwin's theory validated the "naturalness" of competition.
What do I mean by that? Well, in our fast-paced, ambition-focused culture, competition is everywhere. As a younger sister, I always felt competitive with my sister — her looks, her grades, her achievements, her friends, her boyfriends, and so on. I felt similarly with my female friends, sizing up the various facets of my life against theirs. I even felt competitive with strangers. (This happened particularly when I became more cognizant of my own body image issues; I felt threatened and jealous of other women's bodies when I compared them to my own. Note that I'm not saying that feeling these feelings is awesome. But you should not punish yourself for these sorts of thoughts...).
So in eighth grade, at the nadir of my adolescent self-esteem deficit, it was kind of amazing to be told competition was not only normal, but NATURAL. And as fans of health and wellness, we just love the word "natural," don't we?
I continue to embrace this notion that competition is totally natural. Of course, we all know it's an inherent survival mechanism: if we surpass others in strength and ability (and so on), we will survive longer (thanks, Darwin). But it's true even on a more granular, subtle level: competition with others motivates us. When we see someone at a café reading their book faster than we are reading, perhaps we pick up the pace. Something similar may happen on your morning jog around the park, too.
Yet this full-on, "scientific" embrace of competition has been challenged for good reason. As early as 1937, anthropologist Margaret Mead conducted studies of several societies that attempted to refute the supreme importance of competition. Specifically, Mead found that the Zuni Indians valued cooperation more than competition — and even placed a negative value on competition. She published her findings in a book entitled Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples, ultimately concluding that competitiveness is culturally created, rather than an innate human trait.
So, should we embrace competition as natural? Or fight against it with a greater push for cooperation as its opposite (or something like it)? I don't think there's a right answer, and I don't think competition and cooperation are mutually exclusive.
The important thing to do is keep track of your competition, and situate it in dialogue with other emotions and aspects of your sensibility. Just because you feel competitive doesn't mean you're a crappy person. Get to know your competition, as you would a friend. Take your competition out for a cup of coffee. Ask it questions. When you practice letting go of the self-judgment you may typically use as a response to your competition, the whole game of life gets a whole lot easier and happier.
A lot of the time, our feelings of competition can emerge from our (often irrational) sense of being inadequate, so we compare ourselves to others. We then often overly romanticize other people, and denigrate ourselves further as a result. This vague hypothetical that I am sure most of us relate to is an example of competition getting out of hand. Competition is powerful, and that power can motivate us toward self-improvement. But competition should not control us.
Another key idea is the realization that there exists another, equally "natural" thing we should all embrace as part of life: abundance! Good things are abundant. If you see someone jogging faster than you in the park, it does not mean no one else in the world can jog fast just because one person is surpassing you. Just because someone else gets an A+ on an essay doesn't mean you can't. There are an infinite number of fast runners in the world. There are more than enough A's to go around the class.
So cooperation and competition can coexist. You can cooperate with your competition. If you want to run faster than the person alongside you in the park, you can (unless, of course an injury or other situation precludes you. But you get my point). It may take more practice than you want. You may continue to feel resentful of them along the way.
There may be suffering on your journey, whatever your journey entails. But the thing to remind yourself is that there is always enough to go around. If you think, speak and act from a place of abundance, you will feel more nourished on your journey toward self-improvement, no matter what you are trying to improve.
I've always been obsessed with the etymology of the word "inspire" —it literally means "to breathe into." Inspiration doesn't have to be a special occasion kind of feeling. It can be as simple and quotidian as breath. But what separates it from any other experience is our ability to see the life-affirming, nourishing opportunity in whatever it is we are taking in or "breathing in." And that thing could be "negative." That thing could be competition.
There you have it: competition can inspire you to change. Use your competition as a force of inspiration. Breathe it in.