In October 1964, I stood under a cloudless autumn sky on the infield of the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. From my vantage
point as a competitor, I was deeply moved by the tradition and the pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies. The brightly
colored flags and traditional costumes, the presence of the Emperor of Japan, the jets, the myriad balloons, the swarms of
pigeons, and the hundreds of thousands of people all contributed to my awe.
During a quiet moment, the huge scoreboard at one end of the stadium flashed the words of the Olympic motto: "It's not
whether you win or lose that counts, it's how you play the game." I was jarred out of my state of reverie. "No way!" I said to
myself, "I'm here to win!"
This viewpoint, while commonly accepted, is really quite jaded. Just competing in the Olympics is a tremendous honor and
feat. Winning any medal is extraordinary. Yet somehow we have come to believe that winning is everything; nobody
remembers who got second.
It has not always been so: Pierre de Coubertin penned the words of the timeless Olympic motto less than 100 years ago. Competition for the joy of it used to be the focus, even in Olympic athletics. In the movie Chariots of Fire, a true story about the 1920 Olympics, an English gentleman gives his place in a race to another, simply for the pleasure of watching him run. As recently as 1936, Jesse Owens helped an Olympic competitor better himself without thought of how it might affect the eventual outcome of the race. When I competed in 1964, our attitudes toward winning had become quite egocentric, but we still thought of ourselves as amateurs. Very few of us ever considered making a living from our sport.
What a difference today! Not only do athletes train under professional coaches, many have several specialty coaches for
strength, endurance, form, flexibility, choreography, costume, and mental conditioning. Why? Because our society now
values winning so much that the stakes and rewards are immeasurably higher. An athlete can be set for life by beating the
world. We expressed collective shock when Ben Johnson got caught for using steroids. But he is only a symptom of our
societal overemphasis on "winning at any cost." This attitude has totally captured our collective psyche and permeates
society far beyond the boundaries of sports.
Over the last 50 years, we have seen not only the decline of the traditional character ethic that has made our country and
culture strong, we have also seen a corresponding rise in all-or-nothing competitiveness. Winning used to be like the cream
rising to the top: if you let things alone, the best would appear all by itself. Now we think of winning in terms of beating
others. While the difference is subtle, it is profound. This win-lose ethic comes out of a mentality of scarcity the idea that
there is not enough for everyone; that if someone else wins, I can't.
The first 150 years of our country were dominated by expansion, optimism, and growth. There was so much freedom and opportunity that realizing the American dream was limited only by energy and imagination. The country was working toward a common goal: "The business of America is business."
Then came the depression of the 1930s. Our government assumed new responsibilities: it took care of us. And quietly, our
beliefs about limitless abundance and expansion started to shift. For the first time, we perceived a limited pool of resources.
As survival became a main concern, people started looking out for number one: "Maybe there isn't enough for everybody if
not, I'll get mine first." This new attitude was reflected in the growth of self-centered success literature, as well as in the
excessive competitive attitude of "beating" instead of "winning." True "winning" requires starting with a level playing field: if
everyone has an equal chance, the best will naturally prevail. The word "win" comes from the Old English winnan, "to
struggle, to contend, to contest." This definition implies that winning is a process, not an outcome. "Beating" has come to
mean doing whatever you can, ethically or unethically, to gain an advantage over others.
The word "competition" is derived from the Latin word competere, "to seek together, to coincide, to agree." In this root
meaning, there is no connotation of "losing." But in modern business usage, competition implies a winner and a loser:
competition for a bid; competition for a promotion; competition to be the best sales team; competition between divisions,
companies, or countries.
We always give our approval to our own state of mind, either tacitly or directly. We have the power to choose our reactions.
Pavlov's model works well for dogs and rats, but people can choose their response. Our choices are derived from what is
important to us, our values. Born from these values are our attitudes, including competitive attitudes. In other words, we
choose how we react to competition. To judge your competitive attitude, ask yourself this simple question: "Do I care if the
score is kept when I play games?" If the answer were placed on a continuum, one end would be, "I have to know the
score," and on the other end, "I just play to do my best and would rather not know the score."
People with a win-win ethic do not gain security or satisfaction from keeping score and beating others. Competing at the
highest level of mutual competence is the win-win goal of the game. The outcome is incidental. The fun is in the playing,
not the victory. Winning is the process, not the outcome. Owners of win-lose attitudes gain self-respect through
comparisons with others by keeping score, which is an illusory or distorted source at best. When you realize that you are
only competing with yourself, your source of self-esteem comes from an inner measure, which is ultimately more correct.
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