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2020-12-12 00:45:24 (UTC)

Prompt 107: Rivals

107. Athletes Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced off against each other in three National Basketball Association finals in the 1980s. Do you think competitors need a rival to reach their best performance? Why or why not?

There are two sides to this, from where I stand.

I have discussions on variations of this subject with a distant friend of mine frequently. He's a high school phys ed teacher, and to accommodate his lessons while students are quarantined and not able to come to a gym class, he has developed short video lessons and quizzes to go along with them. Since high school students will be high school students, inevitably they cheated on their quizzes from time to time (same thing happens with my adult and young-adult clients at the day job, when it comes to their training program and the exams I facilitate).

He decided to address this reality in one of his videos. While I find them all illuminating and entertaining in general, I think this one calling out the cheaters is my personal favourite. To sum up, he mentions that those who actually devote time to even the smallest subjects will learn by degree how to face adversity, while those who end up taking shortcuts, cheating, swapping answers, etc. will not. "You say that when you really need to, you'll be able to do the work," he says. "But you won't, because you've never been tested, and you won't be ready for it when push comes to shove."

I took that lesson to heart when I heard it earlier this year, though my high school years are nearly three decades behind me. I'd previously heard the same lesson as, "Do your best, in all that you do." But my friend's lesson goes deeper than that - or at least, more explicit. His lesson states the reason why one should always do their best. When you're used to doing your best, the routine stuff is easy and beyond that, you'll learn your limits.

To reply to this prompt: yes, I think that competition is one way to test one's limits and ability. I look at this through the lens of board games and video games as well. There are solo games where it is one person "versus the game," or the scenario, or the situation, or whatever. There's no competitor other than the challenge and format of the game, and you strive to do your best within that framework.

Most old-skool arcade games were high-score-attack games, where players tried to reach and retain the number one spot. There were other names on the board, but one could argue that you were still playing against the game and not someone else, head-to-head. However, I maintain that seeing someone's name ahead of yours on that list was a reason to put in one more quarter, muttering to yourself: "just one more game."

I also like that this prompt addressed the notion of rivalry with professional sports. MJ and Larry Bird were both considered excellent, sportsmanlike athletes. There was never any appreciation for dirty tricks or unsportsmanlike conduct (their behaviour off the court notwithstanding). Competing and then excelling within the rules of the game is what is acknowledged and recognized, instead of "winning at all costs" like Tonya Harding or Mike "Ear-Bitin' " Tyson.


The flip side of this is a bit more cynical. It has a lot less to do with professional sports, and more to do with economics, capitalism, and politics. So, there's a notion of a finite, zero-sum game: there's a fixed amount of slices of the pie, and if you aren't gettin' any, then someone else is, so you better grab what you can so you don't starve. This is also part of the "scarcity mindset," which is a perspective that promotes the idea that if you're not striving for something, then you're sinking. If you're not building your skills and/or your portfolio, then you are wasting your limited time on this earth, squandering your gifts.

There's also the self-improvement angle that supports the idea that you should hang around other successful people in order to become successful yourself. The idea is that successful people are building their networks of more successful people, and "it's not what you know, it's who you know."

Both the finite game idea and the successful network idea have merit, I'll admit it. However, recently I'd read a counter-argument to the merits of the networking idea. The counter-argument goes something like: since life is a finite game, the notion of hanging around people more successful than you is still ultimately selfish, because the only reason you want to hang around them is to sponge off their resources and their network until you yourself have become an integral part of that circle of nepotistic, self-serving, insular jerks who keep all the good stuff for themselves instead of working to rise the tide for all boats.

Personally, I don't see myself in a situation where I would become a true mover-and-shaker, so I wonder if I'll ever have the opportunity to substantively uplift a large segment of the population. I don't see myself as one of the wealthy, regardless of the unwritten future of limitless possibilities. But is it worth adopting the scarcity mindset? Is it better for oneself as well as society to take the high road, maintaining the abundance mindset instead?

As life on the planet becomes more riddled with crisis, I wonder if actually questioning this is just a vain, unrealistic luxury.