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Why Do We Have an Obsession With Winning?

Seeing the world as "winners and losers" is unhealthy

Watching the summer Olympics in London provides participants and spectators alike an intense experience of competition and almost an obsession with winning. Many a competing athlete defines success as winning the gold and anything else as failure. Does an excessive focus on winning actually produce negative results?

For decades, psychologists have noted an irony in elite athletic competition: If you set aside the happy people who win gold and look only at the people who come in second and third, it's the men and women with bronze medals who invariably look happier than the athletes who won silver. In a paper they published after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, researchers Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich evaluated photographs of athletes on the victory podium and also studied post-competition audio interviews. They found bronze medal-winners tended to be happier than silver medalists.

Winning is an outcome. However, when people become obsessed with outcomes, they can lose sight of the journey, lose sight of who they are and how they got there, lose appreciation for the value of people who don't win.

America is obsessed with winning at everything. Often at any cost. It translates from the war rooms to the athletic fields to the top of the corporate ladder. Business language is infused with the vocabulary of the locker room and battlefield. They battle to win in a competitive market and dominate the opposition with an aggressive plan, sometimes "destroying their opponents."

Tony Schwartz, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, cites the examples of atheletes who have lost their competition by the smallest of margins. Schwartz asks the question of whether they were "unworthy of our admiration? Are the winners of these competitions different from them in any meaningful way?" Certainly is the difference worth the divide in the adulation that follows? Schwartz questions the limitations of a "winner take all mentality," not just in the Olympics, but in our society in general. He suggests developing a healthier perspective on winning, including encouraging people to do their best, regardless of whether they win anything; of focusing on continuous improvement rather than just the final outcome; and taking a more positive attitude toward failure (losing) as a great lesson maker.

In a footnote to his arguments, Schwartz emphasizes the importance of the contributions of winners subsequent to their victories. He contrasts the contributions of Jimmy Connors who went on to devote his energy and resources to casinos, whereas Andre Agassi invested himself in building a charitable foundation, a charter school and residence for abused children.

We think we will always remember the great achievers, the gold medal winners for all time. Yet a survey of people asked to recall the gold medalists for the 400 meter race at the Olympics since 1991 will give you few correct answers.

Unlike Carl Lewis and Daley Thompson, Derek Redmond is not a name that conjures up memories of Olympic gold medals. But it is Redmond who defines the essence of the human spirit. Redmond arrived at the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona determined to win a medal in the 400. The color of the medal was meaningless; he just wanted to win one. Just one. Down the backstretch, only 175 meters away from finishing, Redmond is a shoo-in to make the finals. Suddenly, he heard a pop in his right hamstring. He pulls up lame, as if he had been shot. As the medical crew arrives, Redmond tells them, "I'm going to finish my race." Then in a moment that will live forever in the minds of millions of people since then, Redmond lifted himself up, and started hobling down the track. His father raced out of the stands, and helped his son cross the finish line to the applause of 65,000 people. Redmond did not win a medal, but he won the hearts of people that day and thereafter. To this day, people, when asked about the race, mention Redmond, and can't name the medal winners.

Our obsessive focus on winning in our culture to some degree reflects our belief that competition is good and the best way to gauge the value of our individual and collective enterprise, particularly in relation to business.

According to the World Values Survey, Americans approval of competition is unmatched by any other industrialized country on earth. Americans also believe more strongly in the fairness of unequal outcomes, rewarding those who try and succeed and leaving those who fall behind to their own devices.

Recent research has shown a clear relationship between levels of happiness and competition. According to a comparative study of 42 nations around the world by Evert Van de Vliert and Onne Janseen, published in the Journal of Comparative Social Science, happiness decreases as the level of competition increases in a given society.

In his book, Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, author Francesco Duina argues that winning in and of itself doesn't bring satisfaction. If that were true, we would structure situations where we would unfairly compete against the opponents to assure victory. It is the thrill of close competition that attracts our interest. Losing too is more meaningful when the competition is close. The effort-reward mentality is central to the American culture's belief in competition and winning, says Duina. Americans believe successs is only possible through hard work. 

Another component of America's obsession with competition and winning is the need for differentiation--the social need to categorize peole as winners or losers. This reflects Americans' belief in the concept of equal opportunities as opposed to a social commitment to equal benefits for the good of all.

Duina argues that winning is also about being right. Victors are given the credence and respect to voice their views on the right way to reach their outcomes. In contrast, losers agonize and ruminate about their mistakes. In extreme forms, losers even question their identity and character. Interestingly, spectators who identify with the winners and losers, can feel even more righteous, and this sometimes is taken to extremes.

Duina says we have tendency to use the outcomes of competitive events to generalize about the competitors--their behavior, beliefs and knowledge--and apply it to all aspects of life. So movie stars, politicians, professional athletes, famous business leaders and celebrities suddenly become viewed as winners in all aspects of life. This belief runs counter to most research that shows that being successful or unsuccessful in one area of life does not transfer necessarily to other areas.

Having a winning mindset has its obvious advantages. It generates intensity, determination and effort, and ofen success can fill our lives with meaning. But a competitive mindset has serious problems. The first is pitting America against the rest of the world, and Americans aggressively promoting the notion that they are "the best." This generates constant tension and stress in life. The second is winning never produces permanent satisfaction, because once the victory is attained, the next one is quickly sought after. A competitive mindset and focus on winning can also introduce a continuous state of disastisfaction with one's life, Duina argues.

Alfie Cohen, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, argues cooperation and collaboration, which do not focus on winners and losers, have been a more fundamental reflection of human activity throughout time in cultures throughout the world.

Cohen cites the research of Spencer Kagan and Millard Madsen which shows that children's achievement levels are superior when they cooperate versus compete. He also cites the research of  David and Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota which showed 122 separate studies reporting cooperation promoting higher achievement than competition, and the research of Robert Helmreich of the University of Texas which showed that scientists, businessmen, academics, pilots and people in other professions who were considered experts, reported that personal challenge meant more to them than achievement through competition.

The argument is often made that intense competition builds character. Learning how to win and lose is supposed to toughen us and give us confidence. Yet, as anthropologist Jules Henry has said, "a competitive culture endures by tearing people down."

Consider the logic of it. Trying to outperform others and "win," is damaging, because like gambling in Vegas, the odds are against you. You will lose most of the time, because you can't win all the time. So every competition sets up the potential for humiliation, embarrassment, and demotivation, if the aim is winning.

The other problem with the focus on winning, is that once you've tasted it, you need more. It's like an addiction. The pleasure effect of winning does not last, unlike the satisfaction of having done the best you can. Finally, a focus on winning makes people focus outside themselves for validation of their worth. What is their value if they don't get the medals, media attention and wealth that goes with winning? In contrast, the satisfaction of success and doing the best you can through cooperation has been shown to be linked with emotional maturity and strong personal identity.

Cohen argues that the most disturbing feature of competition to win is how it negatively affects our relationships. Competition in schools, sports, the workplace in families and among countries can be the thing that divides, disrupts and turn to negativity. While we like to preach that competition brings people closer together it is rarely the winning that does that, it is more often the personal journey, the shared experience and compassion for failure that is stronger.

The focus on competition and winning is now a fundamental part of how business is done. Apple or Samsung must try to destroy each other either in court or by sales to be viewed as the winner. Countries are heralded as being the "best." Amateur and professional atheles and teams are glorified when they win and villified when they lose.

Yet ironically, the world now more than ever requires cooperation, not competition to address our most pressing problems--economic woes, global warming, poverty, famine, crime and many others. And the new unheralded economic movement--collaborative consumption--may just be the tip of the iceburg of where we need to go.

Perhaps the final indictment of an obsession with competition and winning, is that it restrains people from engaging in a personal journey of self knowledge and finding one's place in life as an entirely internal and personal process, not one that requires the comparisons and constant competition with others as a measure of self-worth.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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