Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Only Way to Win is Not to Play

December 16th, 2010 · 10 Comments

The fundamental premise of the American economic system is that competition is healthy. By extension, we generally assume that the greatest men and women are those in whom the competitive spirit burns brightest—individuals with “fire in the belly.” These are the people who take play as seriously as work, and thus descend into deep depressions upon losing games of Monopoly or racquetball. We hail this mindset—how many 60 Minutes interviews with captains of politics or captains of industries have revealed that the subject absolutely hates to lose at anything?

But what about those who shy away from contests of skill because they find competition off-putting? Are they doomed to lives of mediocrity? I started thinking about this issue while reading this vintage New Scientist piece about the psychology of chess. The article includes a quote from Albert Einstein, who apparently didn’t enjoy the sport’s competitive element:

I always dislike the fierce competitive spirit embodied in that highly intellectual game.

As you might expect, Einstein was actually a pretty decent chess player, achieving a rating of 1800. (Check out a summary of his 1933 match against J. Robert Oppenheimer here.) But he insisted that the game brought him little to no enjoyment, and was one of the last things he liked to do with his free time:

Chess grips its exponent, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom and independence of even the strongest character cannot remain unaffected.

As someone who enjoys solitary pursuits, I think that Einstein was on to something here. One can still achieve without engaging in constant competition. In fact, I’d wager that certain types of minds benefit by stepping away from competition for long stretches. Just because you don’t spend every waking moment trying to embarrass your fellow humans at games doesn’t mean you can’t contribute anything to the grand American experiment—right?

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    This would seem to relate to your earlier discussions of intelligence and conspiracy theory. How does competition and the motivation of suspicion relate to insights and breakthroughs? Does it hamper creative thought in some people?

    McCartney and Lennon were clearly driven by one another. On the other hand, I remember a quote by the British grandmaster Nigel Short to the effect that if given the choice between a boring win and an opportunity to achieve brilliance, he would go for the boring, workmanlike win every time. But that brilliance is part of the game’s soul, why it matters. I feel I would be diminished as a human being if I hadn’t ever enjoyed the Evergreen game or R. Byrne vs. Fischer (1960).

  • Jordan

    I think that there are also some people who are more motivated by challenging themselves rather than other people, i.e. striving to be better than they used to be, rather than in terms of an external yardstick. I can be a competitive person sometimes, but I’m not sure it really brings out the best in me. And I know someone else is always going to be better than me at everything I do, so improvement rather than outright mastery seems like a more fulfilling goal.

  • ADW

    The need for competition or the win bugs me quite a bit, particularly when I’m unknowingly drawn in by someone dead set on one upping me, when I thought we were having a casual conversation. These exchanges are often a mystery to me, because who the fuck cares who has or is what?

    The answer — a lot of people. Once upon a time, I did too.

    But, when I look at brilliance, the truest comes from those competing with themselves, not the need to outdo their competitor.

    And, then there’s the sociopathic element of the win that get lost in the discussion. We’re so trained to believe that sociopaths are homicidal, when nearly all of them aren’t. But, their need to win leaves a path of destruction and loss wherever they go. Winning takes on many forms, in very strange ways.

    Hope I didn’t weird you out by bringing that up. But, it’s something that’s under studied and definitely misunderstood re. this topic.

  • Mark Tierney

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I was bothered by my total lack of interest in competition for a long time. I won a lot of awards and was good at one on one sports and this bothered me too. I especially hated the corporate competition environment. It seemed degrading to me. And pointless. Many of the people rewarded in that system (including myself at that time) are not the most productive.

    Then only recently (in my 40’s) I realised it was fine to be less competitive or at least a non-sociopath about it.

    Your piece really reached me. It is more daring for a man to admit to not wanting (or caring) about winning, about beating the other guy, than to reveal almost anything else.

  • Capture Shadow

    Interesting topic.
    My 6 year old really wants a trophy, but doesn’t seem to enjoy competing all that much. Maybe expressing the ambivalence between cooperation and competition.
    Competition seems like a sloppy way of describing the international economy too. The fact that Chinese workers are making more money does not make us poorer (except in relative terms) but it is often described in those terms.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks, all, for the comments. Good to know that folks respond to these more contemplative posts. I always wonder…

  • shothotbot

    I just wanted to add that I work better in a small, good group than alone (though alone better then with a bad group). Though you could make the argument that we were collectively competing against others, I dont think that I was motivated by the competition.

    My summer camp had this great tradition of making awards about competition against yourself, not for being best at anything. It worked because the grown-ups all bought into it. If its ever time for pico-khan to go to sleep-away camp give me shout. I will hook you up.

  • monkeyball

    Hunh. I guess I didn’t read that quote the way anyone else did. Seems to me like Al was saying the game unlocked the door of the cage on his own competitive nature. I’d want to see more context, but what the two snippets seem to me to point to is less a ’70s-undergrad-caricature of Lennon/Einstein/Groucho give-peace-a-chance-we’re-all-unique-snowflakes outlook and more an I’m-a-bad-mofo-and-while-I’ll-cut-a-man-if-he-challenges-my-queen-I’ll-also-waste-6-hours-in-my-office-playing-Tetris-trying-to-beat-the-machine thing.

  • Gramsci

    @monkeyball That’s how I read it. It wasn’t eschewing competition to get along with everybody, it was just a waste of time given what he really wanted to work on.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Okay, now I’m curious–must go back and find the original context of that Einstein quote. Will post an update when I do (though maybe not ’til after Xmas).

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