Can There Be Too Much Competition?

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: I think a belief we hold very dear in our country is that competition makes things better and brings improvements, which is true in many contexts, but I wonder if that belief has infiltrated into areas it doesn’t belong.

JM: Yeah. You have to look at it several ways. One is, competition between companies. If a company is making a product, and another company is making a similar product, the competition between the two companies causes each company to keep on improving their product to be better than the other one, because if they don’t improve it, then their sales go down. Now that type of competition makes sense. A good example is the auto industry. General Motors reached a point of complacency, while the Japanese produced styles of cars that were better and more in demand. Competition in sports is another good example. I’m not a sports lover myself, but for those people that are on a football team, the competition is a major driving force. So there are certain circumstances in which competition is, I guess you would say, productive and necessary. But I don’t believe in personal competition in relationships. When we come to human relations, and learning how to work together, learning how to get along with our family, with our mother, dad, sisters, and brothers, getting along with our friends and with our peers at work, I think that competition becomes destructive. For example, people working in a company and the managers trying to outdo the other managers. What’s needed instead is teamwork. As I said, I think that competition between companies and their products and services is very beneficial. But as far as people and human relationships, I tend to always help them move towards collaboration and team work instead of competition. Also people who are strongly motivated competitively are very unhappy. Let’s say they are highly motivated competitively and they are striving and achieving at whatever top position or top situation they’re in, and if you’re around them a long period of time, you find that they are very unhappy. because there’s nowhere to go with it.

BW: What do you mean?

JM: Suppose a person has become wealthy and built a house like some of them do—let’s say of ten thousand square feet. And the family has a chauffeur, a gardener, and a maid. And so they tend to say, “Boy, we have it made.” But when you spend time with them, you find that they’re restless. They believed they would be fulfilled, satisfied with all they have, but they find they aren’t. Basically they’re unhappy because there’s no place to go with it. People who think they’re going to get their happiness from acquiring, keep on acquiring and acquiring and acquiring, and they don’t know why they’re unhappy. And that’s what our culture does to us. Advertising, media, everything—it’s buy, buy, buy. Own, own, own. Be the biggest wheel in your neighborhood.

BW: I’m going to play devil’s advocate. Many people, including economic experts, argue that our prosperity is dependent on just what you describe, this continual consumer spending and acquiring. This has generated wealth over the short term, but over the long-term, it has had a negative social impact and could hardly be called sustainable. Some people argue this is the only way. Do you believe it is possible to have prosperity, let’s say a more stable prosperity, in other ways?

JM: Well, in answering this question, I think it’s important to take into consideration the make-up of individual persons. If a person’s basic motivation is to learn, become skilled, be productive, work well with peers, and so forth, that’s one kind of person. The other kind of person is interested only in prestige, power, control which is exemplified by money. And your question needs to be answered in terms of each kind of person. In general, a person who is dependent on prestige, power, money, things, big houses, fancy cars—they keep wanting more and more. And that’s where the unhappiness is evident. That no matter how much they have, they’re going to want a bigger home next year, they’re going to get three expensive cars instead of one. And so they’re constantly searching for emotional happiness and they never find it.

BW: You could say that kind of materialism, in one sense, is an attempt to gain self esteem through acquiring something.

JM: Yes. The measuring sticks are well-known. You know them as well as I do. One is—how much does a person earn? Another measuring stick is—what position is he in? Is he a supervisor, manager, or an executive? Another measuring stick is a person’s house. You can tell a lot about a person by seeing the house they buy or build. So there’s a whole bunch of measuring sticks and they’re all outside of the person, not inside. The problem in our world right now is that a large percentage of people are motivated in this way. By external measures of wealth.

BW: So you believe it is possible to have a prosperous society made up of just the first type of person you mentioned who also measures his or her wealth in other ways...

JM: Especially if people grow up learning to use their creativity. Creativity creates growth and money more so than competition, I believe. So many think it is competition. I have to be better than this other executive or this other person. Well one of the ways, in a sense, not be better, but be more productive is to learn to use your creativity. And so my belief is, the more we help people learn to get in touch with their creativity, as well as deal more effectively with the way they think, the way they feel, the way they relate to people, and incorporate their values, that’s much more productive. But that’s just me.

BW: Creativity, meaning using your imagination, developing your talents...

JM: And risking.

BW: So you believe that there is a time and place for competition. It is appropriate in some areas and not appropriate in other areas.

JM: Well, I think I can be more specific and say that I believe it’s important for there to be competition between companies and services, not necessarily competition between the people in each company.

BW: Would you say that competition belongs more in an adult realm?

JM: Well no, it begins when the child is born. If you want an example—just think of some friend where they had a child and let’s say the child is two years old and she or he is the center of attention. Well, let’s say the mother has another baby. Suddenly, the two year old feels very put out. In some cases, they’ll even mistreat the new baby. Not all of them, but some. In other words, they’re beginning to compete right there at that point and it depends on whether the parents understand it and help the child move through that and move out of competition into collaboration.

BW: So competition exists from day one and is inevitable in our existence.

JM: I think so

BW: So what you’re saying is competition needs to be balanced with collaboration and cooperation?

JM: Yeah, I think we have wonderful examples. For instance, Martin Luther King and his leadership. What they were able accomplish was through teamwork, not by competing with each other. Another example is Gandhi. He believed that he could bring about important change in India through teamwork, not by competition among his followers. Oh we could go on and on. Abraham Lincoln was the same way. There are many examples.