Tag Archives: competition

Non-competitive conversation

I hate competitive conversations. The sort that are all about point scoring, or arguing over hypothetical ideas. I am particularly unfond of being backed into the kind of corner where, having identified a problem, it’s all ‘and what are you going to do about that?’ Once it’s about imagining what governments should do, or what I might do if in charge of everything, I really don’t see the point. I am no fan of conversations where people are vying to prove who is the cleverest, by knocking holes in each other.

It is entirely possible to have exchanges that are purely about the exchange. To kick around ideas with no particular aim of proving anything, just to see what comes up along the way. Those are the conversations in which I do take on new ideas and in which I can be persuaded to change my mind. Not least because I am not then a ‘loser’ for doing so.

I like conversations where people share their truth, their experiences and stories, and witness each other, and make what sense they can of the compare and contrast options. Those tend to be both affirming and informative exchanges. They require really listening to each other, and really caring about what other people are saying.

When listening comes from a desire for one upmanship, it’s all about latching onto the points you can knock down, or twist in your favour. It’s about looking for mistakes, or places people may not be able to quote dates and stats off the top of their heads. And it means knowing all those things will be done to you when you try to speak. I find this stuff exhausting. It’s part of why I try to avoid meetings, and why I don’t do certain kinds of politics anymore.

When listening is about the desire to really hear and understand what the other person is saying, it’s a whole other process. Not just listening carefully to the words, but to the tone of voice and the body language. Not listening to see what you can do with it, but listening to try and grasp what the other person wants to express to you. It means asking questions for clarity. “Do you mean…?” “Is that like…?”

There are conversations that can only keep us on our toes, dancing cautiously around each other like boxers, watching the opponent to try and predict the next blow, or land our own. There other are conversations that enrich us and bring us into greater depth of understanding, greater harmony, greater intimacy. For some time now I’ve been trying to avoid the competitive conversations, I think I’m going to be clearer at expressing my dislike for them and my unwillingness to join in.

Uncompetitive physical culture

At school, sports tend to mean competition. There’s no accident in this. A fair few activities have their roots in warrior skills – javelin is the most obvious, but all those combinations of running, riding and shooting are pretty suspicious too. Not that we did that at school! Games and tournaments are the traditional solution for keeping your army fit and keen when you haven’t got anyone to fight. Some sports – football being the most obvious here – come out of ritualised contests between villages. The strength, stamina, co-ordination and sometimes teamwork of sport all has military applications

Like many young people, I never got on with sport at school. The focus on competition was a big part of it. There have to be winners and losers, and when you are always, invariably the loser, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep investing effort. Only when out of school PE and able to explore swimming, walking and dancing on my own terms did I become interested in sweaty things I could do with my body.

I have no problem with the competitive stuff being there for people who want it. That’s no different from battles of the bands sessions, short story competitions, produce shows or bardic chairs… sometimes the people who are really good need the chance to test themselves against each other. But only in sport do young people find themselves obliged to do that testing week after week as they grow up. No one would give an English lesson a week over to slam poetry and rap battles.

Physical intelligence has far more going on in it that competition. There is more to building strength, stamina, fitness and skill than being better than someone else. What would happen to physical culture if we approached activity from the angle of health and capability rather than competition? How many young people would be spared from regular and pointless humiliation? How many would become interested in being fit and healthy rather than feeling alienated from physical culture?

But of course governments like team sports, because of the military applications. There’s a popular quote (of dubious origins) that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It’s that kind of thinking that puts competition ahead of health and embodiment.

Judging and Being Judged

The conventional new age spiritual wisdom is that judging is doing us no good at all. The more we judge others, the more likely we are to fear they are judging us. Competition is also suspect from a spiritual perspective. Judging is what gods do to us, and too often what we undertake to do on behalf of those gods when we don’t find them actively judgmental enough. So here I am, having judged and been judged. In both cases it related to short stories. On Saturday the 24th April 2016, we gather in Stroud for the readings of ten stories picked from nearly a hundred. For the second time, I’ve been one of the judges. I also just shortlisted for Evesham Short Stories.

It’s a very exposing thing, putting yourself forward to be judged. Creativity tends to feel really personal, and people can get hurt when their work isn’t chosen. It takes courage to come back year on year and try again – which many people do. For those who win, being judged is a massive boost, a validation and an encouragement. For those who don’t win it can be an equally big emotional setback.

Whether we want it or not, everything we do is judged. Is it adequate? Is it pleasing? From how we present our bodies to the world through every detail of what we do in those bodies, we are subject to other people’s judgements. Everything we test by doing it can lead to the discovery that we weren’t as good as we thought we were.

For creative people, every comment and review, every sale or nonsale is a reflection of the work, usually. We live dependant on the judgement of others, cut to shreds by the one negative remark even if it was a drop in an ocean of compliments.

For me, this whole business of contest and judgement can be approached as a more spiritual and philosophical issue. If I enter something, I have to be ok with the idea of not winning. I have to recognise that I might not win, and not pin my whole sense of self to the process. If I win, I have to keep it in perspective and while I will certainly feel delight or dismay, I try not to be too overwhelmed either way.

In the judging, of course I too will be judged. There’s every scope for authors who did not win to decide the problem was really my poor judgement. That I was too stupid and inexperienced to see the absolute genius of their story.

I’m sceptical about the idea that non-judgement is always the best thing. The act of selection gives us an evening of very fine stories. I’m perfectly happy with open mic sessions for all kinds of things, where people bring what they’ve got, but if you aren’t allowed to select, that’s all you can ever have. While judgement may not always be fair, and often has an arbitrary element (choosing ten good stories, when the 11th was also superb) it creates the space for celebrating what’s good and encouraging it. It’s not a perfect system, no system is.

Many of us are deeply motivated to strive for excellence; competitive spaces are a great asset for this. Many of us are not competitive and need safe places to explore and express ourselves. There has to be room for both, and I think in practice most people would benefit from doing both. We have to be able to lose, and we have to be easy with being one good bard amongst many. The person who declines to compete may just be persuading themselves that they’d have won everything, and that approach does a person no good at all.

Competitive Creativity

I have mixed feelings about competitions. The affirmation of winning can have a huge positive effect on a person, but of course most of the people who compete cannot, by definition win. Some will benefit from the experience of getting their creativity in front of others, some may well be noticed in ways that help them. Others will be demoralised and set back. As a bard, my preference has long been for the eisteddfod that does not choose a winner.

Last year I entered Stroud Short Story competition and was wholly surprised to be one of the ten people picked to read on the night. It was a huge morale boost for me, and brought me into contact with an array of fabulous local writers. This led to putting together an anthology of all the winning stories from previous years, which was a project I was very proud to pull together.

This year I am a judge for the same competition, alongside the lovely John Holland, who has been running the event for a while now. I’m conscious that my subjective judgement, my personal preferences are about to impact on some people. Am I good enough to judge anyone? Do I know enough to properly shoulder that responsibility? All I have is a degree in English literature, there are plenty of people round here working on the literature side at higher academic levels than that. I have some writing experience, some experience at the publishing side, but by no means am I the best qualified person for the job. I had the time, and I offered, and so often that’s what it comes down to. Not merit, but availability and willingness.

I’ve read all the stories, and some of them are so stand-out brilliant that I think anyone picking ten would pick them. Those are easy choices to make. Other choices to make up the ten will be trickier, and more to do with personal preferences. At the end, some people will be elated, and some will feel let down, and some will feel that the entire process was rather unfair and that a better judge would have made a better judgement. Such is the nature of competition.

But of course creativity is competitive. At the very least, you are competing with all the other creative people for a space to show your work – stage time, wall space, a publisher, or whatever it may be. You’re competing for the time and attention, and probably also the money of your potential audience. There are invariably winners and losers, and it isn’t always about who’s the best. Luck, marketing, and who you know will all play a part. And at every level of the business, there are people making judgements that move some forward and hold others back. The reasons for those judgements aren’t about the best art, they’re about the most sellable art, the most commercial. Many fantastic, original and inspired creative people in all fields will never get anywhere because the gatekeepers who check them out do not think they will sell enough to be worth the bother.

However uneasy I may feel about contests, I do have the comfort of knowing that I’m involved with a process to try and decide which are the ten best stories to read out-loud to an audience this November. Which ten in combination will create the best possible night. Which are the most unusual, the most original, the most interestingly written… all of my considerations are creative, and not at all about selling the work. I wonder how different our creative industries would be, if how to sell it wasn’t most usually the first question to be asked.

Taking a side

Collaboration has undoubtedly delivered more human success than anything else. None of us have all the skills, or all the knowledge. People who work in teams get something that is usually more than the sum of its parts. And yet, the idea of competition, or winners and losers is so much a part of our culture. The whole way in which capitalism works pretty much depends on exploitation, (I shall resist the urge to get all Marxist about this one). Business is all about win and lose, and competition drives the market place. We are told that competition is healthy and delivers the best outcomes to consumers. Frankly I’m sceptical about that one, not least because the definition of ‘best’ tends to be ‘cheapest and most widely available’.

The moment you set up sides, and decide that there’s an us, and a them, then its not long before we have to win and they have to lose. Once we’re looking at a win-lose setup, then ideas about compromise or consensus are right off the table. We aren’t looking to agree, we want to win, score more points, get more things, come out on top. Our culture tells us that when we win in this way, we have achieved something. We are superior to the losers. Cleverer. We deserve our success and can take pride in it. The losers deserve to have lost and deserve the humiliation and practical consequences of failure.

Our judicial systems are adversarial, and that sets up not just assumptions about the kind of outcome that’s desirable, but a structure in which the win/lose arrangement is pretty much the only thing you can get. When it comes to situations of human error and tragedy, this means that people fight to win, which means fighting not to be blamed, and therefore not taking responsibility, and therefore vital lessons can be easily not learned. As with what so often happens when medicine or infrastructure goes wrong and kills people. This is not my definition of a good win at all.

When you get into a conflict situation and you get that conventional ‘win’ and watch the other person lose, you have the option to be smug and self righteous. You have all the cultural support imaginable to kick the person who is now down. Or perhaps you get the hollow feeling that you were playing the wrong game all along and that what you have is really another form of lose.

In a win/lose scenario, the more that’s at stake, the more important it becomes to seem right. Being right is a secondary consideration. Winning comes first. In war, the first casualty is often said to be truth. It’s just as probable in other forms of human conflict. Where we want to win, and where winning is more important than how we get there, honour doesn’t get much of a look in. Truth is likely to be further hidden beneath piles of obfuscation and perhaps even self delusion. We want to believe in ourselves as righteous winners, after all. That’s what it’s all about, allegedly. Except that way lies a mire of mistakes and emotional self harming, a total lack of scope to make good changes, and a whole range of methods to entrench and escalate hostility. Again, I have to say this is not my definition of what ’win’ ought to look like.

What I think is this. When people draw lines and take sides, rally round flags and declare enmity, there is only one available outcome. To some degree, everybody is going to lose. Often not just the people involved, either. We lose in our humanity and understanding, in our capacity for making something better. I want a win that takes everyone forward in a good way. Or failing that, as many people as possible. I want wins that are about truth, compassion and best outcomes for everyone.

Bardic contests and other competitions

I should start by saying that I have never won anything in my entire life (although I’ve entered plenty) and that it might therefore be fair to assume I’m a wee bit jaded and cynical as a consequence.

There are contests and prizes in just about every field of human endeavour. The bardic chair, and bardic sparring being the resident Druid option. We also have the Mount Haemus awards for scholarship. Every year the ebook world gets excited about the Predators and Editors poll. One of the authors I edit for dreams of a Pulitzer – who wouldn’t? Of course we all want the recognition of a win, and whatever we say about the value of taking part, that’s not what drives people. The hunger to achieve and be recognised is there in all creative people in all fields, so far as I know. But of course most, like me, won’t even make second or third place. And then what? The sense of failure and inadequacy.

Losing is that bit worse if it feels underserved. Many online contests are in essence, popularity contests. The person who can round up the most friends, wins. In such a scenario, someone new, talented and unheard of never gets a look in. It can often seem that in contests of skill or talent, physical beauty and youth can be what wins the day. I once saw a bardic contest won by a young, slender, pretty creature who did not know her song, lost her word sheet several time and had to pause and restart, while slick and well rehearsed efforts from older, rounder and less pretty people went unregarded. And quite frankly, that kind of thing makes me really frustrated. Losing to the better person is no shame at all. Losing because your face doesn’t fit, or you haven’t done enough ass licking, is not funny.

When it comes to sports, it’s usually fairly easy to ascertain who the winner is. They lifted most, jumped highest, ran furthest, fastest and you can measure that. Where the nature of the activity does not automatically define winners and losers (ie writing poetry) there enters in a subjective element. An element of judgement. A matter of preference. Someone decides, based on whatever they like, who was best.

A couple of years ago I found myself in the strange situation of judging in a poetry contest (they picked random people from the audience). I was not popular as a judge, I got booed a lot by the audience because I did not give high marks to the contestants who were simply working to shock, or to induce emotional responses without having any meaning or wordcraft in the mix. I’m sure there were people that night who felt cheated by how I had judged them. But, I set my own criteria, as required and it being poetry, I put wordcraft before stagecraft, and depth before shiny surface and paid no attention at all to how pretty any of them were. Or how many cheering friends they had brought along. I learned along the way that I prefer not to get into competitive things. I have no problem with anyone else doing it. If I am going to compete, I would rather play chess (at which I am rubbish) than get into something painfully subjective, like a poetry slam, or one of those publically humiliating popularity votes. Because I’m not popular or pretty enough for either. Or perhaps it’s easier for me to see it that way rather than risk pitching my limited talents against the greater skills of others. See, told you I was cynical and jaded!

However, if that sort of thing does float your boat… my lovely man, who is much braver than me, is currently taking part in a contest to pick cover art for the next Professor Elemental CD. http://www.professorelemental.com/fr_home.cfm You might want to wander over and consider which, in your subjective opinion is the best bit of art, by whatever criteria appeal to you. And of course this might not be about the art at all, it might be one of those ‘bring a friend’ scenarios where the person with the most chums, or in some cases, email addresses to deploy, wins. I’ve seen that done, too. Plenty of fairish voting systems can be beaten by a couple of people with a lot of email addresses. Fortunately this poll will recognise your computer, so you can only vote once a day. In the meantime, enjoy the art!

Olympic aftermath

I noticed during the Olympics a fair distribution of druid opinions both for and against the event, for all kinds of reasons. Concerns about the meaningless noise, the fake-feel-good, the corporate angle – all those unhealthy food and drink sponsors seemed a bit odd. There were political issues, social justice issues – it’s hard to see the Olympics as a single event, because there’s so much other stuff going on around the sport.

Mostly, I can do without the other stuff. So for the sake of not writing a small epic, I’m going to skip thinking about anything not sport related.

I have mixed feeling about competitions. That’s as true of bardic contests as it is of running. On one hand, that competitive spirit can beget divisions and enmity, bring feelings of failure and cause misery. On the other, competitions drive us towards excellence, push us beyond our boundaries and enable us to celebrate success and brilliance. I think in an ideal world, both competitive and non-competitive spaces are needed for true flourishing.

Winning is great. Knowing how to win and lose gracefully are even better. The person who can win without crushing and the person who can lose without feeling bitterness, are giants. When personal excellence is more important to you than whether you won, and when doing all that you can is all that you ask of yourself… then you may be onto something.

I wonder how many people have sat on their sofas around the world, swigging beer and feeling an achievement based on the actions of others. I wonder how many people have been inspired to try something. Here in the UK, I rather expect bike sales will go up this summer. And how many of those aspirations to physical fitness will fade away once the extent of the work called for becomes apparent? But even if only a handful of extra people make it onto a path of personal excellence, this will be a win.

Excellence is not the same as winning. It does not have to be competitive, although it can be. It doesn’t even need recognition. Its just about giving everything you have, passionately, repeatedly, for the sake of being the very best that you can be. That might not mean running at high speeds. It may mean making the best cakes, or saving abandoned dogs. It may be all about the compassion you show in daily life, or the beauty you bring into the world. We can, as Bill and Ted so finely put it, be totally excellent to each other, as well.

So, what happens next? Will we carry on with our sporting heroes, or will we saunter back to the celebrities who are famous mostly for being celebrities, and to whom the term ‘excellent’ cannot really be applied? Will we be inspired to acts of excellence in our own lives, or will the moment pass? Are the Olympics just a cheerful distraction and a fad, or will we undertake to make a meaningful Olympic legacy here in the UK? I shall try not to be too cynical….