Coopertition

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 6 min read

I just finished watching the ESPN documentary called The Last Dance.

If you haven’t watched it yet, I strongly recommend it, especially if you were a sports fan growing up in the 80’s and 90’s.

The documentary follows the 1997/1998 Chicago Bulls team en route to their third consecutive championship (sixth overall with Michael Jordan), and their final season together with Michael Jordan under Phil Jackson.

In addition to covering this final season of the Chicago Bulls, the documentary looked back over the career of Michael Jordan and spent considerable time exploring his unrivaled competitive spirit.

A World of Games

At the same time, I’m reading a book on Game Theory.

Game theory is a branch of behavioral economics that creates theories and hypotheses about how two or more players in a game are expected to behave under different circumstances. In game theory, we are not just talking about cards, board games, or video games. Game theory covers a wide variety of scenarios including business, politics, international trade, and so on.

One thing that I routinely take away from the study of Game Theories, is how often (but not always) cooperation maximizes the total benefit above and beyond competition.

The Thrill of Competition

Competition is something that fascinates me endlessly. As someone who has been extremely competitive my entire life, including to the point of ruining relationships in my formative years, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking through various ways that competition can show up.

There are some who are competitive to the point where they will do, literally, anything to win. This type of competitive person pays no attention to ethics in their pursuit of victory. What matters most to this person, is simply the victory. Winning and losing is black and white and there is next to nothing that can sour a victory for this type of person.

The truest competitor, in my view, is the one who seeks out greater and greater challenges, seeking only to face opponents at their best. For this competitor, there is no joy in the victory with an asterisk. The greater the challenge, the higher the degree of difficulty, the more satisfying the victory.

I believe that for these, the fiercest of competitors, there is as much cooperation happening as competition.

The values that drive their competitive spirit causes them to see their competitors in a certain way. They see their competition as working toward the same goal. They, ideally, both share the same competitive spirit which therefore compels them to extend respect for their opponent and the game being played. It would be repulsive to these players to sabotage, cheat, or otherwise tamper with the purity of the competition. Again, for these competitors, higher stakes yield more satisfying victories.

Why does all of this matter?

In Talladega Nights, when Ricky Bobby says “if you’re not first, your last,” that’s not a rallying cry, it’s satire. I believe we have a crisis of toxic competitiveness that has grown out of control in our culture and is currently spreading across the world. We have far too many people and institutions engaged in winner-take-all competition.

I do not think it is hyperbolic to say that we are at a pivotal moment in time.

  • Western Democracies are gasping for air as far-right populist movements seek to undo liberal values in favor of nationalism and xenophobia.
  • A deadly pandemic is ripping through our society and, in America, more than 140,000 deaths haven’t stopped people from refusing to wear masks and demanding that we all send our kids back to school.
  • While America continues to pull back from Global cooperation, other countries around the world are attempting to step into the vacuum that America left behind, and many of them hold values we should be extremely concerned about.
  • And if all of that is not scary enough, Climate Change threatens to unleash hell on our biodiversity leading to untold suffering in the very near future…and yet we do very little to address it.

Competition will not solve these problems.

It won’t solve income inequality, it hasn’t solved healthcare, and it has no chance of fixing our political division.

That is, at least when we’re talking about the kind of competition we’ve been used to.

Coopertition

Michael Jordan didn’t want to beat the second string players. He wanted to beat the best in the world who were chasing the same goals as he was. At the end of the game, if he lost, he shook hands and went to work on getting better.

That is the competitive spirit we need.

What if we shared our goals and then compete with one another to solve those problems, while adhering to a strict sense of sportsmanship? Right now, there’s not enough collective action around making a better world for everyone.

I know we can’t force China to play by the rules. I know that we can’t get Democrats and Republicans to see eye-to-eye anytime soon. However, if we can get people to agree to the goals of the game being played, the rules of that game, and penalties for breaking the rules, then maybe we have a shot of fixing some things.

No matter what, I do believe that a change in approach is necessary to stop this disaster course we’re on.

Atlas didn’t shrug. He held up the World.

Ayn Rand was wrong. The “I-got-mine” approach doesn’t work. It’s just an excuse for greedy, selfish people to be themselves.

We are suffering from a culture of toxic competition and it is literally killing us. We need to be bigger than the people who hoard the trophies after rigging the game while they douse everyone else’s house in gasoline and set it ablaze.

We need to work together to solve the problems that affect all of us. Coopertition is my proposal.

  1. Agree on the game
  2. Agree on the goals
  3. Agree on the rules
  4. Be a good sport and play to win.

This isn’t about trophies, it never is. It’s about the knowledge that you’re the best.

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