“Calgary Says ‘No’ to the Olympics.” Is competition a good thing?

So it’s done; no Olympics for Calgary. While that decision was being made this week through a civic plebiscite I was painting, and it got me thinking about competition and how it fits in my world of art and, more broadly, how much good it does in our community.

I was on the fence with this vote. There was no clear black or white answer for me. The injection of funds from other levels of governments and the upgrades in our sports infrastructure would have been welcome. On the other hand, the deficit that comes with this event does nothing for us. But more important: we’ve learned not to trust the city to stay on budget, and we certainly don’t trust the International Olympic Committee to do anything but fill its own pockets.

Caught in the Tide, acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 30″

The day after the vote I was painting again and listening to a book titled It takes a tribe, building the Touch Mother movement. It relates the story of how the company of the same name was created and grew. Tough Mother sees itself as tribe. They organise challenging events all over the world based on principles of grit and collaboration. Participants do not compete. One of the main rules is “no man gets left behind”. The obstacles on the course are designed to encourage collaboration. They don’t calculate your time, there are no prizes and no one is awarded a medal. People do it because they need to challenge themselves and share a powerful experience with others where everyone helps one another to the finish line. This book had me wondering again, is competition good or bad?

From the reading I’ve done, it seems that competition is both good and bad depending on the context. For example, it’s not so good in a “care” relationship where it will keep both partners in a state of tension and render them less inclined to take care of one another. On the other hand, competing can do a lot of good in the context of a fund raising event.

Psychology Today, in their article titled The Psychology of Competition describes competition as an extrinsic incentive. “Extrinsic simply means that the motivation to adopt a behaviour or decision is sourced externally rather than internally (for instance, when you do something because you get a reward for it). A fundamental characteristic, and downside, of nearly all extrinsic incentives is that they only tend to work for as long as the incentive is maintained!”

That leads me to think that most of us artists aren’t competitive by nature. Being an artist requires massive self-motivation to keep going. There is rarely an external incentive to be an artist. It comes from within. I asked the question on my Facebook page to my artists friends out there: are you completive or not? Although it is a really small sample, it seams to concur that the majority of artists see themselves as not competitive. You can add you answer! 

I am not a competitive person. I don’t care to compare myself to anyone else and, sadly maybe, I don’t really care how others perform. I vividly remember a moment playing Volley Ball in grade 10 that made it obvious that I didn’t share my peers’ enthusiasm for competing. In the middle of the game, I got distracted and didn’t see the ball coming my way. I missed it and, as it fell to the floor, I heard the outrage of my teammates. “How could I do such a thing? How could I miss such an easy ball?” The first thing that came to my mind was “Why on earth do they care so much? It’s just a game!”

So I stuck to swimming, hiking and painting, all activities where I don’t let down anyone who cares so much about winning. I’m perfectly happy in my world of art where there is no real competition. My experience with other artists is that we help each other out as much as we can, and each of us does what we do with conviction.

The swimmer, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But, as much as I may think our society over estimates the value of competition, it’s an undeniable part of who we are. Psychology Today concludes that “For most people, there is something inexplicably compelling about the nature of competition. Perhaps that’s because, as some scholars argue, “competitiveness” is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need for (human) survival.”

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