So which is better?  Competition or cooperation?

Here’s a BIG reminder — whenever you get a “forced choice” question, stop and challenge any implied assumptions of the question.

I’ve made this point before (and here is a good article on the topic), but it is important enough that it bears repeating — when given an “either-or” choice, stop and consider if there is a “both” response or an “and” response that is more appropriate.  Here is a critical point from the linked article:

as we meet basic needs and free ourselves to evolve to higher ways of seeing and showing up in the world, we become more aware of how things are connected….we transcend either-or kind of thinking….but….and this is a very “big but”….such either-or thinking is always still included within who we are.  We can choose how to see the world.”

So, there are moments that when faced with 2 choices, one is clearly better given the circumstances and should be chosen…..and there are times that may better be served by seeking some third path.  Not giving in to “always choosing one” or “not always choosing one” but recognizing that there are occasions that one path or the other is better is a good example of transcending either-or thinking.

Yet there are easy traps for us to fall into—-which is better? To be rich or to be poor?  Most would choose rich in our current culture….but there are some disadvantages to being rich (for example, you become consumed with maintaining your wealth and spend all of your time working at it, not leaving time or mental energy to relax and “feel free”)…..and there are times that being poor has its advantages (frees you from certain cultural trappings of wealth maintenance and “being owned by your possessions”)……and, of course, there are advantages to being neither rich nor poor but rather somewhere in the middle where you can meet basic needs but not be consumed by money.  In such judgment situations as to which is better, the answer is often “it depends”.

Which brings me back to “competition vs. cooperation”.  Frequently I write here about the importance of creating a world that works for all, where all people have their basic needs met and are free to pursue their dreams, their passion, their life purpose.  In describing such a world, I often say something like “we transcend competition and move to higher levels of cooperation.”

Yet to “transcend” something does not mean to “get rid” of it.  In the words of Ken Wilber, our evolutionary path is one of “transcending and including“.  We move beyond a limitation created by our total reliance on one human tool, but we keep the tool in our toolbox for when it may be the appropriate one to use.

Hence, in a world that works for all, we would still have competition, especially when competition is the best tool to use for whatever it is that we need to accomplish.  The problem is that in our current world, there is so much of an emphasis on competition that we frequently ignore cooperation when it is the better response.  And, any worldview that has at its core that we are each distinct individuals separate and apart from one another who are in a battle for “survival of the fittest” has by its nature an over emphasis on competition. Hence, I may stress occasionally the need to move beyond competition.  However, we should always remember that there will always be times in our existence when competition may be the best response.

Barry Johnson in his book Polarity Management writes, “Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a ‘solution’ and neglect the other.  The objective…is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each”.

Steve McIntosh in his book The Presence of the Infinite writes, “post-modernists often view the polarity of competition and cooperation as a problem that requires competition to be lessened and cooperation to be increased. While many problematic situations can indeed be improved through greater cooperation, the attempt to eliminate all competitive tension usually results in the stifling of individual initiative and the drive for comparative excellence.”

I agree. Looking at it another way using Maslow’s hierarchy….although we may move to higher needs of self actualization and self transcendence where we lessen our desires for meeting ego driven needs and are motivated more by a desire to be of service to others and the greater good….if those needs we have previously met and transcended become unmet (such as our self esteem needs which may be in part driven by a degree of comparison with others), then we may not be able to stay focused upon those higher needs.  We may need to slide back and forth between competition and cooperation as needed.

So which is better — competition or cooperation?  In a world that works for all, we avoid having to always choose one path or the other and instead use all of the tools available to us in a given situation, matching the one that will serve us best in the moment.  In a world that works for all, we can live in the dynamic tension of knowing that things don’t always have to be one way or the other.

Mark Gilbert


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