WHY do we compete?
Obviously, we all compete because we have dreams of dominating our obscure sport, getting 1M followers and booking an appearance on Rogan. I mean, we all have dreams of being the next big thing, the GOAT, the person on the Wheaties box.
But what if I were to take you aside and tell you the depressing truth: that you, reader, have almost no chance of setting a world record or even winning a competition at a high level. It’s not because I carefully evaluated your genetics and environment and upbringing and determined that you just don’t have the stuff…. and it’s not because I don’t like you.
It’s just a numbers game. It’s part and parcel of the definition of ‘competition’. For there to be one winner, there has to be a lot of losers. And you all can’t be winners because that would mean that there’s literally no losers…. and I’ve read your comments…..
5% of you are going to be devastated by this sad truth and say “I’m out”. And I would say good riddance.
The people who bail when they realize victory isn’t guaranteed are spineless poor sports and are a net negative on their respective culture. They are the same type of people who farm clout by making the grand proclamations on IG that get them attention but require no actual investment or risk .
Every gym has one; the guy who rounds his maxes up to the nearest 50lbs and who writes long Mea Culpas on Instagram about how they ‘let everyone down’ by placing 9th in the novice division. They won’t continue on without a ton of engagement and support, they require praise every time they take a shit in the gym and they put the biggest strain on every training group they interact with.
As an aside: this is the same group of people that pro bodybuilders and powerlifting world champions are supposedly abusing with their supplement sponsorship by setting ‘unrealistic expectations’. Rational people are well aware that taking Cell-Tech isn’t going to make you look like Jonnie-Fucking-Jackson, just like eating Wheaties won’t endow you with Olympic potential and Paris Hilton won’t do this if you eat a Bacon Western Cheeseburger.
The rest of you are actually reasonable human beings and you’re going to say ‘Well, that kind of sucks… I would have liked to take a crack at it but, hey, I like doing this and I’m going to show up on Saturday to train with the team, anyways’.
And you are the true gentleman and scholars, duchesses and queens.
The fact that we still show up when we know for a fact that we can’t win tells us something important about winning….. while being a goal, it is not the goal. There are plenty of other reasons to put in the work when the best you can do is get an honorable mention: there are the lessons of surviving hard things, the satisfaction of finishing what you start, and the status that comes from proving to others that you’re actually worth a damn. And even if you can’t get within 10 square miles of that top spot, your best efforts still make you INFINITELY better than if you chose to do nothing at all.
See, I believe that there is an evolutionary imperitive to compete if we want to enjoy sustained levels of satisfaction in our lives. And I believe this is more true for those who are far from podium-worthy. Allow me to explain.
Our development as a species used to have these trials and hardships baked in to day to day life, but those pressures are now either absent or severely muted. To a creature predisposed to the wide spectrum of mental maladies that a human is, this has consequences. Our minds become neurotic and soft when they are no longer used as the perpetual problem solvers that ensure our very survival. It’s no different than the way our bones would be malformed if the pressure of gravity were removed in our formative years.
So, if you think it’s inhumane to take a lion, who is meant to run across the Serengeti and hunt and kill and sleep and repeat, and put them in a glass cage the size of somebody’s backyard, then what do you call it when you take humans, whose entire biology exists to navigate a similarly unforgiving environment, and put them on a sofa and give them Door Dash?
We were not born to be hamsters, but many of us sure live like it now.
The modern human life is so comfortable that we have to take the abundant leisure hours we have and use them to exhaust ourselves artificially. We have to go through boot camps and get on treadmills and lift weights to soothe the existential scream that comes from a psyche trying to deal with the fact that it’s been taken out of the forest and put in solitary confinement.
So we compete. Recreational sport is the big rubber tire in the lion’s cage, the closest thing to stimulating that vital part of our brain that keeps the body strong, the mind engaged and reminds us that we can train and prepare and fight and overcome. And in this strange era where we are caught between the old world and the modern one, anything that builds a bridge between our caveman emotions and modern institutions isn’t just recreation, it’s essential for our new survival.
Competition is the practice of voluntarily imposing obligations and expectations on ourselves because we intuit that we will be better if we do so. We’re choosing to have other people hold us accountable and check our work, we are choosing to display the end result of our commitments in front of many other people, to have it be judged by somebody who isn’t going to massage the rules because they think that we’re a real cool person and “I guess that squat was deep enough”.
When you sign up for the meet, you feel your priorities change; the work you do takes on new meaning, you’re excited to put together a new plan and enact it and you revel in the failures that show you how to do it better next time. By putting harsh judgment ahead of lazy rationalizations, you develop in a way you otherwise never would have.
Many years ago, when I was first kicking around the idea of putting my keen and brilliant insight into the online space, I wrote an article called “The Seven Reasons You Should Compete”. Looking back on it, the writing sucks. But the info still holds up. To summarize these seven points:
It raises your standard of what ‘good’ is.
It exposes you to people who are better than you.
It exposes you to new ways of training.
It gives direction to your training.
It cures burnout.
It validates the countless wasted hours in the gym by yourself.
Don’t ask me where seven went and yes, I’m aware of the irony of giving in incomplete list in an article about setting high standards for yourself. The first two are about just that, raising standards, which is extremely important in a world where technology and changing expectations make it easier to just… kind of be.
I remember asking my Indian client, a tech consultant who had moved here with his wife from New Delhi, if physical culture existed in any serious capacity in India. Is there a gym on every corner? Racks filled with magazines made to satisfy the fixation on abs and butts?
His response was a simple, “No… people are too busy working”. That’s the broad assessment of the culture of nearly 1.5 B people. In some parts of China, you have the 996 as a cultural standard… that is, going into work at 9:00 a.m. leaving at 9:00 p.m. and doing that 6 days per week.
That’s a birds eye view of ⅓ of the world’s population. Meanwhile, here in the West, you have people upset that we haven’t adopted a 3-day weekend yet.
Now, physical competition is a great way to reinforce a lot of good habits (and I highly suggest you look at contest prep through that lense) but the message of this post isn’t to go fix your life by re-enacting Thunderdome. It is MUCH more important that the spirit of competition exist in the areas of your life that actually matter: your job, your relationships, your parenthood, your self care.
I fully believe that the story we tell ourselves about our simple daily obligations, shitty office jobs included, is the antidote to a big chunk of our mental health crisis. It’s likely the big thing holding us back from our struggle to find purpose.
I don’t care what you think the final form of a fully realized and enlightened society looks like, if you think we should aim for Mad Max or the space ship in Wall-E (go to any Wal-mart in Texas and you will see that we are on a bullet train to Wall-E and someone cut the brakes). The point is that our brains have to adapt to whatever our environment changes to and I don’t think the most aggressive social activists, the ones who see things like ‘jobs’ as an optional feature of society, have caught on to that.
Some people believe that human beings are chained by their social obligations and that, if only they had all the free time in the world, they would be able to live their Renaissance Man dream, become master oil painters, learn those nine languages, turn their body into a physical specimens and open their third eye chakra. That is not and has never been true of human beings on the whole. The people that do that in their free time are the exception, which is why we still write about them even though they died 500 years ago.
The truth is that enlightenment and peace do not come from removing obligations. A population free of expectations and obligation is one where people are no longer tethered to each other, where culture as we know it has less and less a reason to exist at all. We know what it looks like when entire groups find themselves without pressing obligations: our minds become our worst enemy and whatever predispostion we had to depression and anxiety, to addiction and dysfunction, is multiplied 10 fold.
Young and old, left and right, rich and poor.
We, as inherently flawed beings, rely on social systems and silly shit like a work schedule to keep us honest. The social pressures from parents and peers historically caused us to rise to the occasion in ways we otherwise would not have, and the result was that we grew to competency and insulated ourselves against the natural pressures of disease and starvation.
These pressures still exist in the modern era, just in a different form. You know them, they are the obligations you bitch about to your coworkers. They are the ones you fantasize no longer exist in some just near-future. But they are also the ones that are necessary to keep us from atrophying like the muscles of a coma patient.
My hope is that all of you cavemen-trapped-in-modernity recognize the need for competition and engage in that in every day of your life. See the gift of the obligations you currently have, the ones you have to follow through on to pay the rent and the ones you force yourselves to do even when you don’t have to. As obstructive and monotonous as they might seem, they force you to be active, to find systems and perfect them, to stay sharp where you would otherwise be painfully dull.
Recognize how they make you better. Take a bit of gratitude from that and apply it to your schedules, your deadlines, your relationships and your contests. If you are the person who handles your work while helping people with theirs, who keeps it together during a crisis, who demonstrates both greatness and gratitude, then you will not only find purpose in a world dominated by existential dread, but you will find yourself as a role model.
World records are a dime a dozen but role models are few and far between.