Book review: No contest

Competition is bad. It is a determining factor shaping human interaction almost everywhere eg. in education, in the workplace in hobbies and even in our social lives, but the net result of competing is negative.

Life for us has become an endless succession of contests, From the moment the alarm clock rings until sleep overtakes us again, from the time we are toddlers until the day we die, we are busy strugglinh to outdo others. This is our posture at work and at school, on the playing field and back home. It is the common denominator of American life.

This is the central argument of Alfie Kohn’s excellent book No Contest, The Case Against Competition. In the book, he takes on many of the myths of competion, especially that competition is an unavoidable aspect of human nature (built into us at a biological/genetic level) and that it drives us to better performance.

On the contrary, Kohn shows repeatedly that not only can competition be avoided, choosing cooperation over competition yields many benefits at the individual and at the group level. He returns many times to the schools, where we systematically learn to compete. Students compete for grades, for the teachers attention, for academic honors, etc. And yet, many studies show, that pupils learn more in a cooperative environment than in a competitive one. This is fleshed out in the chapter on Cooperative Learning (CL).

In my mind, there’s no doubt that we perform the best when we work together rather than against each other, and Kohn recites many experiments that support this fact. It seems that competing has a tendency to bring out the worst in people, whereas cooperating brings out the good sides. I know I’m certainly a very sore loser :o)

What worries me is the way that competition is built into the work place. In all companies employees are seen as competing for raises and promotions, and many organizations increase this competition by offering special bonuses or prizes. Again, this may result in employees working against each other, rather than with each other.

Competing also removes attention from what you’re doing. YOu’re not playing football for fun, you’re playing to win, which means that the football itself looses importance, and what really matters is the recognition and praise that comes from winning. As research in motivation can show you, that is a bad thing because that means you’re externally motivated, and people never get enough of external motivation. You may have won today, but that doesn’t satisfy you – you still want to win (maybe even more so) next time. Conversely, internal motivation means doing something for it’s own sake – a source of motivation which is inherently more stable and enjoyable.

When raising children, Kohn suggests dispensing with the automatic praise all together, as you can see in his article Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!”.

I recommend this book to everyone – it will change the way you look at competition in our society.

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