Competition Is Nothing To Be Feared

Many people fear competition. I see it everywhere.

Often this fear produces cheating. I’ve seen it in the business world. Not infrequently, business persons conspire with their competitors over prices, customers or markets rather than compete. It’s a win-win situation in their minds (except for the customers, of course, who end up getting screwed), until the conspirators get caught and hauled off to prison. But they know the odds: they know that only a handful get caught; the vast majority get away with it and profit from their misdeeds.

I recall an executive (not a client) openly sharing at the dinner table one evening his view that you couldn’t succeed in the chemical industry without entering into some agreements with your competitors over pricing and markets. Clearly, he thought it was acceptable behavior. And perhaps he was right. It certainly didn’t hurt his career: he’s a CEO today. Yet the activities he described could land him in federal prison for 10 years plus result in huge fines. Nonetheless, the fear of competition and the pressure to “succeed” nudged him to take that kind of risk. And the culture in the industry afforded him the comfort of sharing his views so openly.

We see fear of competition in the sports world, too. The New England Patriots are notorious for their shenanigans, which is strange considering, in the opinion of many (including me), they have the best coach and quarterback in the NFL. You wouldn’t think they’d ever need to cheat. But they did. Or do. Who can be sure, for once you lose your reputation for integrity, it’s gone forever.

You see it in the political world as well. Companies and individuals throw big money at politicians in the form of campaign contributions in exchange for favors — an edge, an advantage, something to give them a leg up on the competition. “Legal bribes” some people call them. That’s for you to decide. What’s clear, however, is that most of these big contributors are using monetary “gifts” to tilt the table in their favor. They don’t like the idea of competing straight up.

You also see it in the current support for tariffs and barriers to protect domestic suppliers from foreign competition. History is unequivocally clear that such policies, while possibly providing a short-term boost, would be disastrous in the long term, not only economically but also socially. Trade wars usually end up in shooting wars and, at the very least, lower standards of living over the long haul. Indeed, the mere rhetoric of our new president has already caused changes in currency values that have made U.S. goods less competitive and has caused saber rattling in Asia. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised to see our fear of competition take us down the path of nationalism and protectionism that almost assuredly will hurt far more people than it supposedly helps.

Fear of competition is present in our schools, too. The evidence is incontrovertible: cheating on our college campuses is rampant. I suspect the same can be said for our high schools. Apparently, students fear competing; they need an advantage, an edge — something that allows them to jump over the honest schmucks, something to give them an edge with the college admissions counselors.

For the life of me, I can’t understand what’s behind this fear of competition, especially in a society that proclaims to love capitalism and freedom.

Perhaps it’s because people don’t think it’s wrong. When working for a French company, it became obvious that the dominant business ethic in parts of the world (including France, which perhaps explains why it’s been called the “least trusted country in the world”) is, it’s acceptable so long as you don’t get caught. In other words, there was no underlying ethical norm or expectation — only a risk analysis.

Over the course of my legal career, I saw the same ethical standards creeping more and more into American business. And American society.

Perhaps what’s also behind this fear of competition I’ve observed is undue pressure. Indeed, the pressure can be intense, especially if you allow yourself to get strung out financially (and, therefore, highly dependent upon your paycheck and employer). And the stakes can be high. Without strong guiding moral and ethical principles, perhaps it’s inevitable that the fear of competition will yield cheating, fraud, lying, bribery and conspiracies.

I respect and admire people who play it straight. I admire people who don’t fear failure. And who aren’t afraid to lose: who shake hands with the winning team after the game, who help them up, who congratulate their competitor who lands a big contract, who feel good for their classmates who succeed.

I respect people who recognize that competition is something that makes them (and us) better and is not something to be feared. I respect people who think cheating is wrong. And who believe it’s how you play the game that counts the most. And who are willing to forego pecuniary gain if the cost of acquisition entails the loss of their integrity.

It’s not that these admirable people aren’t competitive; rather, it’s that they don’t fear failure or competition. They’re prepared to accept the fact they won’t always win. And that winning isn’t the only thing that matters in life — indeed, that it isn’t even the most important thing. For these people, integrity and virtue matter. They’re simply unwilling to sell their souls and reputations for a piece of business, a game, a grade, a bonus, a job, or an employer or client. There’s too much at stake.

Vera, I vividly recall an incident involving your dad that captures, in a small way, what I’m talking about. It occurred in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, when your dad was just a kid (middle school age). As we so often were, we were at the baseball field. Your dad was an exceptionally good ballplayer. He could play various positions. This particular day he was playing shortstop.

His friend Liam was at bat, playing for the opposing team. Liam hit a home run. You wouldn’t think that would be good news for your dad and his team, of course. Obviously, the objective of the game is to not allow your opponent to score. The objective is to win the game.

As Liam was rounding the bases, he passed by your dad at shortstop. Your dad had a big grin on his face. It was then he gave Liam a high-five. Suffice it to say this is not the behavior one expects to see on a baseball diamond. But he was happy for his friend.

Naturally, your dad wanted to win the game. He was competitive. Yet he could take delight in his friend’s success, even when it came at the expense of your dad’s team.

I suspect no one would ever hear your dad say the things I heard that executive say at the dinner table that evening long ago. I suspect your dad wouldn’t think it was O.K. to defraud customers. I suspect your dad’s not afraid of competition. I know your dad takes great delight in playing the game.

You’re a lucky girl, Vera.


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