Critique On “Why Competition” By Alfie Kohn

Link to The Original Article

The essay “Why competition” is Alfie Kohn’s famous publication that appeared in “The Humanist” during the year 1980. Kohn’s writing is a part of extensive literature that is already found shedding light on both the pros and cons of competition owing to its undeniable relevance in our lives. Whether it’s about our early kindergarten class activities or right up to state level negotiations, the urge to compete with our counterpart is always seen as a requirement and the desire at heart. Perhaps the importance of competition is substantiated by the fact that in order to measure a person’s potential or progress, we tend to put him in comparison with others mainly because there have not been other effective ways agreed upon as yet to gauge a person’s output in isolation. This is how our lives operate and because we have been taught to believe to outshine others and make the mark, humans consider competition a great contributor to any success in their life. Therefore, all this boils down to the point that whether we like it or not, competition does influence how we live, work and play. Like other authors, Alfie Kohn also felt the need to express his views about this immensely popular topic, although he himself happens to be a staunch opponent of the idea of competition and loudly criticizes the way it influences our life making it disastrous and “unfit”. Kohn, on multiple platforms, made a cogent case to explain the darker aspect of any competitive setting. Despite the fact that Kohn has brought up some sound reasons and examples to justify his argument, he fails at making a convincing case eventually because of not being able to present an alternate to a working setup that is driven by competition at every step. His justifications to prove the unhealthy aspect of competition through his clear and lucid writing, however, do not sound appropriate to neglect all the good things that also take birth in the same competitive environment.

In the given reading material Alfie Kohn describes several negative aspects of any competitive environment and uses the example of sports and other competitions to prove that above everything the main focus of any participant engaged in these immensely stressful situations, is always to win, where he/she is confronted with a rival. He holds the opinion that human collaboration and competition are two completely opposing terms as the latter always results in poor inter human relations, however, there are instances where it can maintain accord and give a sense of togetherness to people competing on the same side. Kohn is of the view that the only way to gauge an individual’s success is to compare him/her with others and since there is always a possibility of finding a better person, therefore, this competition causes an incessant anxiety that spoils all the pleasure of successes. The urge to compete others automatically puts you in a try to win and this desire in Kohn’s opinion tends to make you callous because he believes that a person’s efforts to win in fact translate to his efforts in making others fail. He then says that the concept of competition is profoundly embedded in our minds because we see ourselves constantly occupied in working of the world that greatly encourages competition for enhanced performances. Lastly, Kohn states the argument that competition plays its fair share in shaping the outcome of our daily routine activities and he believes that excessive influence of competitive environment on our minds is extremely unhealthy, therefore, we all should think out of the box and indulge ourselves in activities that promote more humanly traits.

The purpose of the given text is to persuade people to admit and bring this to their knowledge that competition by its very nature is always unhealthy and the victim of this competition is the entire society; people of all segments and class. The structure of the text is rather unique; it begins with a detailed example of a scene of sports competition followed by author’s thesis statement which is then justified including different real life examples to prove author’s thesis. He gives different arguments in support of his thesis about how a competitive environment promotes rivalry and damages human core values. He describes only the darker aspects of competition and proves them with some valid examples and justifications, however, he ignores many positive aspects of a competitive setting. He explains the consequences of a competitive environment by explaining how this concept is adding inhuman and unethical practices in our routine activities for the sake of being “better than”. His stated facts are, however, quite accurate when it comes to the darker side of competition but are irrelevant when the brighter prospects of competition are evaluated. Kohn has used simple diction and his expression is pretty straightforward as well since it is meant to be understood by all kinds of people and he is very convincing as far as his tone is concerned.

The author justifies his theory by including numerous sound examples from all walks of life. He refers to different competitive environments where the negative aspects of competition are actually dominant and results in more damage than progress. For smooth functioning of people in any environment, collaboration holds a vital importance and since there can be no collaboration in any competitive environment, therefore, there is a minute chance of progress that could result from competition. For instance, in an academics setup, if there were no competition between the kids, there would be a lot better result. In such a setup all the kids would work together instead of just trying to get past or get “better” than each other. Hence, like the author said, those kids would not be gauged by how better they are from each other but how good they are in themselves. There would be more group tasks promoting collaboration instead of making such a system that promotes rivalry among them. He refers to other settings as well like sports where not only the players are drowned in the competitive rivalry but also their supporters and that results in turning sports into an ugly enterprise. The players deem the game as some kind of life or death challenge where their sole purpose is to win regardless of the dishonest way they might have to fall to. Such type of a mindset is encouraged in a competitive environment that occasionally fosters unethical practices.

Although the author convinces his readers by using different examples that the competition in most situations is unhealthy but he ignores the other side of the picture. There are a lot of situations where the driving power of competition is necessary. For instance, in the business world, every single producer is trying to surpass all other producers because of the competition and this struggle results in the benefit of the consumers. There is a lot more focus on innovation because of the race to get better than the others. We can see around us that competition always follows merit based selection. The core purpose of this type of competition is to give people a gentle push so that they make a good use out of their talents and strengths. Such a competitive environment is necessary to motivate people to work hard and give their best. For example, the selection for higher-ups in the army is also based on merit that is driven by competition. This type of environment makes people show their best and so it results in the selection of the best candidates. If there were no competition in any environment people would not really bother to give their best and it would be really hard to judge which candidate is supposed to be the best one. The most important aspect of any competitive environment is that it provides people a driving force, a motivation and a requirement to showcase their hidden talents and strengths, which the author ignores completely while mentioning the darker aspects of competition.

As mentioned in the thesis statement, the author sheds light on all the negative aspects of any competitive environment, yet he is unable to present an alternate working setup that is not driven by competition. Kohn’s arguments are extremely one sided and he does not give any consideration to the opposing arguments and also he is unable to present a solid solution, however, he suggests a few solutions in the last paragraph of his essay. According to him, “The first step, though, consists of understanding that rivalry of any kind is both psychologically disastrous and philosophically unjustifiable” (335) therefore he reaches to a conclusion that if we let this sink in we can opt for more healthy lifestyles that promote friendship and collaboration but he does not present an alternate and also ignores the fact that it sometimes gives people purpose and direction to their struggle which he himself describes in the first paragraph. There are pros and cons of everything but the author’s entire focus is on the darker side of it which causes him to produce a rather ambiguous analysis of the phenomenon/concept.

The author’s position on the argument about “conditional self-worth” (Kohn 334) that is found in a competitive environment is correct. Whenever you are competing with people, you are never recognized by your own potential but by where you stand amongst all your competitors and this actually makes your self-worth conditional. Your worth in such an environment depends on how strong your competitors are and since all the competitors are judged by the same credentials so in this way people are sometimes refrained from showcasing their hidden capabilities.
From all the points stated above, we can conclude that the author, Alfie Kohn, in his article, presented all the negative effects of any competitive environment and explained them quite thoroughly with some very common examples but ignored all the positive prospects of a competitive environment and hence ended up painting a very harsh image of this concept/phenomenon. His stance that competition is always unhealthy is not entirely true because there are many situations where competition plays a very important positive role. Therefore, if properly controlled and supervised, we can have a healthy competition in a system. Except for this, all his theories are justifiable and correct.

Works Cited

Kohn, Alfie. “Why Competition”. The Informed Argument. Ed. Miller. San Diego:

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1989. Print.

Feature Image Credits: Stock Snap

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