Open Thinkering


Tag: competition

The end of competition

The period of time I spent at the end of December consciously not working is one of the first where I wasn’t either (a) explicitly in competition with others, or (b) implicitly in competition with myself.

Competition can be good. It can be motivational and help us strive to be better / faster / stronger. But, too often, it can be damaging and cause us to act in ways that aren’t beneficial to ourselves or those around us.

I’ve been a gamer all my life and so the idea of beating myself (as a kind of ghost car) has always appealed to me. But, having reached the age at which almost every elite athlete has retired, I need to stop kidding myself that I’ll ever run a sub-20 minute 5k. That’s OK.

In addition, I’ve come to understand the approach my mother took to family board games when I was a child. She refused to play to win, instead making sure (as far as she could) that my sister and I never finished last. As a parent, I get that now.

A competitive approach to life is often justified by talking about “preparing young people for the real world”. It’ as if the so-called real world is red in tooth and claw. In my experience that’s not the case; the ‘real world’ is more focused on collaboration than competition.

So, perhaps we’ve got things backwards. Maybe the reason adult life involves competition is not because of the nature of the ‘real world’ but because capitalism demands competition, and so we bake it into childhood.

All of this has made me realise that while competition still has a role in my life, it’s a diminished one. I need to put it back in the box where it belongs, to be taken out where appropriate.

The rest of the time, I should be collaborating, helping bring attention to those who deserve it. That’s instead of (and it pains me to admit it) seeking the reassurance of “doing better” than others. We’re all in this together, after all.

This post is Day 82 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

Competition and the problem with ‘reality’.

This is a scheduled post whilst I’m on holiday in the UAE – my apologies if I don’t respond to comments straight away!

“There’s a philosophical tendency in the West, following Plato, to conclude that if a theory isn’t working, there must be something wrong with reality.” (Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, Harvard Business Review)

An increasingly-prevailing rhetoric of competition has invested western society. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is the dominant mantra: nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ justifies everything from ultra-competitive school sports days to bankers being paid huge bonuses. Anyone who opposes such an ‘obvious’ state of affairs is seen as naive and, well, a bit… fluffy.

Interestingly, where the real work gets done – on the frontlines (be those military or educational) camaraderie and sharing rules the roost. Why? Because when it comes down to it, we are what we share. Competition, despite what the current government would have us believe, does not ‘drive up standards’ in and of itself: it’s a lazy shorthand for innovation. And if, like me, you believe that co-operation is the best way to bring people together to innovate, then competition is diametrically opposed to this. Everything is not a market.

So the next time you try work out how to boost your Klout score, improve the numbers in that little Feedburner chicklet, or be reshared/retweeted on Google+ or Twitter, just ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Am I doing this to make the world a little bit better than I left it? What and whose theory am I acting on here?

My first infographic competition.

Flowing Data competition - US class sizes vs. SAT (v2)

(click on infographic to enlarge)

I’ve come across a wealth of fantastic infographics blogs recently. One of the best, and which has a community element is Flowing Data maintained by Nathan Yau, an UCLA PhD candidate. Nathan runs regular Visualize This competitions, the latest of which (closes 24 November 2009) compares teacher/student ratio with SAT scores by State.

The hardest bit, I’ve found, of creating an infographic is (perhaps obviously) working out how to visualize the data in a meaningful way. The problem with the raw data presented in this competition was that there were 3 SAT scores (reading, maths, writing) and that a meaningful correlation would assume an inverse relationship between this and teacher/student ratio.

In other words I had to figure out a way of plotting something increasing whilst the other decreased.

After a bit of playing around fruitlessly, I settled on the infographic at the top of this post. I’ve a few days left to change it a bit if necessary, but I think that it does, on the whole, do what’s required of it.

I’m never going to win the competition (a copy of David McCandless’ The Visual Miscellaneum) but, like entering a half-marathon or a 5k to focus your running routine, it’s still worth doing! 😀