Lance Armstrong Oprah Winfrey


Oprah: “What was for you the flaw or flaws that made you willing to risk it all?”

Lance Armstrong: “I think this just ruthless desire to win. Win at all cost, truly.”


While Lance Armstrong confessed that he had been lying all along about his use of doping I remembered a book I read in 2001 by Alfie Kohn No Contest: The Case Against Competition. In that book Kohn describes how we tend to turn many things into a contest (at work, at school, at play, at home) assuming that working toward a goal and setting standards for ourselves can only take place if we compete against others. By perceiving tasks or play as a contest we often define the situation to be one of MEGA: mutually exclusive goal attainment. This means: my success depends on your failure.

Kohn says this is neither wise nor inevitable. He shows that:

  1. competitiveness is NOT an inevitable feature of human nature (in fact, human nature is overwhelmingly characterized by its opposite – co-operation),
  2. superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence (because competition often distracts people from the task at hand, the collective does usually not benefit from our individual struggles against each other),
  3. competition in sports might be less healthy than we usually think because it contributes to the competitive mindset (while research shows that non-competitive games can be at least as enjoyable and challenging as competitive ones),
  4. competition does not build good character; it undermines self esteem (most competitors lose most of the time because by definition not everyone can win),
  5. competition damages relationships,
  6. a competitive mindset makes transforming of organizations and society harder (those things requiring a collective effort and a long-term commitment).


I think many people reading this book will recognize in themselves their tendency to think competitively and will feel challenged and inspired to change. And that’s a good thing. Ultimately, our fates are linked. Our challenge is build cultures in which pro-social behaviors and a co-operative mindset are stimulated. The competitive mindset can be unlearned, at least to some extent. By developing a habit to see and define tasks as co-operative we can defy the usual egoism/altruism dichotomy: by helping other people and by helping the collective, you are helping yourself.

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