I watch reality television. Mostly competitions like Masterchef and The Voice. Not Survivor or American Idol, oh no, that’s a bit too contrived for me. What I find, especially on the shows which deal with specific skills like cooking or singing, is that the participants invariably get a lot better the longer they are on the show. And in their carefully edited interviews, the participants also remark on how much they have learned, how they have been pushed to do better than they ever dreamed, and how they discovered something deep inside themselves that they were never quite sure they had.
But something about these shows has always bothered me a bit, and it is this. Is the competitive platform the only way to get the best out of people? Must we be pitted against each other in order to personally succeed? Why must we always compare ourselves to others? Why must others be eliminated in order for me to get ahead?
Most of our culture is based on competition: our entertainment, our education, our sports, our business, our politics. And yet, I don’t see competition in the ministry of Jesus. In fact, when two of the disciples tried to secure a position of power and preference over the other disciples (or rather, their mother did), Jesus was not impressed. You have no idea what you are asking, he replied.
Why are we so obsessed with comparing ourselves to others? Why is winning so important in our culture? Why is one of the biggest put-downs calling someone a loser? I don’t know exactly, but I would like to suggest an alternative. I think all the benefits that we believe we get out of competition can be found in community. In fact, I think competition is a cheap imitation of community.
Here are 5 elements I have identified in competitive settings which help people get to the top of their game. You will note that none of them would be out of place in a community, in fact, I contend that most of them were birthed there.
1. Mentors. There is nothing quite as inspiring and motivating as being taught by people who have been working at their craft for a long time, are really good at it, and have learned valuable lessons along the way. They not only have talent but a solid work ethic, high standards, and a good reputation. And if they are mentors, they are also generous teachers, not proud, but genuine ambassadors of their craft. I believe this is also called discipleship.
2. Practise, practice, practice. While contestants are in a reality television show, it becomes a full-time job for them. They rehearse, they learn, they practice, and that’s basically all they do. The distractions are minimised so that they can focus on the one thing that is important to them.
3. Accountability. In a competitive setting, what you do matters. Every time. Because it can change the course of your life. People who succeed in competitions take what they do more seriously. They make sure they are prepared, and when it is their turn to shine, they hold nothing back.
4. Being surrounded by others who have the same goals. Yes, there is something to being in the company of others who are all pursuing the same thing. Not only can you learn from each other, but you end up talking about your dream, your work, your passion, in every conversation. And that’s okay, because everyone around you feels the same way. In a community of musicians, even the novices begin to talk and act and sound like real musicians.
5. Teamwork. In most of these competition shows, there is always an element of teamwork. If people don’t know how to set aside their own agendas to ensure the success of the team, they probably won’t do well in the long run. If you can make others look good, it will probably come back to reflect well on you. I admire Luca Manfe who won Masterchef Season 4. In one episode, a fellow contestant had neglected to get a key ingredient out of the pantry. When the contestant asked to borrow the ingredient from Luca, other contestants assumed he would refuse, but he didn't hesitate to give what he had. He explained that if he was going to win it would be because his cooking was superior, not because he refused to give someone an ingredient. That’s the spirit of community!
All of these elements appear in competitions, but these same competitions can also have some sour side-effects on people. Egos can run rampant, people can use deceptive strategies to gain an advantage, some set their fellow contestants up to fail, others begin smear campaigns, and people sometimes develop unhealthy alliances that they believe will help them get ahead. In the end, pride, greed, and lust win out too often. And inevitably, some sensitive spirits are crushed along the way. That’s unattractive. We might admire someone who has a win-at-all-costs attitude, but would you want them as your friend?
Community, I suggest, offers all of these valuable qualities without the unattractive self-serving, competitive attitudes. Okay, there might not be a cash prize or a dream job or a recording contract, but are these the only incentives we respond to? I hope not. All of us have the opportunity, right now, to become wholeheartedly involved in a community that helps people to become their best selves. In turn, the community will help us develop into better people as well. No need to audition. Just sign up and show up. Every day.