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A New View of Competition

Competition is on the cover of the latest issue of the Wilson Quarterly, the highly readable intellectual smorgasbord published by the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Its four articles focus on how competitive American life has become, with obvious implications for business. Daniel Akst, in an article entitled "Strive We Must," argues that there are four points of competition that matter, all of which are worth thinking about for business leaders.

It used to be worse. "19th-century business practices were truly red in tooth and claw, while total output per person was so much lower in those days that merely staying alive was a competitive scramble for most people."

Life is not as competitive as the media might have us believe. "Our cultural elites live with so much competitive anxiety that their lives simply aren't representative. Most Americans have more leisure than they did a generation ago, even as the highest-paid earners work like maniacs. And competition of all kinds is worst in places like New York and Los Angeles, where real-estate hysteria and preschool panic afflict even the rich and powerful. The media come to us from those places... Reports from these precincts should be discounted by at least 50 percent."

It's our nature. He cites the psychologist David M. Buss thusly: "the desire to mate -- and the imbalance between the most desirable partners and the many more people who covet them â€" "catapults people headlong into the arena of competition with members of their own sex," even if they don't always recognize that's what they're doing â€" angling for a promotion, applying eyeliner, cracking jokes â€" is competitive behavior."

Competition is good for us. It raises standards of living. It's fairer than it used to be. It can foster cooperation. "The whole basis for the company is that those within will work together to best those without, taking advantage of informational edges and other advantages to compete more effectively. And management specialists now emphasize the need for companies to forge more collaborative relationships with suppliers, customers and even sometime rivals."

So, whom should one hire in this more competitive yet collaborative world?

Tyler Cowen, in "The New Invisible Competitors," argues that there are four types of employees who will do well in a hypercompetitive global economy:

Methodical planners or those who love the game for its own sake. They motivate themselves to get ahead of everyone else, and stay there.

Early risers. Those who like to be first will figure out new ideas before competitors.

Nervous folks, or chokers. The digital world means less conflict for them, and thus fewer opportunities to blow it.

Those with good imaginations. New ideas in fields like design and marketing will be more valuable than number-crunching.

There's also an essay on the savage competition amongst musicians, and whether that detracts from music itself. Finally, a cautionary essay by Benjamin R. Barber, "The Lost Art of Competition." He concludes his attack on hypercompetition with a comment on the 19th century thinker John Ruskin, saying:
As an enemy rather than an ally of true freedom, competition is not our friend. To live and to flourish, it is the lost art of cooperation that we need to cultivate.
All in all, it's an effective passage on both competition and a signal of the continuing emergence of collaboration as a force in both our society and in business.
Michael Fitzgerald

Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.

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