Christmas is a time for – well, fill in the blank according to whichever cliche you prefer. But in my house it is usually a time for games and therefore conflict.
I never like myself less than when I am playing games with my children and inadvertently finding myself taking them too seriously, like Simon Day’s Competitive Dad in The Fast Show. How can it be a healthy impulse to want to obliterate your pint-sized opponent in a game of Ludo or Monopoly? And now the season is coming round again, I look forward to another episode of Nietzschean will to power and the subsequent inevitable self-shaming.
I blame my father for this, who never let me win any game. My mother was also fiercely competitive and so is my younger brother. My elder brother wisely opted out of the whole thing and emigrated to America.
The virus of competitiveness has spread somewhat to my children, either by their genes or the examples they have witnessed. The sweetest among them can become a Stalinist gorgon once they get the bit between the teeth in a world-domination game such as Risk, in which they have the opportunity to destroy all opposing forces. Monopoly is just as bad, if not worse – which is ridiculous as both games rely primarily on pure luck.
The trouble is, it’s hard to extricate yourself from what is a highly competitive society – even though society seems to still be, officially at least, in two minds about it. As a principle, it still holds good in many primary schools where, commonly, all must win for fear of hurting any child’s feelings. At the same time, in professional sport it is clear, whatever anybody says, that only winners matter. In society, much the same pertains. Crush the opposition or you’re toast.
I share this double standard. There is no doubt in my mind that competitivenessis a driver of excellence in any field, and as a meritocrat and one of those vulgar self-made men, I cannot be entirely against the domination of the field by those who work hardest and are most talented.
That’s the trouble with competitiveness. Unchecked, it simply makes you unpleasant. Consider, even, competition at one remove, such as supporting a football team. I recall, when I did support one (as a teenager) I became sour and sullen when we lost and triumphalist and smug when we won, gleefully mocking other supporters whose teams had done less well that particular Saturday. And football violence would be unlikely to continue if it didn’t matter which team won or lost.
I don’t know if competition is a “natural” instinct. Whatever the case, I have never encouraged my children to be competitive (for all the good that’s done). There’s enough pressure from the world to compete. I keep repeating that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose so long as you do your best. Obviously, this isn’t true. But it should be. For myself, I dearly wish it were.
To try to abolish competitiveness is pointless and probably unhealthy. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but the thing is to teach generosity in playing, losing and winning, whether at a board game, a sport or life.
This will be an uphill struggle, given that triumphalism has become the norm in many sports. The punch in the air, somersault on the pitch, or growling of two boxers before a fight. Business isn’t much better, with all focus on annihilating the opposition.
Yet what can render competitiveness a positive force is that it provides a theater for virtuous behavior. I find few things more admirable than a genuinely humble winner or a graceful loser, perhaps because I am usually neither. I shall keep trying – but the truth is I would still rather be the former than the latter.