Competition leads to greatness… Is it really how it should be?

By Yang Miang

When I was young, I felt that competition was the fairest way to earn recognition, create opportunities and attain greatness. I worked hard to get good grades and did well in my extra-curricular activities. As I embarked on my career, my colleagues and I are subjected to annual performance appraisals, which will determine who gets a fatter bonus or the precious promotion. Thus, I worked hard, believing that my diligence will pay off eventually. I accepted such comparison and competition as facts of modern society.

I was an athlete back then in secondary school. During those annual school track and field meets, I often achieved the top three positions for events like 100m and 200m sprints. Despite that, I did not remember feeling satisfied or happy. That was because, to me, being second or third equates to losing. Even if I came in first, which was not very frequent, there was the constant fear of losing the next time. I brought this attitude with me when I started working. I was very competitive and I worked too hard. As a result, I suffered from insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome , and frequently, displayed bad temper towards my colleagues and family.  

I used to believe that cut-throat competition between people and organisations pushes us towards better performance and innovation. I was told at a recent conference that if we don’t continue to invent new things to disrupt other people’s jobs, ours will be disrupted. Does this perpetual sense of insecurity and animosity lead to better lives, I now wonder? At this point of my life, I cannot see the logic anymore. I believe the pace of change and competition is leading us to a lower quality of life. This megatrend is, perhaps, unstoppable. 

So, what can we do to survive then? What should we teach our children to enable them to survive this escalating pace of increasingly intense competition and degenerating quality of life? Many emphasised the importance of creativity, ability to learn, and technology to survive the new world order. 

I don’t think they are wrong, but I think they missed an important ingredient.

My personal take is that the true answer lies in spirituality. I think there is nothing inherently wrong with competition, but if people over-focus on material gains and personal ambitions, then competition, as a social mechanism, will cause more harm than good. 

Spirituality is about connecting with our inner selves, to understand our thoughts clearly. If we can understand our own minds, we can then act wisely with full awareness of the consequences of our actions. 

I believe spirituality is the fundamental survival skill for the future. The escalating pace of work, compounding level of stress, and ever-increasing demands of society will continue. If we do not have the ability to look inwards, and derive our own inner peace, then we can be easily consumed by the tsunami of stress and competition; leaving us feeling dissatisfied and inadequate. We must teach our children the importance of finding and anchoring to our inner compass and learn how to let go of our attachments to the desire to win, and the want to boost our ego. If we have the ability to let go and achieve inner peace wherever we are, I’m sure we will do well in life regardless of the competitive environment.

When we become so driven by competition, and determined to achieve our academic or career goals, we frequently lose sight of what is important. Many become tempted to sacrifice their family, health, and even moral values to achieve “greatness”. This “greatness” is often our ego, our desire to be remembered, leaving behind our legacy, which may not benefit humanity in the long run.

In contrast, many Buddhist masters have achieved amazing feats without competition with others. For example, Venerable Master Xuanzang travelled across the Gobi Desert, ice cold mountains and dangerous foreign lands to obtain Buddhist scriptures for China. He spent more than 15 years out of China at a time when the Chinese emperor forbade foreign travel. When he finally went back to China, he was greatly honoured for his amazing achievements, but he refused all offers of high civil appointments. Instead, he organised a massive operation to interpret more than 600 Indian scriptures he brought back. He then spent the rest of his life overseeing the painstaking process of meticulous translation, all these lasting about 20 years. I believe spirituality is the reason for Venerable Master Xuanzang’s achievements.

Spirituality allows us to see the inter-dependence among all beings, and encourage compassion. Like all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhist Masters, compassion energises us with a sense of mission to make the world a better place. We don’t have to cross the Gobi Desert to help others. All we have to do is to look beyond competition and material gains, and extend our helping hands to those who need it. Just do that little bit more for people around us, not for winning, but because we are all sentient beings living together in this Saha world, i.e. world of enduring suffering. Compassion can then lead to true greatness. A selfless form of greatness that truly deserves praise and admiration.