What’s wrong with competition?

The best athlete wants his opponent at his best.
The best general enters the mind of his enemy.
The best businessman serves the communal good.
The best leader follows the will of the people.

All of them embody the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this, they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 68, translation by Stephen MItchell)

A couple of days ago, in chapter 66, Lao Tzu was speaking of the Master, our ideal leader, as someone who competes with no one, and no one competes with her. I barely touched on this idea of non-competition in my commentary that day. Mostly, it was because I knew today’s chapter, where Lao Tzu would more fully explore the virtue of non-competition, was upcoming. And, here we are.

And once again, I think it is necessary to clarify definitions right at the very beginning. As when Lao Tzu talks of not-doing, he doesn’t mean that nothing is done; and, when he talks of not-knowing, he doesn’t mean nothing is known; when he speaks of non-competition he doesn’t mean that there isn’t any competition.

What he does mean is competition that is done in the spirit of play, like children do. This competition, which Lao Tzu refers to as non-competition, is being in harmony with the Tao. It is the freedom to be your very best whatever you are. I like that he likens it to children at play. Children in all their innocence, still, with their imaginations, largely intact. Earlier, Lao Tzu referred to newborns as the epitome of our primal oneness with the Tao. Children are still at one with the way things are. They haven’t yet become enamored with the illusion. They still do, most everything that they do, intuitively. It is only after years of conditioning that we lose our way.

Children playing is our reference for embodying the virtue of non-competition. Do you want to be your very best? Take your cue from the little ones. I think that is why I like working with children so much. I learn so very much. Or, actually, it is more like remembering. I remember things I had long ago forgotten. In all the hustle and bustle of trying to be grown up, we forget what it was like. We forget where we have come from. We forget who we are.

Lao Tzu wants us to remember. That is why he keeps pointing at the children. That is why he says, “Look there, they get it. Embody the Tao with them.”

So, how do us grown-ups do that? After giving us the example of the Master a couple of chapters ago, he goes on to give us four more examples today. You want an example of someone who really loves to compete? Check out athletes. They love to compete. And, the very best athlete wants his opponent at his best. You want to be your best? Then want everyone else to be at their best. That is when the competition is best.

But, that’s just sports. It is easy to see sports as play. What about these other examples? The best general enters the mind of his enemy. Is this just play? War is a serious business. But, what if you could avoid it? The best general certainly tries to. That is the point of entering the mind of your enemy. What if we could see things from their point of view? Walk a few steps in their shoes. Maybe this conflict could be resolved without bloodshed.

The best businessman serves the communal good. I seem to hear all the time from people complaining about big, bad businessmen that are only out to serve their own needs. They are only interested in maximizing their profits. And, what is even worse, they don’t care if they screw their employees, their customers, and future generations, because of their greed. They are using up all our natural resources and polluting our air, lakes, and streams. And they don’t care, as long as they can roll around in all that cash. I don’t doubt there are some out there that come pretty damn close to fitting that stereotype.

But how stupid can they be, if they do? What are the long-term advantages of that kind of attitude? The only way that I can come up with to make that kind of attitude profitable would be if the State sanctioned it. By cartelizing industries and erecting barriers to competition. But that isn’t what Lao Tzu was envisioning. He understood that the very best businessmen serve the communal good. They know what is good for the whole community is good for them. They are going to treat their employees and their customers well; because if they don’t, they won’t continue long. They aren’t going to use up all their resources like there is no tomorrow; because then there won’t be a tomorrow.

Finally, the best leader follows the will of the people. As I have said before, the Tao Te Ching is a manual for would-be leaders in the art of living. The best leader is one who serves. One who follows. It is that humility that Lao Tzu keeps harping on. The best leader doesn’t compete to be on top. Or, to be first. They choose the path of humility. And the people come to them. This is the virtue of non-competition. You compete with no one. And no one competes with you.

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