Competition and Competence

“Also, I saw that every exertion and that every skill in work is because of the jealousy of a man’s companion. This also is vanity and exasperates the spirit.”

(Ecclesiastes 4:4)

In every endeavor of life there are those whose skill and expertise outdoes those that are around them. In today’s culture, these are sometimes referred to as “outliers”… people who distinguish themselves from all those around them. And while it is true the some people have gifts and leanings in a particular area of life, at the heart of these outliers is work and practice, work and more practice, and then even more practice at their craft, no matter what that craft happens to be. The American Inventor is quoted as saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Solomon, it seems, recognizes this dynamic but goes on to ask the question, “What drives these outliers?” His conclusion is that we are driven to perfect our craft out of jealousy — we look at other craftsmen around us and we desire to be better than they are and to distinguish ourselves from those around us. And I must confess, as I look back at some of the jobs I have worked and crafts that I have plied, there is great truth in this. And, this is not a bad thing.

Healthy competition tends to stretch you and to push you further than you would go without it. In the seminary I attended, competing for grades was frowned upon (we were all in it together). At the same time, when I was taking Hebrew, the classmate who sat beside me had a different way of thinking. He would look over my shoulder at my grades to compare and it was not long before a healthy competition ensued, which propelled both of us toward the top of the class. 

When I was in High School, I competed on the Varsity Swim Team. While I was never exceptional, those who were and who broke school records had their names put on a big board in the pool area, which prodded everyone to do better. When I worked for Domino’s Pizza, we used to compete in what was called a “Two-Tray” competition — how quickly could two trays of dough be slapped out to size, placed on the screen, and sauced. Again, this drove us to improve our speed greatly. At the time, I worked under the man who had the second-fastest time in the country and under his tutelage, I too, got very fast, which was important in the high-volume store in which we worked. In college, I ran blue-prints for a company to help pay bills. Here, I broke the company record for how many blue prints could be run through the machine in an hour. My direct boss held the record prior to me, which created healthy competition between us — something that only served to improve the service the store offered to its customers. Similarly, during the decade and change that I worked as a carpet installer, I sought to distinguish myself, though here, not with speed, but with precision and skill, particularly in custom work. 

I imagine we can all think of times when healthy competition drove us to improve. I grant, too, that sometimes healthy competition can go over the top and create resentment and unhealthy rivalries, but I would still say these tend to be the exceptions and not the rules so long as the competition is instigated by the competitors and not by those outside the competition. As Solomon, I can say that “I have seen” instances where parents push their child in a sport way too hard and often that harms the child rather than helping him or her. 

Why then does Solomon say that this kind of competition exasperates the spirit? In the end, records and achievements are not lasting. There will always be someone else who will be better than you or who will work faster than you. There will always be someone to dislodge your record. And, in the end, what does the record get you anyway? A little notoriety for a little while? It won’t last. So, if what drives you is just that you wish to be better than everyone else, you will find your spirit exasperated at the end of the day and at the end of your life. Yet, if you wish to be better than everyone else because you wish to be the best you can be to the glory of Christ, that is entirely a different matter. Distinguish yourself not for your own gain and glory but for God’s.

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