Competition, the Catalyst
The 🔑 to Transformation
One of the fascinating phenomena of life is that processes at the smallest or lowest levels of the universe either translate directly or have metaphorical significance at the highest levels. The change of one thing to another - transformation - examined at the level of molecules and compounds, provides insights at much higher levels of complexity and structure - whether in individual lives, organizations, societies, or ecosystems.
A brief primer on catalysts
A catalyst is any substance that increases the speed of a reaction without undergoing a change itself. In practical terms, without a catalyst, the reaction may not happen at all. One quick example in our own bodies is the enzyme trypsin, which catalyzes (increases the rate of) the breakdown of ingested proteins into amino acids, ultimately helping us create critical components like muscles, hormones, and neurotransmitters. A protein in its whole and ingested form, not broken down by trypsin into amino acids, is usually too big or unwieldy to be functionally used by our bodies.
A chemical reaction can also be thought of as a transformation of a reactant into a product. When humans transform things, we generally go from an already stable thing -> to another stable thing (i.e. both the reactant and product are stable; in our trypsin example, both the ingested protein and the produced amino acids are stable). This makes logical sense, because if the reactant was unstable, it would have already reacted in the existing environment without our interference. This transformation of a stable thing to another stable thing normally takes an enormous amount of energy - unless there is a catalyst involved.
We transform continuously
Let’s zoom out to the level of conscious life. Are we the same person we were yesterday? Roughly 1% of our human cells are replaced daily (~330 billion, source). Over 80-100 days, that’s 30 trillion cells, which is the average number of all cells in a human body. This is not counting the ~40 trillion bacteria and viruses that also live and provide functionality throughout our bodies, continually turning over as well - at an even faster rate.
Given these numbers, it’s easy to see our bodies and minds are continuously transforming. The majority of this happens automatically and without our input; however, there is no question our actions, activities, and even thoughts have an influence on this continual metamorphosis.
Now zoom out further to the level of an organization. Here, not only are individuals continually transforming, but the countless interactions and synergies between them. Unless we want this myriad of transformations to happen randomly, we must ask the important question: Can we shape this transformation in the direction of a goal, or more generally, growth?
Competition is not about outcome
Competition doesn’t have a stellar reputation in present times. Mental images of unfettered exploitation, putting down others for personal gain, damage to self-worth, and plain-old cheating, are all hard to ignore. However, the damaging aspects of competition can be traced to just two sources - two misguided and unhealthy obsessions: 1) an obsession with the outcome 2) an obsession with the opponent(s).
The outcome of a competition (e.g. win, loss, score, other predetermined metric), in a healthy setting, can be treated as authentic, specific feedback rather than a value judgement (a judgement which too often leaks outside the context of competition). In the case of positive outcomes, outcomes can be validation for efforts and decisions made in the context of competition up to that point, positively reinforcing those efforts and decisions for the future. Negative outcomes tend to provide more signal for where to improve and direct attention. Both are essential for growth. Wanting to win is very well, but winning should be an orientation and guide, clearly understood as not entirely under our complete control. If we understand competition’s role as a catalyst for greater growth, we can still compete hard wanting to win, without the trappings of outcome-obsession. These are subtle but deeply important differences.
Similarly, our opponents provide highly useful information and vital interaction - they provide signal on areas to grow and the corresponding drive and motivation to do so. However, issues arise when we make the competition more about our opponents than ourselves. Doing so, we place things further outside of our locus of control, which is counter to growth. In addition, this mind-state often ends up enlarging the competitive context unnecessarily, making the arena of competition unclear and unmeasurable. It’s important to limit the scope of competition to what we can personally control and to the specific arena of competition, not only so we can develop targeted processes and goals, but for our own mental health and compassion as well.
Competition as a catalyst
Now that we’ve defined catalysis, the ubiquity of continual transformation, and how to think about healthy and productive competition, let’s answer the question: what exactly does competition catalyze? What is the reaction, which requires a reactant and a product? Since we are continually transforming, the reactant is the self moments ago, and the product is the self moments later. The transformed self, when catalyzed by competition, will often:
be more organized, communicative, assertive, creative, valuable, incisive, adaptive, thoughtful, analytical, driven
be a better leader, collaborator, teammate, decision-maker
have more perseverance, resilience, energy, confidence, productivity, intensity, charisma, understanding, patience
develop better skills, health, timing, presence
We can all point to competitive pressures and experiences that pushed us or our organizations to grow in one or many of the areas listed above.
Selective competition, emergent competition
Another interesting fact about catalysts at the molecular level is that they have an asymmetric effect. In reactions, the amount of transformed product is proportional to the amount of the starting reactant - this is symmetrical by nature. However, a tiny amount of catalyst can create an outsized effect on the transformation - this is what is meant by asymmetric. And different catalysts produce different outcomes at different magnitudes. Similarly, all games and competitions are not created equal. Some competitions may catalyze massive growth, while others are duds. Pick and choose wisely.
Competition does not merely catalyze at the individual level. At the societal level, competitive exchanges of goods & services have led to the highest availability and lowest cost of goods & services in human history. At the ecosystem level, the competition for scarce resources has led to the incredible species diversity and wide array of species intelligence on earth - including the evolution of the most adaptive species in the known universe: humans.
One of many catalysts
Is competition the only catalyst for growth? No - it’s possible that compassion, love, or collaboration are even more important or efficient catalysts for growth. Certainly, each individual will respond uniquely - different catalysts will speed up different types of transformations. Furthermore, different contexts will require different catalysts.
It’s clear that competition, while often stigmatized, is a powerful and natural catalyst for growth. It’s also important to realize that we have the freedom and ability to be selective with the games and competitions we engage in - it’s not truly a competition if we have no freedom in our participation. When we develop a healthy relationship with competition, we generally want to find ways to incorporate more of it into our lives and organizations.