Competing for Life

In his groundbreaking book, No Contest : The Case Against Competition, challenging the role of competition that is at the root of toxic success in American life, author Alfie Kohn writes, "Life for us has become an endless succession of contests. From the moment the alarm clock rings until sleep overtakes us again, from the time we are toddlers until the day we die, we are busy struggling to outdo others. This is our posture at work and at school, on the playing field and back at home. It is the common denominator of American life.

The toxically successful often behave like predators in pursuit of their prey. It seems that they cannot help or free themselves from the ultimate competition -- our competition against our own life now as something to overcome or transcend in order to achieve a better life later. Unless we are willing to change our mind about what life means and who and what it should be for, we will remain deprived of a good life because of our competition to get a better one.

Competition has become so much a part of how we work, live, and love that it is difficult to consider a life not based upon it. We are so immersed in our toxic competition to be successful that those who are not driven by this obsession are seen as "out of it," not fully engaged in the game of life, or even cowardly. Most indigenous cultures like Hawaii are perplexed by the modern world competitiveness and seeming blindness to its negative effects.

A kahuna (Hawaiian healer and teacher) was talking with me about my more than eight-year struggle to find a publisher willing to help me share my views about toxic success. He said, "The modern world is drowning in a sea of poisonous success. The signs are all around them in their struggling families, poor health, and as they hurry past the meaning and joy of life. They are as fish who do not reflect on the nature of the water they are in. They cannot imagine or comprehend its presence and control of their lives because they cannot imagine its absence in their lives."

We compete to find the "best" job, home, car, friends, lover, sex life, diet, exercise program, or shortest and quickest route through traffic. It is not just the stadium full of fans chanting, "We're number one!" or the little league baseball player crying after striking out that reveals the dominance of competition in modern living. It is the low but nagging hum of "you can do it, keep going, you can win, you can do better" that is raising our blood pressure, lowering our immunity, sending us to the fighter's pharmacy, and taking our attention away from those we say we love and the life we say we would like to have. The victory virus has become pandemic, a wide-spread cultural insanity that is leading to our experience of the failure of success.

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney described the mental illness of a toxic succeeder as "someone who constantly measures himself against others, even in situations which do not call for it." Such persons are our models of success. They are in positions of power and control and receive the rewards our society doles out to those who have honed their competitive edge. They conduct their life without experiencing the need for psychiatric intervention or psychotherapy and are seldom "diagnosed" by the establishment as "crazy" because it itself has gone mad with need for success. They are generally nice neurotics who have become our cultural role models, modern-day versions of the Greek tragic heroes that most of us wrongly and dangerously aspire to be. Author Elliot Aronson writes, "The American mind in particular has been trained to equate success with victory, to equate doing well with beating someone."

The opposite of competition is not just trying harder to be cooperative. It is working mentally harder to resist the temptation to succumb to our ancient ways and to seek a mental contentment that allows cooperation to flow naturally and to happen to us. Sweet success requires recognizing and then resisting the brain's competitive default mode, but in a society that considers competition not only good but essential and natural, changing our mind to an "us" instead of "me" mode is not easy.

Selling the Idea

"Would you be content to be number two on the New York Times bestseller list?" asked an editor of a large New York publishing house. Their book-acquisitions committee was discussing with me the possibility of publishing this book, and I was doing the best I could to explain the dangers of toxic success and its related competitiveness that controls our lives. "I can't believe you'd be content with that," she said. "Competition is what drives us to succeed and do well, so who is going to buy a book about not competing? Don't you agree that it is what got this country where it is today? It's almost un-American not to compete."

My answer did little to help me sell my idea to the publishing house. "I do agree that competition is what got us where we are today, " I responded. "The question I am asking is if we really feel in our most contemplative moments that we are where we want to be in all aspects of our living, loving, and working. Of course I would be thrilled to have a book that becomes number two or number one in sales, but for me, that would be a side effect and result, not a goal. The comparative number means much less to me than whether or not my book turned out to make a constructive difference in people's lives. I think there is sufficient evidence now to show that how we define success and the me-against-you way we are going after it is going to lead to disaster if we don't relearn what it means to be content. Competition by its very nature is detachment, a way of being against people rather than with them and a way of struggling through life rather than enjoying it."

"Well, good luck then," said the editor, leaning back in her chair and shoving my proposal aside. "We, at this house, are not content with being number two, and we want authors who want to be number one. We could never pitch this to our sales staff. Without comparison to others, life has very little meaning or perspective. Your idea of success is just too unrealistic."

More than ten years later, I finally found a home for my book with a company in Hawaii that embraces po'okela and its central Polynesian value of being of help over being on top. Whether I succeed in convincing you to take a fresh look at the assumptions about the normal and natural way to succeed is now in your hands.

How Fit Are the Survivors?

The competition compulsion you read about in the words of the editor described above is often defended on the basis of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and what is mistakenly seen as his emphasis on the principle of "survival of the fittest." This famous statement has become the mantra of the modern world, but, in fact, there is no basis in the theory of natural selection from which this survivalist mentality is said to derive.

Darwin himself never said or wrote the phrase "survival of the fittest." It was naturalist Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who coined it, but even he did not describe this principle in terms of the dog-eat-dog world we think gave birth to us. He was referring to being strong but not necessarily to defeating others. Being fit was not just defined by victory over others but as possessing highly adaptive skills that ultimately enhanced the common good.

If Darwin would have written a five-word phrase regarding his theories of evolution, it would more likely have read "survival of the most cooperative." He believed and wrote that those communities that contain the greatest number of cooperative individuals are the most likely to survive. He wrote that his references to the struggle for existence were meant in a "large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being upon another.''

Scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, "The equation of competition with success in natural selection is merely a cultural prejudice.' This prejudice has led to the toxic success I have been describing. It has become so pervasive that feeling insanely overwhelmed, chronically impatient, selfishly striving, and hostilely competitive has become more and more accepted as normal in Euro-American cultures. When we say it seems that the world has gone mad, we are right. A society of millions trying to win must inevitably create millions and millions of losers.

If we wish to use nature as our model, we are better advised to connect, combine, and cooperate than to self-assert, compete, and conquer. One hundred years ago scientist Petr Kropotkin reviewed the habits of hundreds of species, from ants to buffalo. His work clearly showed that cooperation, not competition, was the primary element in those species that survived. He wrote, "Competition . . . is limited among animals to exceptional periods. . . . Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support. Don't compete! Competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it. . . . That is the tendency of nature. . . . Therefore practice mutual aid! That is what Nature teaches us" Sweet success, then, may be at least as "natural" as the more competitive brand.

Going Against the Grain

It is difficult to argue successfully against the current assumption of the naturalness of competitiveness. Our current mind-set of assertive and comparative individualism is well established and defended. The toxically successful reading this are probably already engaged in rebuttal, nitpicky cynicism, denial, and even attack in defense of their cherished way of thinking about life. They are the "normal" ones, and the craziness of a sweeter success through a less competitive and more contented way of thinking will not go down easily with them. The possibility that we might consider being less than we can be and not always interested in personal victory or being number one will seem crazy to those who have become successfully normalized. The new sciences of sweet success show that, in this case, adjustment is not good for our health.

The "be all you can be, just do it, go for the gold, personal power, self-assertive" orientation of toxic success has dominated the last several decades. It has been celebrated in hundreds of books and success seminars. Despite this trust in competition as the way to ultimate happiness, there is very little research to support it. For example, researcher and psychiatrist Roderic Gorney writes, "Any objective appraisal of modern man will disclose that, in the overwhelming preponderance of human interactions, cooperation completely overshadows competition."

Because many scientists suffer from toxic success themselves and feel they must compete to be first in order to move up the academic ladder and to be "outstanding" in their respective fields, any challenge to this orientation is met with skepticism. Psychologist Marian Radke Yarrow has written about this scientific reluctance to consider a sweeter version of success. She comments, "Aggression, anxiety, guilt, and self-centered motives and behavior have been so much the cloth of theory and research that questions of a 'softer' side of . . . human beings seem almost unscientific."

I am not suggesting that we are necessarily any more naturally selfless and caring than we may be inclined to competitiveness. I am suggesting, however, that the almost total dominance of the competitive way of thinking about life and the cluster of the toxic success fallout characteristics are not beyond our control or capacity to modify them. We may not be naturally or unavoidably caring, cooperative, and loving, but research shows that we are not unavoidably anything at all -- and, as you have read, least of all naturally competitive.

Professional Nags

There are two additional assumptions related to competitiveness: to be inspired and to remain highly motivated. For those who are slacking off and just enjoying life and what they have instead of trying harder to have what everyone is supposed to want, a set of professional nags have emerged in the form of life competition coaches. They call themselves inspirationalists, motivationalists, or life strategists, and for a fee they will share their secrets of success and help us stay competitive.

Most of these parental surrogates offer little research or data to support their strategies other than their own personal success stories. They are talented talkers capable of moving audiences to tears and cheers with gut-wrenching stories of miraculous personal victories. They sound authoritative, confident, and convincing.

Most of these coaches are sincere and truly want to help others to be as successful as they are, but many of them are themselves severe sufferers from toxic success syndrome. Ask them, "How do you know?" and they will usually answer, "From my own personal experience" or "It's just common sense." These answers are usually followed by a series of well-practiced success stories and anecdotes suggesting that anyone can do anything if they will try hard enough to be a winner.

Despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the assertion that survival depends on tapping into some natural competitive instinct or that our success depends upon the defeat and failure of others, the toxicity of vigorously pursuing being number one has led to the emergence of hundreds of success seminars and books espousing their respective steps to success -- for some reason usually seven. Millions of dollars a year are spent by corporations to hire "motivational" speakers to stoke up their employees, and hundreds of "success" and "life planning" seminars are offered by groups such as The Learning Annex, Seminars for Success, and other similar companies. These may even have profit-sharing arrangements with the most well known self-help authors and gurus who offer their various programs on a regular basis. They often give keynote addresses at corporate incentive meetings attended by persons so highly motivated already that they have all but ruined their health and marriages to qualify to attend the meeting.

Seminars for Success

One example of the "success movement" is "The World's Top Success Seminar" offered repeatedly in several cities in the United States. It promises those who have not yet attained sufficient success in their lives that they, too, can "achieve high-level success," just like the famous motivationalists and inspirationalists on the program. All the success-deprived have to do is pay $250 to listen to "success-perts" such as Dennis Waitley speaking on "Being the Best," the "world's best motivationalist" Zig Zigler speaking on "See You at the Top," General Norman Schwartzkopf speaking on "From the War Room to the Board Room," the "world's foremost inspirationalist" Dr. Robert Schuler speaking on "Tough Times Never Last but Tough People Do," Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton speaking on "The Competitive Edge," and the "world's number one expert on success" Peter Lowe speaking on "Success Skills for Peak Performance."

Anyone who enjoys sweet success can become tired just reading the titles of these presentations. There were no lectures that offered "How to Be a Little Less Than You Can Be" or "Sitting Down and Shutting Up" or "The Joy of Contentment and the Danger of Competition" or "Living in SIN, the Dangers of the Self-Interest Norm."

Dozens of lecture bureaus now match organizations needing a "powerful motivator" or "inspirationalist" with professional speakers who compete among themselves to be the most requested speaker with a new, different, and better pitch. There has recently been somewhat of a "bliss backlash" among those who have been motivated and inspired by these presenters. They are beginning to question their increasing feeling of being somehow fooled or manipulated by a momentary false high induced by the motivationalist's performance. They complain that they are feeling a post inspirational crash a few weeks after the seminar or lecture that had aroused them to such a fevered pitch. The effects of the emotional pep rally wear off, and there is a feeling of being used or misled. These concerns have resulted in a quick adjustment by many speakers on success. As one speaker told me, "Now, life is in, so I'm speaking about that."

A lecture bureau president recently told me, "Balance is hot now." The current big seller on the lecture circuit is "How to Find Life Balance." The pursuit of the always-elusive balance can become something else for which we must strive. Working hard and competitively in order to qualify to attend an incentive meeting is stressful enough. To then be told by a motivational speaker to cut back, work less, and to try to live in more balance can lead to feelings of angry frustration with a company that requires constant striving. It seems that the organization is giving mixed messages, and rightly so. At the office, the message is "Be a winner. Don't be content with second place. Work until you drop if you have to, or you won't qualify to come to the success meeting next year." Then, in the success reward meeting, the message is "We value living in good balance with plenty of time to pay attention to your family and your physical and spiritual health." The result can be "balance stress."

Nature teaches that no system is ever in balance for long. Trying to achieve balance can lead to frustration and guilt when our attempts to win big and love a lot seem to fail. Trying to cut back, cram in, make schedule changes, or put in a little more quality time sound like good life-balancing strategies, but they seldom work. What is needed is a change of mind, a different view of success. However, this mind-set goes against the grain of the current model of success and is a very hard sell to those convinced that they can have it all by giving their all.

When we feel the stress of toxic success, we have a choice. We can revert to our primitive fight-or-flight response or intentionally select another stress response called "Tend and befriend." Life is never in balance for long, but if we elect to react to the stress of trying to be successful by thinking, "tend and befriend," we can feel a little more in control of our own life and suffer fewer negative physiological consequences.

The Forgotten Stress Response

"Fight or flight! That's the only way we cope with stress," said my professor years ago. For more than sixty years, our competitive nature has been assumed to be related to our built-in sympatho-adreno-medulary (SAM) response system. This is our automatic alarm state that pushes our body to the max so we can do something very aggressive to win over a predator or perceived source of severe stress, or to hightail it away as quickly as possible. When we feel challenged, our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and we become agitated. Hormones are released that signal the middle (medulla) area of the adrenal glands, which, in turn, secrets large amounts of stress hormones to help us confront or run away. As you have read, this SAM system can have a devastating effect on our body by lowering our immune system and overextending our heart and circulatory system. It is a full assault- or retreat-system, and it is at the root of our chronic competitiveness.

Psychologist Walter Cannon conducted the classic research on the SAM-mediated fight-or-flight response. His work and that of others clearly documented the powerful stress characteristics you have read about in this chapter. With laboratory research conducted primarily on male rats, he showed that our body reacts to stress through a sympathetic nervous system surge and associated stress-hormone release sequence described above." Until recently, it was assumed that the fight-or-flight response was our only natural intense reaction to perceived stress, but new research by psychologist Shelly Taylor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues suggests that learning from male rats has its serious limitations.

Taylor's research indicates that we do not always have to think of our-selves as in competition against others and the world. No matter how normal the fight-or-flight response has become, we have a choice of another, less toxic way of dealing with stress. She calls it the "tend-and-befriend response," and it is related to McClelland's RAS (relaxed affiliation syndrome).

Taylor's conclusions are based on the discovery that females tend to respond to stressful situations by first thinking about protecting themselves and their children rather than attacking the threat. They do so through nurturing rather than aggressive behaviors -- "tending" rather than "competing". They also are more likely to deal with stress by thinking about how to form alliances with an extended social group -- "befriending" rather than giving up and fleeing. As wives know, men seem more often to fight or take flight when they feel challenged or confronted, while the women turn to taking care of what matters most and seeking support in doing so. As one wife of a Toxic Success Syndrome sufferer said, "The more I complain that I don't get enough of his attention, the less attention he seems to pay to me".

Evolution of a "second" kind of response to stress may be related to the way our ancestors spent their days. While their cavemen were busy competing, fighting, and fleeing, cave women were home at the cave busy caring, tending, and befriending. They were the primary caretakers of the children, and getting killed fighting or deserting their offspring by running away would not have allowed their children -- their genes -- to continue.

The sweeter success I am suggesting is based on a more selective stress-survival approach. By using our capacity to attend, we can mentally select the stress response that best matches the situation reflecting rather than just reacting. Even though both genders suffer from it, toxic success is related to the dominance of the male way of giving meaning to life, love, and working. Being aware that loving and connecting can be as effective a stress mediator as competition or surrender is a helpful step in taking at least some of the toxicity out of success.

Now more than ever, I believe my mother's warning was right. Just because "everyone else is doing it" and trying to be successful in the normal way does not mean we have to or should do so. We do not have to be like cartoon characters running off a cliff with legs churning so fast they are a blur. We do not have to be propelled over the leading edge by toxic success's mixture of momentum and ignorance. If we don't pay attention to the toxic nature of success, we can end up taking a terrible fall. When we realize that the hormonal rush of competition can keep us going for only so long, our momentum will eventually slow and the gravity of our situation will drag us back down to the realization that we are not thriving. Instead, we are striving ourselves crazy.

This article was excerpted from:

Toxic Success by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. Toxic Success
by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Inner Ocean Publishing, Inc. ©2002.

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Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.About the Author

Paul Pearsall, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychoneuroimmunologist, a specialist in the study of the healing mind. He holds a Ph.D. in both clinical and educational psychology. Dr. Pearsall has published more than two hundred professional articles, written fifteen best-selling books, and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Monte/ Williams Show, CNN, 20/20, Dateline, and Good Morning America. Visit his website at


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