Cooperation and Competition

I believe that the best solutions come from diverse opinions.

Several years ago, I participated in a simple activity: in a large group we were individually presented with a list of items and asked how we would prioritize taking them if we we about to escape a sinking ship. Essentially, we were asked to identify which items would be most essential to survival. After individually ranking these items we formed small groups and discussed our answers, generating a collective list of priority items.

As a final step we scored our lists – the version we created individually and the version we created collectively. In a room full of 100 people, every one was more likely to survive when they had input from others. Alone, we had each demonstrated imperfect judgement and imperfect knowledge.

That experience helped me realize that cooperation isn’t just nice, it isn’t just something you do to feel good about yourself or to garner a warm and fuzzy feeling. It is literally about survival; about generating better solutions.

Our world is facing many serious problems – economic instability, global warming, and diminishing resources, just to name a few. These problems are non-trivial, and they require non-trivial solutions.

There is not one of us who can do it alone.

So I strongly agree that the best way for a society to prepare its young people for leadership in government, industry, or other fields is by instilling in them a sense of cooperation, not competition.

Those who would disagree with this statement would likely highlight the valuable role that competition can play.

In Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a futuristic novel of rich social commentary, one of his characters outlines a parable illustrating the importance of competition. In this space-fairing universe, there is a world called Sanctuary. Of all the worlds in the galaxy, Sanctuary is unique. Not only is it suitable for human life, it experiences virtually no radiation from space. There is no element forcing hardship, mutation, or change. While at first this sounds good, the full picture Heinlein paints illustrates why competition, while perhaps unsavory, can be beneficial.

You see, nothing on Sanctuary every changes. The life there never evolved because it was never forced to evolve. Anyone who moves there becomes virtually trapped in time – genetically, socially, and technically stagnating as they face no challenges to their fitness to survive, no competition forcing them to be better.

Sanctuary, Heinlein concludes, is nice respite to visit, but it is never a place to stay.

I appreciate Heinlein’s vision and I agree that competition does have value. Humanity itself has indeed only evolved as a result of generations of competition.

However, surely as a society we can provide an appropriate balance. I don’t suggest we coddle our young people, encouraging them to never face a hardship or to never know real trouble. But surely – life is hard enough as it is.

The challenges we face individually and collectively are monumental, and it won’t help to be fighting amongst ourselves. As a society we ought to encourage our young people to collaborate, to interact fairly with others, and to improve themselves by learning from others.

There will be plenty of opportunities for competition, plenty of opportunities for young people to get their heart broken and to grow from the hard lessons of life. But as the stewards for the next generation, we must instill a sense of cooperation. Indeed, that is the best thing we can do to support their future leadership.

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This is actually a response to the writing prompt, “how much do you agree with the statement: best way for a society to prepare its young people for leadership in government, industry, or other fields is by instilling in them a sense of cooperation, not competition.” Hence the somewhat formulaic response. Obviously, there are more than two options, and I’m not sure cooperation and competition are actually diametrically opposed.

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