Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Art of Winning without Winning

As most of you know, I’ve done a fair amount of martial arts in my time. Over the years I’ve gone from Karate to Kung Fu until finally settling down in Aikido and in all that time hanging out with martial artists, there is one question that seems to come up more than any other.

“Which style is really the best?”

I’ve spent hours, particularly after a few drinks, debating the various advantages of different styles from Muay Thai to Capoeira . It’s sort of like comic book fans arguing over, Who is stronger, Superman or the Hulk. Fun to talk about but no real answers.

However, all that changed with the rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts. Suddenly, it was very clear which styles were most useful in a cage match, and Aikido, the art I’ve studied for almost a decade, was not among them.

All of which begs the question, Why am I wasting my time studying a martial art that isn’t “The Best?”

We all want the best: Best car, best house, best relationships. We want to elect the best politicians who have the best ideas and will execute the best policy. We want our children to go to the best schools so they can get the best jobs and live the best lives.

The question is, “How do we find the best?

The answer, almost invariably, is through competition. We turn the choices into combatants, put them in a cage, and have them fight it out. Our legal, political and, in many way, economic systems are predicated on the theory that, that which wins is inherently better than that which loses. In fact, “The Best” is so closely linked to winning as to be almost axiomatic.

However, we rarely stop to ask if this competitive system is really giving us the results we want.

Imagine this cage match:

In one corner, a 300 pound professional football player who has taken five kickboxing classes at the local Y. In the other corner is an 85 pound, 13 year old who has been a dedicated Jujitsu practitioner since he was five years old.

Will their match teach us anything about the relative merits of the martial arts involved, or even about the individual’s skill in the practice of those arts? No, because the strength, speed, size and athleticism of the football player will overwhelm any advantage of skill or style the 13 year old might have.

Does that sound like a ridiculous scenario?

Well, try this one.

Imagine two politicians are running for office. One is a tall handsome, articulate, well financed neophyte who knows nothing whatsoever about economics, foreign relations or public policy. The other, is a short, poorly dressed, ugly woman with a pronounced stutter and a deep, understanding of practical governance.

Is the person you want to see in office the same as the person who would win the election?

Once again, the traits necessary for winning are often very different from the ones we hoped the competition would favor.

To make matters worse, the media, who should be guiding us through the complex issues are, instead, covering the competition as if it were just another sport. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who made a mistake? Who can win?

“Who can govern?”rarely enters into the conversation.

The idea behind our political system is kind of like a cage match, except instead of a battle of technique it is supposed to be a battle ideas. Unfortunately, rather than bringing us the most qualified people with the best ideas, the crucible of election tends to sensationalize conflict, water down content and polarize the country.

This reality is so deeply woven into our political system that our highly qualified but, in all likelihood, unelectable woman would probably never even bother to run.

Our most important institutions are predicated on the idea that competition brings out the best. The result is a criminal system that favors the rich and penalizes minorities and an economic system that has concentrated the vast majority of our wealth in the hands of a privileged few while millions of others fight their own “cage matches” everyday merely to survive.

You would think that our incredibly competitive marketplace would ensure the healthiest, most durable products in the world, instead we get fast food hamburgers and electronics which are out of date almost before we unwrap them.

The American media system is more than competitive. It’s “Dog eat Dog”, with producers, networks, publishers and studios fighting tooth and nail for our attention. If winners are “The Best” then the most successful shows, magazines, movies and newscasts must be the most intelligent, well made, informative, dramatic and high quality media in the world, right?

Wrong. The opposite is true because the rules of the competition do not favor quality only eyeballs. The game is to get you to tune in and the easiest way to win is not by appealing to the best in us, but often the worst.

Of course, the biggest, most destructive and most terrifying cage match in the world is war and when it comes to war, the American military is the best of the best. They are the best trained, best supplied, best organized and in, every way, most powerful military organization the world has ever seen. So, if they’re so great, why have they struggled so much in places like Iraq and Afghanistan?

The answer is: They haven’t. By every military measure, the US Armed Forces have performed in an exemplary manner, defeating Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in a matter of weeks and easily capturing the Taliban strongholds of Kabul and Kandahar..

Unfortunately, our expectations didn’t end with winning the war. We wanted them to win a peace. We expected an organization trained to destroy an enemy to become diplomats and nation builders. We demanded they navigate ancient religious conflicts, rebuild damaged infrastructure, and establish new governments for cultures they didn’t understand while surrounded by sectarian violence and the constant threat of terrorism.

The training, equipment and even mindset which makes the American military so formidable in war has worked against them because the skills necessary to succeed, sensitivity, patience, acceptance, restraint cooperation and compromise are non-competitive and as such are fundamentally antithetical to any military mission.

Or, to put it more simply, asking the same organization to conquer a country and save it from itself is almost a contradiction in terms.

Can you imagine a top MMA fighter trying to defeat and provide medical, psychological and economic aid to his opponent at the same time?

Make no mistake, I am not writing this to criticize our armed forces, martial artists, or anyone else fighting the good fight for what they believe is a good cause. I merely want to examine, more carefully, the premise that competition is the only pathway to success.

Competition can bring out the best in us and often does. However, it can also bring out the worst and the harder we try to win, whether it’s selling the most products, beating the other guy in an election or winning a war, the more we tend to lose sight of why we started competing in the first place.

In our families, friendships, workplaces and communities the biggest challenges we face are almost always about working together. There are no awards for the best cooperator and you can’t win at sensitivity or flexibility but those are the skills we need everyday to be a good friend, father, sister or citizen. They also help you to lead a happy life.

And it’s not just on an individual level. If we are to solve the biggest challenges our planet faces, the environment, energy, poverty and religious, racial and cultural conflict we must find ways, not to compete but to cooperate.

If human society is to survive, the only way to “win” is to stop trying to beat the other guy and start working together for the common good.

All of which, I suppose, brings us back to why I study Aikido.

The truth is, if you’re goal is to win a no-holds-barred cage match then Aikido isn’t for you, because the purpose of Aikido isn’t to hurt, but to harmonize, to meet anger with compassion and violence with gentleness. In the end, the goal is not to end conflict by destroying an enemy. The goal is to resolve conflict by the destroying the idea enmity itself.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Art of Competing
I truly enjoyed Steve’s The Art of Winning without Winning. I am in synch with much of what he has so clearly presented.
I am a manufacturer and I don’t like competition. We need to continually improve our products, our quality and our service. When we stop improving we will be out of business with no safety net. That’s private enterprise. We compete nationally and globally. In some countries it’s ok to copy products, other places there are bitterly low wages and a jobsite injury often means you are fired. In many states and countries the tax and regulatory structure is very different than California. I don’t like competition but our customers benefit and we grow.
Building alliances, cooperating, and teaming agreements are all active within successful (winning) US companies in the industrial sector. Win-win transactions are the goal of many companies in America and it makes it healthy and fun to conduct business with that approach. The nicer we are the more we win.
Have heart. While your analogy of how we choose our leaders is often true, you can find examples where individuals with governance skills have been chosen over appearance or style. The Romans forced Claudius to the throne and if you “Google Image”, the Mayor of Oakland you won’t find a glamor girl. Let’s hope that in our failing State of California and our bumbling nation we can transcend popularity for governance skills to act on common goals. Winning is cooperating.
And the news media? They profit from our angst.
All the best,

3:12 PM  

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