On Competition

By Jon Gilson

Wars start over this shit. Someone wants what you’ve got. They want to stop you dead in your tracks, clutching nothing, while they sprint forward. Their success hinges on your destruction, a zero-sum game with a singular outcome.

You’ll do anything in your power to stop this. Sometimes, you’ll worry about passing ethical muster. Sometimes, you won’t.

There is nothing that gets at the root of manhood, personhood, faster than competition. Everything we do is a proxy for the hindbrain’s hardwiring: win, win, win. Own the resources. Be the champion. Dominate, show your fitness, pass on your genetic code.

It’s no wonder you bristle at rivals. You both want the same thing, whether you mask it in the civility of organized society or not. You are at odds, the tools at hand a one-degree substitution for clubs, mauls, kicks and punches. In the absence of violence, you’ll demonstrate your wins with more. More clients, more money, more shiny objects, more more.

You’re a small business owner. You’ve started an Affiliate, a hub, your own community of like-minded crazies, willing to drive themselves into the deck in the name of fitness. You know all their names, you love them, you love what they’ve accomplished, you love what you’ve accomplished.

And now one of them wants it for their own. They want to leave your fold, become the competition, turn love on its head, and open a Box down the road. Your reaction will take one of two predictable courses: give in to your hindbrain, shun, crush and kill, or observe the trappings of community and give your blessing and support.

Let me help. Your hindbrain is stupid. That’s why it’s in the back, doing the easy jobs: respirating, drooling, defecating, and flipping the fight or flight coin. This isn’t the guy you go to when you’re dealing with other human beings, especially those you love. Leave dumbass in the back, and let’s think about this.

Competition is not an all-or-nothing affair, a simplistic win-or-lose battle. This is merely our most shallow interpretation, our caveman explanation. Competition is nuanced. Its benefits come from engagement, not end state.

In competition, one finds the need to be better—in its absence, the status quo. Allowing competition to flourish, seeing it succeed despite your best efforts, creates a pair of spurs, hard spikes slapping into your flanks, driving you to go faster, do better, think harder, be smarter. The absence of competition creates suckery. The only business in town, the only scientist in the discipline, the only student in the program—all are doomed to irrelevance, slow, easy, comfortable mediocrity. No one will work hard when working mildly will do, yourself included. No matter what your ninth grade report card said, no one is self-motivated.

The most mind-bending thing about creating competition: you’ve got a new employee. Your rival will come to work every day, forcing you to be better. Somewhat disappointingly, you’ll do the same for him. You work for each other now. Together, you’ll build a virtuous cycle of one-upmanship whereby the benefit of being better accrues to your customers, and by the inexorable laws of excellence, to you.

Returning to the question of the new Box, ask yourself if there’s room in town for both of you. Then rapidly, without hesitation, determine there isn’t—and allow it to happen anyway. Help your new competitor get started, and simultaneously decide you’re going to kick the crap out of him. Tell him all your new ideas, and then implement them faster and with more style. Invite him to co-host a competition, and bring more ass-kicking athletes to the arena. Destroy the monopoly of you, and be better for it.

Your success does not hinge on domination, on the win, standing on a pile of snapped and discarded foes. It hinges on the existence of those foes, on their success, on the beautiful trajectory created by head-to-head rivalry and your never-ending willingness to engage in competition’s brutal back and forth.

If you’re the only Box in town, you’d better hurry up and do something about it.

Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster and former member of CrossFit’s Level I Seminar staff. Photo courtesy of Patrick Cummings.