Many years ago, I had a long debate with a friend of mine on the topic of competition vs. collaboration. His thesis was that both are necessary and always coexist as essential attributes of the human condition. My view, on the other hand, was that competition is a socially conditioned response into which we are educated, but which is not part of our blueprint.
I have thought about this conversation many times, as indeed the whole world seems to suggest that competition is the name of the game, starting at a personal level, and spreading from there to the corporate and national levels, seemingly infusing and directing every single aspect of our lives. ‘You have to compete in order to survive’, so the story goes. Really?
In recent years, there has been a slight shift in this thesis of ‘competition rules’, with the rising interest in soft power and what has often been referred to as ‘feminine’ leadership qualities, namely: empathy and collaboration. And yet, time after time I am appalled to read statements referring to empathy or collaboration “as a way to improve your business”. In other words, by hiring more women, and learning to listen to your consumers, you will make them happier and thus be able to compete better.
Once again, the feminine is only conceived of as ‘in service’ to the masculine; collaboration as a secondary attribute ‘in service’ to competition. As if we had been so thoroughly conditioned that we are incapable of breaking that mental casket and understanding that – whilst this is the underpinning or our current economic system – it is nothing but a social convention, a collective agreement born out of our minds. An agreement we have the power to change at any time.
Refreshingly, I had the pleasure of spending this week with evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, whose view on competition and collaboration breaks through the re-hashed opinions that otherwise crowd the mainstream airwaves. Her lifelong study of evolution since the Earth’s creation leads her to conclude that: “Species after species, from the most ancient bacteria to us, have gone through a maturation cycle from individuation and fierce competition to mature collaboration and peaceful interdependence. The maturation tipping point in this cycle occurs when species reach the point where it is more energy efficient to feed and otherwise collaborate with their enemies than to kill them off.” (See her article Ecosophy: Nature’s Guide to a Better World.)
In other words, competition corresponds to the ‘juvenile stage’ of the evolution of our species. Nothing more. Like many other species before us, we now have the potential to shed off our old belief systems, for in Elisabet’s words: “We know there is something obsolete, something hopelessly immature, about the competing and fighting and grabbing going on at the highest levels of human society.”
At a time when global humanitarian and environmental crises keep multiplying, I can only hope that we become conscious of facing this tipping point. That we embrace a species-wide paradigm shift in how we view ourselves and our societies. That – using Elisabet’s metaphor – we collectively mature from the juvenile caterpillars we currently embody into the butterflies we are called to be.