The collaborative nature of true competition

I am reading Clay Shirky‘s book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and will share my thoughts once I’ve completed it, but wanted to share this little tidbit now.

The idea of true competition is one that really resonates with me and is something I’ve been trying to make sense of in a work and business environment. Shirky has a great description of the collaborative nature of true competition (page 102):

The spread of these [skateboarding] techniques was driven by spirited competition. We often think of competition as pure conflict, the way firms compete in a market, happy to drive one another out of business. In groups of people who know one another and share the same interests, though, competition can take on a collaborative quality. the Z-Boys competed not to end the development of skating technique but to extend it. Instead of trying to come to some final or right way of skating, or to master some hidden and uncopyable technique, they developed new styles and tricks out in the open, challenging in order to invite a response.

They weren’t doing it to “win“, they were doing it to learn, and to create, because they loved it.

If you haven’t read the book, I can already tell you that I recommend it (even though I haven’t finished reading it). In the meantime, take a few minutes and check out his TED Talk on how cognitive surplus will change the world:

You should also take a few minutes and read Luis Suarez’s thoughts on the video.

Doing nothing

It is better to do nothing than to be busy doing nothing.

Doing nothing is refreshing, a chance to recharge if only for a little bit. Your mind is free to wander where it may, with or without conscious intervention. Free association of thoughts runs rampant, resulting in ideas that would never have come to you otherwise. I’m sure you’ve had these moments, where you stopped trying to solve a problem and the answer came to you, “out of the blue”.

(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about meditation or anything like that. While that is no doubt beneficial, meditation is doing something, not nothing.)

On the other hand, being busy doing nothing is mentally draining, an imposition of purposeless order on your thoughts that prevents your mind from resting and recharging.

And yet there are many people – including what I would estimate as a high percentage of managers or other “leaders” – who are made very uncomfortable just by the idea of doing nothing. Never mind actually doing nothing. Or, heaven forbid, letting their employees do nothing.

This mentality comes in large part, of course, from the factory approach to work: if you are not doing something, nothing is getting made. But that just isn’t true in many forms of work today. New, good ideas are the products of today, and these can’t be created on an assembly line.

But this discomfort with our own thoughts also comes from the anxieties and worries that we keep with us. It is hard to willingly let you mind wander when you know that it may wander to places you’d rather not go.

Alannis Morrisette describes this quite well in this snippett of song:

Why are you so petrified of silence,
Here can you handle this?
(silent pause)
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

Take some time today to do nothing. And then go out and do something.

Hero worship

Which type of person do you prefer to work with, someone who thrashes early and gets things quietly done, or someone who swoops in at the end for some last minute heroics?

Which type of person receives the most attention in your organization? Are you more likely to hear, “John was squared away and relaxed when it was time to ship” or “Did you see that incredible last push John made, working all night so he could meet ship date?”

Which type are you?

Next time you find yourself in a situation where you see some people cramming like crazy, and others sitting back apparently doing nothing, take a moment to think about which ones you’d prefer to have work with you to ship your product.

How can I join the conversation?

“Keep me in the loop.”

This all too common expression is – or should be – the bane of anyone trying to implement, or just use, a social media approach to collaboration and communication. What it really means is…

“I want to know what’s going on with your project, but I don’t care enough to actually spend my own time keeping up with what’s going, so please take time out of your own busy schedule and figure out what information I need to know and then make sure you get it to me. I may or may not bother to read it once you’ve sent it to me.”

The next time someone asks you to “keep me in the loop”, let them know where the conversation is happening and offer to grant them access. If they don’t take you up on it, then they don’t really care. If they do take you up on it, they may never join in. But they might, and their participation will be that much more valuable because they are there intentionally, not accidentally.

Of course, this goes both ways. Next time someone talks to you about a project that you are interested in, don’t ask them to keep you in the loop. Instead, ask them, “How can I join the conversation?”

If your purpose is to win…

…you have already lost.

Competing – and hopefully winning – can be a key part of any journey, but it shouldn’t be the destination. If reaching your destination is all you have to look forward to, what happens when you get there?

Or as I tell my sons: the goal of competition is, of course, to win, but your purpose – for training, for competing – should be to learn, to grow. To have fun.