There’s a fraction too much friction

I went to a workshop on conflict resolution today. One of the first exercises we did was to find someone roughly the same height (my first challenge, since it was an all-female workshop and I am 185cm tall – I think I was setup!). We were asked to shake hands, and then still holding hands, we were told we would get a point for each time we pulled our held hands over to our own hip. “Ready, set, go!”

Pause for a moment. There you are, holding someone’s hand, and you get a point for each time you pull her hand over to your hip. What do you do?

I thought it was obvious. We simply collaborated, joining forces to swing our hands back and forth between each other’s hips. My partner and I stopped counting after around 20 touches each.

To my astonishment, almost everyone else in the room turned it into a strength competition, achieving 2 or 3 touches at most. Some achieved none.

Of course, this was a setup. We were expected to fail in the way that most of the room did.
But why should competition be the default reaction? The only competitive term the facilitator used was “points”.

There’s a fraction too much friction
There’s a fraction too much friction
Don’t believe in opposing factions,
What we need is some positive action
There’s a fraction too much friction

Fraction too much Friction. Tim Finn.

All too often we allow ourselves to be fooled into this kind of competitive stance. Get a more expensive car than the neighbours. Measure success by the size of your plasma screen tv. Compete for hits on your blog (oops, guilty yer honor). Win that competition. The only thing that counts is the gold.

Not meeting the expectations leads to tears in the Olympic pool, crankiness in the road race, drama in the gym. We even get competitive about activities like yoga, that are really the antithesis of competition.

Life isn’t a competition. If you think about it, getting to the finish line of life alone is the saddest possible outcome. We get much further, and score many more points, when we work as a team. Supporting each other adds a lot more value than the most prestigious gold medal.

Yet we get sucked into the competitive mantra. My parenting technique is better than yours. My baby sleeps more/crawled first/talked earlier. I earn more than you do. I work harder/ride further/run faster than anyone else.

What are we teaching our kids, as they avidly watch the olympics? That anything less than a gold medal is a crushing disappointment. That unless you are the best, fastest, strongest, world-record holding, super-human (oh, and super-thin) gold medal winner, you have failed. Which is patently ludicrous. Consider the cycling road race. It takes team work to win the road race (or a stage at the Tour de France, or indeed the Tour itself). Yet only one person wins the trophy.

We all fail. Every day. One of the most inspiring talks I ever heard was from Nobel Prize winning scientist Peter Doherty, who said something I will never forget: Get used to failure. You will fail a lot. And you will learn from it. You will fail a lot before you ever succeed.

And to that, I add this: On your own, you will never succeed at all. Behind every success story is one heck of a support crew.

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