Nathanael Garrett Novosel, May 1 2024

Cooperation, Competition, and Growth

We all want our lives to be better tomorrow than they are today. That is the nature of life. Life is growth. But how do you get better most effectively—or how do you get to be the best that you can be?

The obvious answer is work/effort: to become more fit, you have to exercise. To improve a skill, you have to practice. To get a higher education, you have to learn and take many, many tests. To get from the current state to an improved future state, you have to exert effort.

But you can make more progress with another element: other people. Others can provide food or resources for you while you focus on your growth so you can be even better than you would if you had to do it yourself. You can also watch and learn from other people’s successes and see what you can gather from them. Other people can make you better in almost every way.

There are two primary forms of growth-enabling interaction between people: cooperation and competition. Both can have the impact of making each other better—what is known as “mutual benefit” or win-win. However, there are also ways in which those interactions can be one benefitting at the expense of another, known as sacrifice, defeat, exploitation, or win-lose. These are both interactions that encourage people to realize their potential.

Of course, life throughout history was mainly competition via what evolutionary psychology refers to as survival of the fittest. Life competed for resources, and the ones that got the resources and reproduced were the ones who could best survive given the environment and other organisms. Life is amazingly adaptable; migratory patterns, camouflage, and advanced sensory and brain function are all examples of life evolving to survive and thrive under a variety of conditions. Competition made life stronger—unfortunately, it was through life-or-death means, but it created some amazing creatures from birds and snakes to elephants and blue whales. Fortunately for humans, many of the life-or-death scenarios have been reduced and so competition isn’t usually life-threatening.

Cooperation is almost as old as competition, as even bacteria show signs of working together for survival. The idea of two living organisms working together was simply coincidental, such as symbiotic relationships between organisms that could survive and reproduce by behaving in ways that were mutually beneficial (or, at least, not harmful to each other). This has resulted in families and social species where groups form to protect themselves from threats in the environment. Human cooperation is at another level, with the assembly line, role specialization, laws, and other forms of cooperation causing a thriving, abundant society.

So which is better? Well, both mechanisms increase human capabilities—competition brings out the best in individuals to achieve a goal, while cooperation increases the outcome for any individual as well as the group. Arguably, in today’s society, almost all fair competition is cooperative in nature—people who compete within the rules are, by definition, cooperating. You don’t see too many people entering a Mixed Martial Arts competition wielding a knife to stab the other person, for example. That would be unfair competition and not cooperating by playing within the rules. So both mechanisms work together, and they have their strengths and weaknesses.

People and groups can even compete against themselves: they can complete a task in 5 minutes and then try again to complete it in 3. They are cooperating to attain a goal and competing against a benchmark completion time. Clearly, they couldn’t get to 3 minutes without cooperation, but they also might not have the desire or belief to get to 3 minutes without having seen it completed in 5 minutes and knowing that 3 minutes might be possible. It’s a fantastic combination of working together toward a better outcome that leads to amazing accomplishments.

So, if you’re trying to maximize your own potential as a person or a professional, you should use both to your advantage. You might not like cooperation sometimes (like if you don’t like others’ ways of doing things), and you might not like competition sometimes (like if you don’t want to fight someone). Only you can ultimately determine which combination of methods you will use. But just remember that both are useful, and in a modern society you can’t really avoid interacting with others—for mutual benefit (cooperation) and benchmarks (competition). And don’t forget that it’s about the optimal outcome for you, not what others think or what works for them. As long as you don’t act at someone else’s expense, maximizing your own growth is perfectly fine. Get help and find ways to push yourself so that you can succeed in whatever you want to achieve in life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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