It’s been a while since we posted in our low-carbon luxury series. If this is new to you, you can start at Part 1. We are currently on tenet six — stop competing.
My daughter recently attended a birthday party at an arcade with tickets and trinkets. We had fun, but when we tallied up, we discovered we only had enough for some worthless lumps of plastic — until I saw that one of those lumps was a jumping frog. We had enough points to get five or six frogs, but we just got one.
And it jumped far!
My daughter loved it. She showed it off proudly to all the other kids.
But then, as I buckled her into our cargo bike, she noticed that one of the other kids had more plastic goo-gaws than she did.
“Why did he get three things and I only got one?”
I explained to her that someone else probably got even more than him and someone else got more than that person and that if we compare ourselves to others we will only make ourselves miserable. Instead, it is better to focus on what we do have. On its texture and heft, on the way it makes us feel, on the way it leaps through the air in a delightful arc.
I don’t blame her for comparing her wondrous frog to those three inert lumps of plastic. Sometimes it feels as though we are pre-programmed to compare ourselves to others. In a very different world, Moses also found it necessary to remind us not to ‘covet’ our neighbour’s things.
The sixth tenet of low-carbon luxury is to stop competing.
At work, we chase the sales leader or nervously review a coworkers C.V.. On social media we compare likes and follower counts. At home, we might find ourselves ‘keeping up with Joneses’ comparing our old car to their brand new Audi.
Sometimes we win these comparisons and feel a little spark of triumph. Sometimes we lose, and get dragged down by a pound of self-doubt. But there is a more insidious problem here – the more constantly we compare ourselves, the more we become just a height rather than a full body rich with tones, textures, sensations and density. All our comparisons and contrasts are fundamentally empty. They are a hall of mirrors, a house of cards, a cacophony of chalk lines that prevent us from seeing within ourselves.
You are not a height or a resume or a collection of possessions. You are a human being. An immeasurable symphony. An endless sea of thoughts and feelings and memories. Every thing you are aware of in this wide, wide world is actually a thought within your mind, a feeling within your soul. All of it exists again within you.
‘Not Competing’ is two concepts in one. In addition to letting go of comparisons, it also encourages us to start cooperating. ‘Not competing’ means sharing. Do you need your own drill or could you just borrow one? Sharing things lets us simplify. It lets us spend less time maintaining our possessions. Sharing our insights, skills and favourite meals allows us to build community and social connections.
It is so strange to me that our society is built around competition, when cooperation makes us so much happier.
In my own field, academia, there is a hyper-competitive pressure to publish or perish. Even as a student, I know that if I don’t publish more and present at more conferences, my chances of landing a job are slim to none. This tallying of publications and presentations leads many academics to focus on their quantity of output rather than its quality. One encounters slightly different versions of the same article in different journals. People openly admit they are giving presentations or working on papers they know little about. All this despite the fact that most people feel there are already too many articles and papers to keep up with. And yet our brightest minds are whipping themselves to keep churning out more. With a child and precarious mental health, I have decided to ignore this pressure as best I can – and accept the consequences. And it’s a damn good thing, otherwise, at this very moment, I would probably be re-writing an essay on the comparative publicness of public libraries instead of doing climate organizing. The university, which seeks mainly its own growth and prestige, will pay for me to fly around the world tooting my own horn, but it won’t fund my climate organizing.
And if I had chosen to keep my nose to the grindstone, I would have to give up other unquantifiable goods like having emotional discussions about parenting with my colleagues, in order to publish, publish, publish. But those conversations have made me a better parent and made the university a slightly more human place.
And it is not just universities that have fallen prey to our obsession with competition. Look at Toronto’s relentless desire to become a ‘world class city.’ We built the UP Express straight from downtown to the airport while our public transit collapses. We have a fabulous new fountain of ceramic dogs on Front Street, in a neighbourhood that was already overwhelmingly beautiful, while public parks in the inner suburbs are barely even mowed. Municipal governments are eager to pump tax dollars into stadiums and international sporting events before they house their own homeless, just so they can keep up with the Tokyos or Londons of the world.
And all this competition, all these races to nowhere, are taking up the time of our best and brightest, preventing them from addressing our climate crisis. People tell me they have to fly for work or stay late at the office or invest in oil companies ‘to beat inflation.’ Look very carefully at the choices you are making and be certain that the work you are doing is about more than points or paying mortgage payments for a home that is bigger than your needs. There is other important work to be done of course – we must fight oppression and educate and care for one another. But if you are mainly working for imaginary points of one kind or another – I urge you to let those points go. What would happen if you asked to work four days a week? Or requested an unpaid leave? Maybe you wouldn’t even use that time to fight climate change – you might just use it to build closer ties with your friends or family or take care of an aging relative – but just that simple choice, to choose people over points, will improve your life and slow the pace of our relentless rush towards extinction.
‘Not competing’ doesn’t mean slacking off or accepting mediocrity – it means evaluating your performance against your own standards. Not competing means taking an assignment seriously, it means wrestling with tough ideas and actually learning something, rather than parroting back the professor’s viewpoint to get the easy A. When you stop competing, you will be happier because you will stop beating yourself up with someone else’s yard stick. When you stop competing, you will be more satisfied because you will spend your time doing the things that you think are important.
If you still have a few moments to linger here, I have included a video of Gou Miyagi – a Japanese skateboarder who doesn’t give a crap about jumping further or higher than other skateboarders. His videos are a joy to watch and have made him rightfully famous. Because it is always a joy to be around those who refuse to compete.