“Competition holds us back from doing our best work” 
- Alfie Kohn
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“Competition holds us back from doing our best work” 
- Alfie Kohn


February 5th, 2017

How often have you heard that competition in a free market leads to innovation and better ideas and products? Alfie Kohn, a well-respected educator and psychologist, suggests instead that "competition holds us back from doing our best work," making me think more critically about the value placed on competition. 

10 years ago Apple released a new phone and it changed the world of mobile technology, putting a very powerful computer in everyone's pockets. At the time the “competition” were not what you would call the best, they were companies that had competed with each other (Nokia, Motorola, Microsoft…) to make what were fairly mediocre products. They were making products that allowed you to make good phone calls and that’s about it. 

Apple came along and didn't compete with them; they solved a completely different problem. They looked at what people really wanted to do--consume and share media--and then tacked a phone onto it to make something that really is the way you want to communicate. This different approach was not caused by competition but almost the opposite. It was caused by Apple wanting to go their own way, to, as they said, “Think Different”. 

Another clear example of this is Nintendo. For a long time Nintendo had been out-played by Sony, which kept making more and more powerful games consoles. So, instead of competing with Sony, Nintendo decided to play by their own rules and create a low-powered games system that was fun. At the time no one thought this would work, and on paper they were bound to lose, but in fact the opposite happened, the Wii was a massive success.  

A final example from an entirely different field: Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors couldn't compete directly with LeBron James’ speed, size and ability so instead, they invented a completely different strategy of 3-point shooting to win.

In these examples, the “players" didn't compete but instead rethought the problem space and played by their own rules to win. Competition for the most part only leads to incrementalism; for truly breakthrough ideas you have to walk your own path which can be scary, but can have huge advantages. If by following your own path you create an innovation, in the marketplace you will have no competition. No competition allows you time and space to build your advantage. It took the Android ecosystem almost 3 years to catch up to Apple and by that time Apple had established a brand leadership position in the space that meant even though Android far outstripped Apple's sales and numbers the iPhone is still seen as the gold standard. 

To describe a problem is part of the solution. Competition stops you from fully describing the problem because it forces you to play by set rules that narrow your view. I would urge you to examine how some rules can be bent, while others can be broken, to create your own unique ideas. 



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Kaushik Panchal

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