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Competition or Alternative?

“Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech, when it brings no evil to others, is a pleasant thing.” – The Buddha

Words (and concepts) are indicators, not reflections, of reality.

The business world talks much about competition. You have Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter’s Five Forces, for example. It seems most strategy begins with where you are relative to the competition, all in pursuit of a uniqueness that sets you apart from the others.

By and large the social sector does not embrace the notion of competition. It runs counter to the ethos of doing good.

I’m of two minds. There is certainly a kind of aggressiveness--violence even--of thinking of others out there as competition. They are out to get mine and I need to protect mine! The more I have the safer I feel. The more competition there is, the more vulnerable I feel. It truly is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ paradigm. So, in this sense, the business world seems staged for paranoia and incessant warfare.

On the other hand, it is a fact that any of us have choices. And if someone chooses another’s solution over yours then, in fact, you’ve lost in the sense that the person (or organization) you’re hoping to enroll said ‘no’ to you and ‘yes’ to someone else, an alternative. Somehow ‘alternative’ feels softer. Certainly softer than ‘competition.’ Competition pits one against the other, a kind of fight to the death. The one must die for the other to survive. Alternative, on the other hand, feels more genteel, less cut-throat. It’s as if the alternatives are arrayed side-by-side and the prospect is merely selecting one (as opposed to rejecting the others). It’s nicer.

The net result is the same. One received the bounty of the relationship while the other went without. It doesn’t matter how we cloth it in language when it’s stripped to its essentials.

Semantics matter, yes, but if we’re ever going to get past our dualistic framing of things we need to be open to the meaning behind the words. The intent. That is, if my guard goes up every time someone uses the word ‘competition,’ or any of the other battlefield analogies that seem to pervade business-speak, I’m going to miss whatever was intended. Words are heuristics, shorthand for certain meanings. And we can become lazy in our use of heuristics. It’s handy to use the word ‘competition,’ and our entire educational system and much of our society has a kind of competitive ethos. Yes, the word can be off-putting, but what is the intent of the speaker?

Maybe the intent is for us to think critically and deeply about if and why we matter to the world. Of what value are we to anyone, such that they would engage with us, enroll in what we have to offer? That’s a worthwhile exercise. I’d hate to miss out on it because I got hung up on semantics


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