A Meditation on Human Nature

Full-page ad in the Toronto Star last Monday

Every time someone says that their preferred solution is “common sense,” I know they don’t have a great argument for it.

Every time someone says that it’s a “best practice,” I know they’re done thinking about possibilities.

And every time someone bases their argument on “human nature,” I know they’re just universalizing their own traits.

This is part of the most famous motivational speech ever given by Vince Lombardi:

There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that’s first place. I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don’t ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win…. It is a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men.

Competition is human nature, yes. But so is compassion, and admiration of the excellence of others, and the need for love and affection, and the desire to learn and to become greater than we are. We are a recipe, not a single ingredient.

I loved watching the NBA finals this year, not merely because I wanted the Warriors to win another title. I wanted BOTH teams to excel, so that we could all be treated to the wonders of superhuman performance from stars and role players alike. And when the Warriors lost game 6 and the series, my mild disappointment was far outweighed by the awe and joy of having seeing thirty men regularly do impossible things for six straight games.

And clearly, based on the advertisement at the top of this post, the Warriors felt much the same.

One of my characters, a pool player and former Benedictine monk from the 1950s, once gave a very different kind of motivational speech:

The realm of competition is the mythic frame of our culture.  We are a gladiatorial society, measuring our worth in medals or dollars, in recognition or simple blood-spattered survival. Endless competition has left us narcissistic, unable to see beauty on its own terms. Competition is a paradox. It is the realm of the weak, the insecure, those who must constantly prove to themselves their own worth at the expense of others.

The mythic frame tells us that it is only through competition that excellent work is honed, that in the absence of competition we would do work merely adequate to immediate need. But it is only in doing work that we name as worthy of the doing that we move through the action to its greater depths. It is true that we are frail, that we tire and cut corners and lose focus, and that those frailties result in our work being less than it might. Although competition is thought to root out those weaknesses, a more powerful tonic is to continually surround ourselves with work that we admire, whether in our field or another endeavor entirely.  To mark for ourselves what is worthy of our aspiration, to remind ourselves of glory.

If we can participate in a competition without investing our self-worth in the outcome, if we can focus only on the work at hand rather than on future states of pride or embarrassment, then we have gained from the experience.  We have confronted the mythic frame and found it to be the thin façade that it is.  We have seen past the curtain to the truth.

This is what human nature can look like:

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images