If there's one thing the world knows about Korea, and Koreans know about themselves, is that the modern nation has been built on competition.
Korea is famous for having been poorer on a per capita basis than Iraq, Liberia and Zimbabwe in 1960. It is now ranked 15th largest economy in the world.
Probably more meaningful than that to most people, Korean cars and consumer goods are now household names. We call our families on our Samsung Galaxy smartphones to tell them we're driving our Kias home and let's spend a night in watching our favourite programs on our LG flatscreens while the clothes wash in the LG front loader.
Am I grateful for Korea's hard work and competitive spirit? Absolutely. I enjoy it every minute of the day.
There is no doubt that the Korean-pioneered hyper-competitive model (which many other countries now seem to be moving toward) can achieve certain things extremely well. Particularly at a national or organisational level.
At an individual level? Not so much.
I have three kids in the early stages of education in Korea and have also worked in education for the Australian government, so I also know education-related statistics very well.
Korea is both No 1 in the OECD for suicide and for unhappiness of 10-18 year olds. I'm not sure that's the kind top ranking Korea desires.
So my question today is: is hyper-competition the ultimate model, or is there something else that would create better living?
Is competition real?
First, what is competition? To me, competition with others can exist only when things are defined by being good/bad, better/worse, more/less, right/wrong or some other version of finite linear polarity.
In other words, nations, companies, goods and other such things can compete in a marketplace by comparing a finite, pre-determined set of factors which are then ordered according to which is good/bad, better/worse, more/less, or right/wrong (profit/new customers/export growth/annual sales/customer feedback, etc).
And of course you can compete in games and quizzes. They're GAMES. Not your LIFE. (Oh, did I say I don't like to compete? At least not in life. But games? Watch out, I'll do my best to kill you.)
So what about you as a person? Your life and living? When you think about competition, does it make you feel light or heavy? Do you enjoy being being judged better or worse than someone else? Does it make you feel like giving your best and more? Is it an expansive or a contractive feeing?
What if competition was not real?
Let me ask you, are you the same as anyone else? No. At the risk of sounding cliched, every person is quite unique with infinite and amazingly diverse ideas and capacities. In which case, how can an apple (you) and a nightingale (the person next to you) compete at all?
Only by both become something else that they're not.
In which case, it should come as no surprise that people who are not being who they truly be, doing things they don't truly enjoy, only to be told they are less than they should be, are not happy, à la Korea.
So if competition, by definition, can't create better living, what else is possible?
What if we substituted "competition" with "contribution"? What sense do you have of these words? Which feels lighter, which feels more expansive?
In other words, instead of being limited to a race bound by arbitrary, externally defined parameters being told you have to win (or at least not lose), what if you were empowered to be the best you can be, whatever that looked like, and shared that with people around you?
What could you bring to the table of life if you were totally aware and free to be comfortable with who you are, excited about your life, inspired by your ideas, and enthusiastic about creating new and ever more generative things to the best and beyond of your abilities?
What amazing contribution could you be to your communities, and even national prosperity?
Sometimes what you do may seem crazy to other people at the time. Like Columbus sailing off the edge of the flat world and Steve Jobs dropping out of college.
So if you feel trapped, limited or frustration by being in a race for which you don't seem well equipped and are never enough, or if you feel frozen by the fear of failure, ask “What's the value of buying into competition as real?”
Then everyday ask “If competition is not real, what is the greatest contribution I can be to my life, family, business and communities?” and choose that.
That's the generative kind of competition, which is all about you choosing to become an ever greater contribution to you and your communities.
For the parents who want to fit into the current school system, what if instead of instilling the non-existent fear in your kids that their lives will be over if they don't don't pass THAT exam to get into THAT school or company, you teach them to see life as an endlessly curious learning adventure where tests are fun games to be conquered, and empower them to be the best they can be, whatever that looks like? Do kids like games? Oh YES.