Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Competitive Learning System-Drawbacks, Pt. 2

Drawbacks of the Competitive System
First, to understand how easily human behavior can be negatively influenced by an underlying system, consider a famous psychology experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971 by Professor Phillip Zimbardo. In this experiment Zimbardo set up a prison environment in a basement of one of the university buildings, then randomly divided his students into roles of prisoner or guard. The experiment, designed to last for two weeks, was terminated before the end of the first week due to the severity of the results, which included radical behavioral changes in virtually all of the participants. Within several days the student/guards began abusing the “prisoners”, who rapidly succumbed to a victim mentality. This experiment clearly demonstrated how profoundly a system can affect the behavior of the people within it, even to the point of distorting their usual personalities, behaviors and previously held values. In the following section, I show how the competitive system produces specific negative behavioral effects in ordinary people.

Dampens Motivation
Initially, competition does produce motivation as we strive to be winners, but mounting losses can quickly undermine that motivation. If losing continues, staying motivated can be a Herculean task. Many sports psychologists are now saying that to maintain competitive motivation, participants need to win two out of every three contests they enter. Because most people don’t win anywhere close to that percentage, motivation frequently wanes; after a certain percentage of “failure”, resignation often occurs. This is why so many people drift from one activity to another, looking for a place where they can be successful — where they can be winners.

There’s another disturbing aspect to a competitive approach. Researchers have found that we only stay motivated if the rewards increase. After a period of time, if the rewards don’t increase, motivation levels tend to decrease. This is a common phenomenon in professional sports. How often have we heard of athletes who are already making millions of dollars wanting to renegotiate their contract because they feel they are worth more? If they don’t get their way, their motivation drops.

Lowers Performance Levels
Contrary to popular belief, competition actually lowers performance levels for almost all participants. Yes, competition can induce motivation in many instances. But as I have noted, much of this motivation involves fear of the consequences of failure. Psychologist Alfie Kohn, who has long explored the dynamics of competition, noted, “We are carefully trained to believe that a competitive arrangement results in superior performance.” From his research, Kohn concluded: “Superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.” The pressure of needing to win makes people tighten up, which universally lowers performance levels.

In a study completed in 1981, researchers David and Roger Johnson and colleagues published a paper analyzing the results of 122 different studies that examined whether competitive or cooperative environments induced higher performance. The results were eye opening: Over half the studies indicated that cooperation produced higher performance levels, more than one-third showed no statistical advantage to either cooperation or competition, and less than 10 percent showed a competitive environment producing higher performance. Philosopher John McMurtry concluded: “The pursuit of victory works to reduce the chance for excellence in the true performance of the sport. It tends to distract our attention from excellence of performance by rendering it subservient to emerging victorious.”

Diminishes Enjoyment
Competition is most enjoyable for winners. For “losers” it is rarely exciting or enjoyable. This is especially true when we consistently lose more than we win, which is the case for the majority. I have never met anyone who didn’t like winning, nor met anyone who enjoys losing! We see this in fans living and dying with their team; ecstatic when their team is winning, and angry or depressed when they are losing.

The “thrill of victory” adrenaline rush can become an addiction. Many people compete in one way or another for their whole lives, seeking the high that winning gives them. It makes them feel good about themselves; makes them feel they matter and are worthy. Many people use competition as a means to get approval and self-esteem. But the downside to chronic competition is that when winning is over-emphasized, our perspective becomes skewed and our character often becomes unbalanced. We lose sight of other more important values, like cooperation, trust, compassion, and the development of true human maturity.

Raises Stress Levels
People today are under a great deal of stress, whether from work, school, family, sports, relationships, or from having to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Since 9/11, stress levels have increased in a large segment of the American population, across all socioeconomic groups. The negative effects of stress include increased physical and emotional tension, uncertainty and fear, a weakening of the immune system, decline in health, and less overall enjoyment of life. Must we add to the unavoidable stresses of life the unnecessary burden of ubiquitous competition?

There is pressure and tension all around us, and we accept it as natural or at least inevitable. But are we like the proverbial frog that, when put into water that is slowly heated to a boil, calmly lets itself be cooked to death?

Undermines Healthy Character Development
One of the main benefits attributed to competition by supporters is that it develops character. But it can be equally shown that competition undermines, weakens and retards the development of real character, or human maturity. In a competitive environment we are taught to view others as adversaries, to find their weaknesses and exploit them, and even to use psychological tactics and strategies to distract and destabilize them. A competitive system often breeds hostile, mistrustful relationships between opponents, and a hostile environment. Competition can even turn friends into adversaries.

The “best” competitors show no compassion to their opponents; compassion could mean the difference between winning and losing! We must destroy their confidence, or they might defeat us! This approach pays dividends in the present, and in future encounters with our defeated opponents, over whom we establish a psychological advantage. In my forty-five years of experience in sports, I’ve seen this strategy taught, with no malice of intent, by a majority of successful coaches. These coaches believe that it is essential to instill this “competitive attitude” or “killer instinct” in people who are going to be winners at a high level.

A competitive mindset keeps many from developing admirable character traits, not to mention fulfilling their highest potential. Given the misbehavior we often see in competitions of various kinds, it might even be argued that the competitive mindset is a form of temporary insanity. It is much easier to maintain high ideals and play by the rules when we are winning. Once we start losing, however, the possibility that we will resort to negative alternatives to increase our chances of winning — such as overly aggressive behavior, intimidation, and cheating —increases. You have to win to be seen as a winner, and a certain percentage of people will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Highly competitive environments encourage a win-at-all-cost mentality that is a major contributor to destabilizing character development.

Conversely, those who don’t do well in competitive environments may end up avoiding all competition, which can also weaken character. Chronic failure undermines self-confidence, lowers self-esteem, produces feelings of inferiority, stimulates frustration, anger, resignation, sadness, and even depression and despair. Being told it is okay to lose doesn’t change this; we all know “losers” are looked down on in our competitive culture.

In a competitive system, the only way feelings of inferiority can be avoided is by winning enough to balance out the losses. This is problematic. Because by design the competitive system creates far more losers than winners, most people never win enough to balance out their losses. Feelings of inferiority stay with them, often for a lifetime. Feeling inferior may provide motivation to improve and excel, but in the long run it doesn’t bring out the best in us, nor help us to be our best.

I have seen the results of this cycle manifested with tennis players and other athletes. People who have lost a lot need to balance out their feelings of inferiority in order to feel good about themselves. A corrosive striving for superiority over others often arises from these experiences. Some go from one competitive activity to another, looking for a place where they can be the winners. The truth is that, in a competitive system, losers need to defeat somebody and exact their revenge in order to feel better about themselves. It takes a long time and a lot of positive feedback to change this dynamic. In a competitive environment, it’s extremely difficult to make up the deficit.

Finally, the more success we achieve in a competitive environment, the more people want to beat us. Like Old West gunfighters, we have to be constantly on the alert, looking over our shoulder to make sure no one is gunning for us. It’s easy to get a little edgy and make poor decisions in this environment. Emotions such as fear and anger can motivate us, but they don’t serve us well as dominant character traits. Yet these emotions tend to be forged in competitive environments, and through premature competition.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Chapter 2—A Competitive Learning System, Part 1

Our social framework is based on competition, so it follows that our educational system is also competitively based. Hardly anyone can imagine sports, education, business, or politics without competition. From a young age, we find that virtually every activity in which we participate includes some form of competition. Whether in school or sports, shortly after we get involved, we face an opponent in one form or another. When we’re graded on a curve, when we take the PSAT to prepare us for the SAT, and even when we are asked to raise our hands if we know the answer, we are competing against other students. Few of us question the competitive approach. We tend to think of it as organic and essential; people must compete to succeed, the logic goes, so they had better get used to the pressures of competition from the start. The problem is not with competition per se, but how and when we go about having people compete.

Premature Competition
Introducing competition into the learning process prematurely — before we master fundamental skills — causes many problems. This is perhaps most obvious in the field of sports, so I will use that arena to illustrate this concept. It is not uncommon to see five-year-olds playing competitive soccer games after two weeks of practice, which as a rule means two one-hour practices. What skill level can be achieved in two hours? Many teams practice very little together once they start playing their weekly game; often their weekly competition is their only practice. This is putting the cart before the horse! These children need to spend non-competitive time running around the field, having fun, kicking the ball to one another, getting fit and coordinated, practicing and developing their skills, and allowing cellular memory to pattern the basics into their body/minds before competition enters the picture.

This competitive approach is common in youth sports. In baseball I’ve seen seven-years-old pitchers who couldn’t throw the ball over the plate, and batters who couldn’t make contact with a slowly pitched ball. Why do we make these kids compete before they’ve learned the basic skills? One of the few sports where competition is postponed until fundamental skills have been developed is gymnastics. This is because gymnastics can be very dangerous, and the consequences of premature competition (before developing fundamental skills) are potentially severe.

Even when children aren’t competing against one another on a conscious level, they are often being pushed to get to the point where they can compete. This so called games-based approach to learning is widespread. Players are supposed to learn their skills while playing competitively. Indeed, some learning is going on during competition, but a lot of it negatively impacts a player’s development. Many skills are not being developed, and many less than optimal habits are being patterned into the physical, mental, and emotional cellular memory.

In the competitive system, winners are lionized; the rest are second-class citizens, often regarded as also-rans, or worse, losers. The world of competition is a jungle. Is it really a good idea to expose children to this jungle before they are prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally? It is hard enough even when they are prepared. The question to ask is whether the competitive system truly produces excellence, or just a set of winners of uncertain ability? With winning such a premium and so strongly desired, it would make sense at the very least to learn the essential skills of an activity before being thrust into competition. But that is not how we are taught.

Many assume that exposing children to competition at an early age prepares them for all the competition they will face throughout life. But as you will see, this is not the case. This is the drop-the-baby-in-the-deep-end-of-the-pool theory of learning. If the “baby” sinks instead of swimming, it is assumed, in the competitive mind-set, not to “have what it takes.” Putting people, especially children, into competition before they have developed effective skills, can be painful, even traumatic. Many will be scarred emotionally. The resulting embarrassment, shame or lowered self-esteem will hold them back in other areas of life, and diminish their chances of achieving their potential.

When a society places so much importance on winning, losing is often experienced as personal failure. We’ve all heard that it doesn’t matter if we win or lose, it’s how we play the game. But these hollow words do not reflect the reality we see all around us, and the message we are “told” in countless ways. The winner gets it all — the praise, the glory, the fame, and the fortune. Even young children can see and feel that it does matter whether we win or lose; and that there are real benefits to winning, and real consequences to losing.

Winning Versus Learning
The competitive approach to learning is widespread in all aspects of education. Children find themselves in a recital or a performance after taking only a few months of music or dance lessons. If children really know and can proficiently play or perform the material, no problem. If not, they are programming performance anxiety into their cellular memory. I know this from personal experience. From starting piano lessons at age six, to playing drums in the band in high school, I was put into performances before I was confident of the material. Those experiences sowed the seeds of a lack of confidence, and performance anxiety. Academically, it’s the same: Children are given material to learn, and then tested and graded before they have really learned that material. What are we really testing and teaching by putting children into competition prematurely? And what are children really learning in this way?

This is the trial by fire or school-of-hard-knocks approach to learning: “We learned the hard way; you have to learn the hard way. Life isn’t fair, life is tough!” Maybe life is tough. Do we need to make it tougher on principle? Maybe we did learn the hard way. Do we have to make learning harder for everyone? How about discovering what may actually be the best way to learn? The school-of-hard-knocks approach does push a small percentage of people to excel, primarily from fear of the consequences of failure, or perhaps an overweening desire to win or to be number one. But most people fail to achieve their potential in a competitive environment. Even those who succeed often pay a steep price, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet this is the environment in which we continue to raise and educate our children. What are we passing on?

When learning becomes a contest, the focus shifts from learning skills to winning contests, and to fears of losing. When being a winner is so important, it can’t help taking precedence over developing the skills necessary to achieve excellence. And this is a fundamental problem in our competitive culture.

Positive Effects of a Competitive System
There is no disputing the fact that competition has produced many tangible benefits in people’s lives. It encourages us to work toward goals and develop concentration, perseverance, motivation and ambition. It can help us hone our skills, raise performance levels, strive for excellence, build character, and even foster camaraderie and teamwork while channeling aggression in a less destructive direction. We have seen the benefits of a competitive approach in industry where competing companies, teams and individuals stimulate higher levels of creativity and leap-frog off each other, inventing or designing better and better products and technologies. Such competition has fostered rapid growth and accelerated technological breakthroughs in many fields. A clear example of competition motivating accelerated development is the space race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. back in the 1960’s that resulted in the U.S. sending the first man to the moon.

Yet despite all the benefits of a competitive paradigm, I suggest that our next stage of evolution will enable us to achieve far more benefits through non-competition, which includes a skill-to-mastery based focus, and a higher principle of cooperation.

This chapter focuses mainly on the negative side effects of competition. (The benefits of competition have been actively promoted for centuries, if not millennia. We all know them quite well.) It will show why the premature introduction of competition into the learning process produces far more negative than positive effects. In fact, if competition were a drug, the Food and Drug Administration would ban it for having too many adverse side effects!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Human Nature & the Evolutionary Process, Part 4

Cellular Memory
Something we can attribute our programming to is cellular memory. The mechanism of cellular memory patterns actions and behaviors into our subconscious, without our conscious help. This process is always happening. It is our natural learning system, and without it we wouldn’t be able to survive. Whatever we repeat, we remember on a deep level — whether these actions are physical, mental, or emotional. We see this on its simplest level when a young child mimics the behavior of others. After just a short time of mimicking, the child exhibits this behavior automatically, without thinking. This is why the multiplication tables are taught through repetition; eventually, children remember the answer without having to think about it. This is how long-term learning works. Cellular memory is what allows long-term learning. It is also what often keeps us trapped in habitual, non-productive behaviors. And, it can also enable us to tap into the positive forces of evolution and overcome old, negative, conditioned patterns of thinking and behavior.

Cellular memory is distributed throughout the body; much cellular learning happens in the brain, but much happens in the rest of the body as well. Nerve impulse travels between ten and three hundred feet per second, depending on the diameter of the nerve cells along the pathway. If reflex memory were stored entirely in the brain, its signals wouldn’t be able to reach the limbs quickly enough. A lot of reflex memory is stored in the spine. Otherwise, none of us would be able to appreciate the beauty of an arpeggio on the piano or the artistry of Roger Federer on the tennis court — the communication between the player’s head and hands would take too long. All of the cells involved in a muscular response are permanently affected by repetitive learning, and contribute to the response. This is also true with mental and emotional responses.

Recent research in neurobiology shows that a substance called myelin coats neurons as a kind of insulating agent. This insulation thickens as an action is repeated. Neurobiologists believe that this insulating process works to keep a strong signal between neurons by preventing electrical impulses from leaking out. The thicker the myelin, the faster and more accurately the signals travel. This is the physiological process that results in cellular memory.

The problem is that over the years we have programmed many negative behaviors – or as I prefer to call them, less-than-optimal responses— into our cellular memory. And when certain actions or behaviors are ingrained in our cellular memory, it becomes more difficult, though not impossible, to change them.

On one level, we are amazingly complex beings who can speak a multitude of languages and create mind defying inventions and masterpieces of art. On another level, we are incredibly simple beings, much like Pavlov’s dogs, whose repetitive behaviors etch patterns into our cells, for good and ill. It happens automatically.

We have all heard that we are creatures of habit; this is our cellular memory at work. With a computer, we type something in to the hard drive once, and it’s there whenever we wish to access it. For humans, it takes a certain amount of repetition until something is patterned. With cellular memory, however, there is no delete button. Once something is in the cells, it is there for life, unless we pattern something else in, which unfortunately takes an even more concerted, yet identical effort.

Deeply Programmed Behavior
Competitive behavior has been deeply wired into most people’s cellular memory. The fact that many people find it difficult to imagine an alternative to competitive behavior shows how deeply programmed this belief has become. Psychologist Alfie Kohn has observed: “That most of us fail to consider the alternatives to competition is a testament to the effectiveness of our socialization. We have been trained not only to compete but to believe in competition.” Along these lines, sociologist David Riesman has stated, “First we are systematically socialized to compete — and to want to compete — and then the results are cited as evidence of competition’s inevitability.”

A great example of this socialization is in youth sports. Before children’s minds have developed to the point where they can think independently for themselves, they are put into competition against one another. Of course they are going to believe that being competitive with each other is the way life is — because the authority figures in their lives are telling them that this is how it is, and so it seems natural.

This competitive belief is so much a part of our being that it is like air to us. It is all around us, so familiar that we often can’t see it, so ingrained that we instinctively reach for it, imagining that our survival depends upon it. Few people question the rightness, effectiveness or inevitability of competition. Like oxygen, we can’t imagine living without it; unlike oxygen, we can actually thrive without it.

Another factor accounts for people’s reluctance to shift from an unhealthy competitive model to a healthy but unfamiliar non-competitive model. Most of us naturally resist change, are reluctant to take risks, and wish to avoid uncertainty. We tend to stick with what is familiar even if it isn’t working well for us. This is the why people stay in abusive relationships, unpleasant and unsatisfying jobs, and continue to repeat ineffective behaviors.

Yet healthy change almost always involves some discomfort and resistance. For a variety of reasons, old patterns die hard. I will show in the following chapters that, despite any difficulties that may arise in the process of changing from a competitive to a non-competitive system, the benefits of making the shift will be extraordinary and culturally transforming. Millions of people over many generations have been “defeated” and turned off to learning by our competitive educational system. It is time to undo that harm by changing the system that inflicts it.

I will also show how the Effortless Learning program has proven that we can learn and excel in a non-competitive environment; undo old limiting physical and psychological habits and patterns and replace them with new positive ones; have more fun in the learning process; and even go on to succeed in a competitive environment if we so desire. A non-competitive learning model will help adults transcend the damage done by years of immersion in an unhealthy competitive system. It will keep children from ever being subjected to this damage, and in the process will produce great champions, and a healthier human race.

In the end, whether competition is part of human nature or not isn’t as important as the fact that we have the ability to alter our programming and fulfill our greater potential as individuals and as a species. This book suggests that a different kind of learning can replace an old, outdated, limited program with a new more healthy and effective program for learning and for living. Before we examine the benefits of non-competitive learning and the solutions this approach offers, it is necessary to fully illuminate the issues and problems with the current competitive system.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Human Nature & the Evolutionary Process, Part 3

Learned Behavior
Although competitive behavior has been with us for thousands of years, much of this behavior has been consciously programmed into us from childhood on by our parents, schools, athletics programs, governments, even our churches, and many other respected institutions. To paraphrase Alfie Kohn, competition has been a part of the subtext of almost every lesson we have learned. No wonder it seems natural. Having something reinforced and promoted over thousands of years deeply ingrains it in our nature. But the examples in this chapter support the view that some of this programming is learned; and suggest that it is possible to unlearn it, and evolve to a less destructive and more productive way of being.

In 1937, in one of the largest studies on competition in its time, psychologists Mark A. May and Leonard Doob concluded: “Human beings by original nature strive for goals, but striving with others or against others are learned forms of behavior. Neither of these two can be said to be the more genetically basic, fundamental or primordial.” To this we can add the thoughts of sports psychologists Thomas Tutko and William Bruns: “People are not born with a motivation to win or to be competitive. We inherit a potential for a degree of activity, and we all have the instinct to survive. But the will to win comes through training and the influences of one’s family and environment.”
Clearly, competitive behavior has been programmed into us, and become part of our human nature. Now let’s consider the possibility that we can alter this deep programming.

Human Genetics Research
Cellular biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton, in his research on human genetics, provides evidence that our genes do not ultimately control our behavior. This evidence goes against one of the popular beliefs about biology, that our genes determine our traits and behaviors, which are therefore largely predetermined. For over fifty years, many scientists, with the assistance of the media, have presented as scientific fact this idea of our fates being written in our genetic code.

As a result, many people do believe that we are genetically preprogrammed, and therefore have little control over our behavior. This view is the scientific Nature side of the classic Nature versus Nurture debate. The Nurture side believes that human behavior is mostly determined by conditioning. The truth likely includes a mixture of both.

Cutting-edge cellular biologists like Dr. Lipton now recognize that our environment and, more importantly, our perceptions of our environment strongly affect the activity of our genes. We have tendencies toward certain behavior, but these tendencies aren’t immutable. Even if the potential for aggressive, competitive behavior is encoded in our DNA, it isn’t necessarily our destiny.

This new research indicates that, rather than being at the mercy of our genes, our behavior is also influenced by what we perceive to be our environment. Our genes are turned on and off by our perceptions and beliefs, whether these perceptions and beliefs are true or false. As we saw earlier with regard to scarcity, what we perceive as real doesn’t have to be real to affect our behavior. Experiencing fear doesn’t mean danger is present; yet we feel and may even act as if we are in danger. Believing something is true doesn’t make it objectively true, yet it does seem to make it appear real subjectively. This new research suggests that cells respond to our perceptions by triggering either growth, or protective behaviors. If our perceptions are accurate, the resulting behavior is generally beneficial to us. But if we are operating from misperceptions, our behavior will likely be inappropriate and lead to undesirable results.

Learned perceptions, especially those derived from parents, peers, academic education, advertising, religion, or propaganda, may be based upon incorrect information or faulty interpretations. We often run into problems with religious, political, or philosophical beliefs, since people may act on these beliefs as if they were fundamental truths despite valid and even overwhelming evidence to the contrary. People tend to become dogmatic around their beliefs. The good news is that perceptions and beliefs can be relearned. We can alter our behaviors by retraining our consciousness.

This understanding of what influences our behavior has deepened with the completion of the Human Genome Project. In 1990, the Human Genome Project undertook an ambitious goal, to map the entire human genetic code, a project finished in 2003. Before scientists completed mapping the genetic code, there was general agreement that an organism as complex as a human would have approximately one hundred thousand genes. By comparison, a microscopic organism such as a roundworm has eighteen thousand genes. To their surprise, and probable dismay, the geneticists of the Human Genome Project found that humans had only about twenty-five thousand genes, far too few to control our biology and behavior. Genetically, we are not much more complex than a microscopic roundworm! Talk about humbling. Because of the relatively small number of genes found, we can’t attribute our individual character to genetic programming.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Human Nature & the Evolutionary Process, Part 2

Survival of the Fittest?
Because this competitive model has dominated for so long, many people believe that we are aggressive and competitive by nature and nothing can be done to change this behavior. The idea that human nature is inherently competitive received validation in the mid-1800s from the work of Charles Darwin. With his theory of evolution, Darwin presented a vast body of evidence that all life on Earth evolved over millions of years from a few common ancestors. This evolution occurred through a process called natural selection. From his research and observations, Darwin noted that possessing certain traits increased a species chance of survival; a higher percentage of animals with these traits would survive and, through procreation, pass them on genetically to the next generation. For example, when the climate grew significantly colder, animals with thicker fur would survive in disproportionate numbers. In a drought, animals that could survive on less water would endure.

Darwin’s theory promoted the idea of the survival of the fittest. This term is a bit misleading since the individuals possessing traits that increased their chances of survival had nothing to do with developing those traits. The male bird with brighter colors that made him more attractive to females did not control the amount of color in his feathers. The individual members of a species that survived dramatic climate change did not intentionally change their makeup in order to survive. It wasn’t survival of the fittest so much as the good fortune of those whose traits happened to suit the demands of the time.
Inevitably, supporters of a competitive worldview commandeered Darwin’s concept in order to prove that being competitive was natural and superior to all other ways of interacting. This view became known as Social Darwinism. When two animals fight to the death it is easy to conclude that the winner is the stronger, more competitive animal. The twisted logic of Social Darwinism holds that aggressive, competitive individuals are the most suited, and therefore the most deserving, of survival and success in life. Thus competition is viewed as natural and even essential to our progress and development.

Dog-eat-dog competition, seen as human nature, now defines most aspects of business, politics, sports, and even popular culture. It’s the new mode of popular entertainment, from TV’s Survivor, American Idol and The Apprentice, to the slew of programs that reduce “contestants” to the level of aggressive beasts hunting and fighting for survival around the drought-ravaged watering hole. There’s no disputing the potential in almost all species for highly competitive and aggressive behavior. And we human beings are an animal species. But does this prove the inevitability or the superiority, of competitive behavior? On the surface, this can seem to be the case. But if we look more closely, we see that competitive behavior manifests most frequently and intensely when there is a shortage of some necessity, like water, food, shelter, sex or, with the animal called Man, money. Competitive behavior manifests when we are threatened or our survival is at stake, and even when there is an illusory perception of a threat. Nature reveals that when there is no shortage in the necessities of survival, there is less competitive, aggressive behavior. And both animals and man thrive best when they cooperate with one another. This is why most animals form herds, packs and flocks, and why man formed tribes, villages, towns and nations.

Survival of the Luckiest
Sometimes survival of the fittest becomes survival of the luckiest, or even weakest. This was the case for one troop of savanna baboons in Kenya studied by researchers Robert Sapolsky and Lisa Share starting in 1978. Baboons, like chimpanzees and humans, are known to be quite hierarchical and male-dominated, with frequent aggressive interactions. Between 1983 and 1986, the troop’s dominant males, who were observed to be very aggressive, were wiped out by contracting bovine tuberculosis through foraging in the garbage dump at a nearby tourist lodge. The lesser males and the females did not contract the disease because the dominant males prevented them from feeding at the dump. The deaths of the dominant males drastically changed the gender composition of the troop, more than doubling the ratio of females to males, and by 1986 troop behavior had changed dramatically; males were now significantly less aggressive.

Observation of the troop stopped after 1986 and did not start again until 1993. At this time, the same less-aggressive behavior was observed in the troop. This is particularly surprising and enlightening because male baboons leave their birth troop after puberty. Even though there were few adult males from the previous period, the new males showed the less-aggressive behavior of their predecessors. Apparently, the adolescent baboons observing the interactions between the females and the older males of the troop learned that they didn’t have to be as aggressive to get what they needed! The researchers even analyzed blood samples from the troop during this second period of observation and found that the males lacked the distinctive physiological markers of stress normally found in male baboons in other areas.

Another anomaly is the bonobos, a Central African species of Great Ape closely related to chimpanzees and humans. Bonobo behavior is quite different than the average ape or human. Interactions in bonobo society are more egalitarian and peaceful – they typically resolve their differences by grooming one another or having some type of sexual contact. Sounds more civilized to me!

Evolutionary biologist, Dr. Lynn Margulis, has demonstrated that symbiotic relationships are a major driving force in evolution. A symbiotic relationship is one in which two or more dissimilar organisms live together, especially when this association is mutually beneficial. In other words, cooperation is fundamental to the nature of life and the evolutionary process. Margulis and her world-renowned husband, scientist Carl Sagan, concluded in 1996 “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking” (i.e. by cooperation, interaction, and mutual dependence between living organisms).

Non-competitive Individuals and Cooperation
The instinct to survive is part of our human nature, but a survival instinct is different from a competitive instinct. A survival instinct usually becomes competitive when there is a perceived scarcity and others are trying to get what we need. For competitive behavior to truly be an immutable aspect of human nature, everyone would have to be competitive, and this is simply not the case. We all know people in our lives that are not the least bit competitive. Prime examples of people with a cooperative worldview would include Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rumi, Mother Theresa, many spiritual practitioners of many faiths, quite a few members of the helping professions, and members of several indigenous tribes that still survive around the world. As psychologist Alfie Kohn has noted, “The ubiquity of cooperative interactions even in a relatively competitive society is powerful evidence against the generalization that humans are naturally competitive.” Cooperation is every bit as natural as competition.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Chapter 1: Human Nature and the Evolutionary Process, Part 1

"The basic question about human nature
isn’t whether humans are basically peaceful or basically violent —
for we are both — but which of the two are we going to organize."
— Joan Baez

In the Beginning
Figuring out how far back competition goes is easy; it’s in our history books, and our most ancient scriptures and stories, passed on orally from generation to generation before the written word. The theme of most significant events from our earliest recorded history is conquest. The stories, written by the victors, are about chiefs, kings, emperors and generals vanquishing their adversaries. Their legacy is competition and domination. War, the ultimate competition, has become a model for most of our enterprises.

Obviously, the competitive mentality goes back much further than recorded history. Anthropologists and archeologists trace this tribal mentality back to our primordial past. Has it always been this way, or was there ever a more cooperative time? Over the last thirty years a significant body of evidence has emerged from the archeological record suggesting that prior to about five thousand years ago a more cooperative culture flourished in the Near East, the Middle East, and on into Central Europe. The archeological record since then points to societies based on a hierarchical, competitive model. But before that, at least for a portion of the planet, evidence indicates that a different model prevailed.

At the religious and burial sites of these older societies dating back to Paleolithic and Neolithic times, archeologists have found a preponderance of female figurines. These artifacts from the Paleolithic period date back thirty thousand years, and those from the Neolithic date back about ten thousand years. Archeologists surmise that these figurines relate to worship of the feminine — evidence of a goddess culture. In later cultures, male deity figures are common in burial sites.

Examples of Neolithic paintings and other art depicting scenes of religious ceremonies centering around a female figure also abound. Feminine figurines and symbols occupied a central place in the mythology of this time. And in the art of the Neolithic era discovered so far, scenes of battles, conquering heroes, and even weapons are conspicuously absent. Excavations of many sites from this period do not reveal a hierarchical pattern of a few grand structures and many small ones, but a more egalitarian pattern, with most buildings similar in size. Nor did these sites reveal structures with a high level of fortification common to war-like cultures. Archeologists postulate that these societies were more egalitarian, with everyone closer to equal in status, and less war-like than later cultures. Excavations of later sites reveal much greater variability in building size, indicating a more hierarchical social system, with an abundance of fortification.

The historian Riane Eisler, in her highly acclaimed book The Chalice and the Blade, documents evidence of a culture that included a more egalitarian approach to living, which she calls a partnership model. Archeological research indicates that between five thousand and seven thousand years ago, groups of invaders, which Eisler calls dominator races (and which history books have called the Mongol hordes), came into these areas from the north and east. Through conquest these invaders displaced the cooperative cultures with their hierarchical ones. The archeological record provides a large body of evidence that these dominator cultures placed their religious sites directly on top of the earlier sites, attempting to erase any evidence of what came before.

The likelihood of a more cooperatively based culture somewhere in our past is important to our understanding of the history of competition. It lets us know that the current competitive model is not the only option. Another approach has at least been tried, and appears to have prospered for a time.

In any case, over the last five thousand years encompassing written history, the record is clear: Competition has been king. Hierarchical societies have been the norm. Domination, not cooperation, has been the rule. For the most part, those of us living today are descended from the winners of this dominator mentality. Our ancestors were those who survived the battles. We inherited their characteristics. No wonder many of us are competitive and aggressive.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Evolutionary Education—Intro Part 2

A Common Thread
The problems we face are diverse and complex. Some say they all stem from human laziness, greed, or evil: from inherently flawed human nature. But I have seen too many people display kindness, compassion, and courage to agree with that assessment.

As I examined the negative aspects of human behavior — over aggressiveness, anger, jealousy, fear, intimidation, violence, cheating, lying, and stealing — I kept noticing a common thread tying them together. That thread lies in competitive, aggressive behavior patterns, exacerbated by an innate survival instinct.

Currently, we live in a system predicated on a competitive model of behavior. We are raised to compete against one another from an early age. Unfortunately, this approach takes a serious toll on our psychological health and development, and thereby on our humanity. Competition is the norm for individuals, families, teams, tribes, communities, businesses, states, religions, and nations. In a way, life is one big contest, or a series of contests, marked by a constant jockeying for position in the pecking order. I’m better (smarter, stronger, faster, more beautiful, richer) than you are. My family is better than your family. Our community is better than your community. My school is better than your school. Our business, state, political party, country, or multi-national corporation is better than yours. My God is more powerful than your God. We are the chosen people and you are not!

We have been a competitive species for tens of thousands of years. And while that energy has motivated humanity to great accomplishments, it has also produced many of our darkest moments. Does having been a competitive species for so long mean we will be forever at war? Is this how it’s supposed to be? This seems like a pretty bleak picture. I believe we have a choice; that we don’t have to settle for this outcome.

In my search for answers, I have come to see competitive behavior as something we humans have learned over the course of our evolutionary history. Yes, in early times dangerous conditions forced humans to be more competitive to survive. But as societies developed, we transferred this competitive mentality into religion, commerce, relationships, politics, academics, and sports. Today, certain aspects of this mentality prevent us from fulfilling our greatest aspirations, and literally threaten our world.

Limitations of a Competitive Mindset
I do not advocate the elimination of competition. I do recommend that we examine where, when, and how competition creates problems, and seek healthy alternatives and solutions. Many people who call themselves highly competitive are simply people who have high expectations and a strong desire to succeed. The desire to be successful isn’t, in and of itself, competitive. You can possess high expectations and a strong desire for success, yet not be competitive. We conflate the desire for excellence with the trait of competitiveness, when in truth they are very different.

A competitive mindset has led to great advances for our species, and provided a powerful motivating force for individuals, communities, nations and civilizations, but it is not the be-all and end-all of existence. From my youth, sports have been an integral part of my life. I have participated in, enjoyed (some of the time), and done well (a majority of the time) in thousands of contests. These competitive experiences have taught me many valuable lessons. Whether in sports, academics, business, or the arts, it is exciting and motivating to see people perform at a high level. I have no desire to take that away from anyone.

The problem is that only a small percentage of people succeed in this system, most function at a fraction of their potential. Is that because most people are not that bright or talented or motivated? Are they just mediocre, or lazy? In my experience, this is simply not the case. I have seen first hand how the competitive system itself inhibits development, and thus performance.

I am convinced that the problem is systemic and results in most of us functioning well below our potential. I believe our competitive system, by repeatedly pitting us against each other in often premature and needlessly adversarial contests, destabilizes our confidence and motivation, and limits our ability, our enjoyment, and our overall development. I will show the evidence for these assertions in the following chapters.

Time for a Course Correction
Over the centuries, the competitive mindset has become the dominant model of behavior for a majority of people. I believe it is time to make some healthy changes in this model, which I will discuss later. I am basically an optimist. But as a longtime student of history and current events, I am aware that if we don’t change course soon, life may get ugly, not for just a few, but for most. The crux of the problem inherent in a competitive paradigm is that each generation must be more competitive than the last, not to achieve an absolute standard of excellence, but just to keep up. Each generation must be more competitive! The big question is, how much more competitive can we be? When does the stress of this unrealistic expectation begin producing more negative than positive results? And have we already reached that point?

Many people are uncertain and anxious about their future, and are doing all they can to keep up. Millions don’t get enough to eat on a daily basis. Greed and fear are present at every level from politics to business, to social institutions. Destruction and contamination of vital ecosystems is a planet-wide problem. Ethnic violence and prejudice are rampant around the globe. Our weapons of mass destruction make it possible for us to obliterate ourselves at any moment. I could provide many more such examples of the competitive mindset being out of control, but I am sure you get the point. This is no way to live — for anyone. And yet, it’s the way almost everyone lives.

We need to make major changes. I’m not talking about revolution, but higher evolution. Revolution entails an “us versus them” dynamic – a competitive mindset. In a revolution, one group works to overthrow those in power and take charge themselves. Most revolutions are rooted in anger and turn ugly and violent. Revolutions are examples of how the Darwinian law of the jungle has fueled our evolutionary process as a species. But eventually, our higher evolution will allow us to see that everyone is on the same side, working toward the same goal, and that making life better for everyone makes it better for ourselves.

Again, this book does not propose to banish competition. Rather, it examines the dynamics of competition and the many societal and inter-personal problems it causes. It looks to see if competition in fact produces the best attainable results; to see where and when competition is appropriate and effective, and where it isn’t.

Modern advances in technology have made Earth a very small planet. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. And we can all be part of the solutions to our collective problems. As Charles Darwin noted, “The survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism’s ability to adapt to its environment.” The same is true for a species. This book is a call for a new adaptation of human behavior in our increasingly changing and challenging environment. Our survival may depend upon it!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Evolutionary Education—Introduction

It’s been nearly 150 years since Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, and we are still seeking a key to unlock the secrets of the evolution of the human species. To fulfill our potential as a species, it is essential to come to a deeper understanding of the concept of evolution.
One definition of evolution is simply “change over time toward a more highly developed state.” Things do change over time; no one can dispute that! Think of how children evolve in a few years from helpless little beings to people who can do things for themselves. Think of how electronics – cell phones, TV’s, cameras and computers – have evolved within a short time frame. Such changes are examples of evolution. Evolution is a natural fact; it is nothing to be afraid of. Despite the recurrence of old controversies, accepting the reality of evolution doesn’t rule out the existence of a Supreme Being. Belief or nonbelief in God can coexist with the concept of evolution. Whatever our religious beliefs, or lack thereof, it makes sense to understand how the human species has evolved until now — and how, and equally important, where it can evolve as we move forward.

Pieces of the Puzzle
My interest in the evolution of our species arose as I grappled with several key events that took place while growing up in the 1960s. The most important of these were the Civil Rights and women’s movements; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy; the blossoming and decline of the hippie movement; and the horrors of the Vietnam War. Watching these events unfold awakened in me a desire to help make the world a better, more peaceful place to live. I don’t view this as a noble motive. I just didn’t want to live in a world where violence and injustice were a norm that could potentially negatively impact my life. Of course good things were also happening, but the negatives made it hard for me to fully enjoy my life. I simply couldn’t look the other way.
Since then, my life’s goal has been to help make the world, and my own life, significantly better by working to transform destructive behaviors that have defined our species for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the world situation in regards to levels of violence and aggression is not that much different today. Some might say it’s even worse. Technologically, we have advanced exponentially in the last two hundred years. But instinctively, our primal responses are not much different from those of our ancestors who roamed the savannas of Africa thousands of years ago.
Although at times I have been discouraged, somehow I’ve managed to keep my idealism alive and make it through my moments of doubt. We live on an incredible planet. We humans are amazing beings. Our accomplishments over the centuries are awe-inspiring. No one living a thousand years ago could have imagined any of what we take as commonplace today. As a species, our potential is virtually unlimited. But in order to achieve our potential, we need to ask and answer a few questions:

• With so many accomplishments to our credit, why is there still so much suffering in the world?
• With all of the extraordinary insights achieved from ancient spiritual traditions, philosophy and modern psychology, why does man’s inhumanity prevail and produce so much stress, turmoil, despair, and sadness in so many people’s lives?
• Are these realities unavoidable aspects of human nature? Is it simply our fate to possess virtually unlimited potential, yet forever limit that potential by behaving in ways that are petty, cruel, unconscious and self-destructive? Or do we have the ability to change?

I have spent nearly four decades pondering such questions, wondering what I can do – what all of us can do – to help move the evolution of our species forward, and move the world in a more positive direction. My longtime friends have called me a seeker. At some point, I started seeing life as a puzzle, and began looking to see how all the pieces might fit together into a harmonious whole.
Always searching for answers, I have read books, listened to speakers, and shared ideas with those who were willing to engage with me, or guide me. With each book, each speaker, and each intuition, another piece of that puzzle has fallen into place for me. As the pieces came together, it occurred to me that a core issue might underlie the negative aspects of human behavior, and a common thread might link the many manifestations of our suffering.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Where are our priorities?

While I love watching well played sporting events, I can't help wondering, when there are so many problems all around us that require our utmost attention, why do we put so much time, money, and energy into sports? Yes, learning to excel in sports can teach many good life lessons like work ethic, concentration, patience, perseverance, self-motivation, self-responsibility, and physical fitness, but it seems ridiculous how much importance, energy, and money we put into these endeavors. I have been an athlete my whole life. I’ve been playing tennis for over 40 years and teaching the sport for 35 years so I am not some academic nerd wondering these things, I know of what I’m talking.

When you combine the time, money, and energy of youth sports, high school, college, and professional sports, the total amount of energy expended is astronomical. How many hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of hours do we spend annually thinking about, training, traveling, playing, and watching sports? How many billions of dollars are spent? Is it really worth that much of an investment? Aren’t there better, more efficient, and important ways to spend our limited resources and energy? Is our emphasis on sports distracting us from more important priorities?

With the seemingly overwhelming problems that we face as a society such as hunger, poverty, racism, economic turmoil, greed, inadequate and overly expensive healthcare, terrorism, and a deteriorating environment, it’s natural to want to distract ourselves with simpler, more pleasant and enjoyable activities. But just think what we could accomplish if we used even a quarter of that time, money, and energy that we spend on sports working to solve our relentless problems. What a world it would be.

One of the reasons that people want to ignore or look the other way at these problem areas is that they feel there is no “solution,” there's nothing they can do. It’s just the way it is and how it will forever be. But there is a solution. Find it at On this Easter Sunday it would be good to ask, "What would Jesus do with his time, money, and energy?"