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How COVID-19 teaches us that succeeding and winning are different

This pandemic shows us that there are times where it makes sense to apply a competitive lens to a situation—and times when that mentality can hurt us.

How COVID-19 teaches us that succeeding and winning are different
[Source images: tiero/iStock; solarseven/iStock]

One thing that’s important to keep in mind—especially in a crisis situation—is that succeeding and winning are different. Let me start with a general example: When I was in my mid-30s, I decided to take up the saxophone. I had played the piano as a kid, but career and family pressures kept me from playing much music in my 20s. I had always wanted to learn to play another instrument, and so I eventually found a teacher, bought a sax, and after almost 10 years of lessons and practice, I was able to start playing in a band.

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I think it is fair to say that this effort was a success.

Chances are, when you read about my efforts to learn the sax, you weren’t surprised that I didn’t mention the musical abilities of other people. There was no need for me to compare myself to others. Success at learning to play a musical instrument is about my proficiency, not my relative standing compared to others.

Unfortunately, we often don’t analyze situations carefully enough to determine whether our success fundamentally requires other people’s failure.”

There are plenty of competitive situations in life, of course. When I finished graduate school, there were probably 100 applicants for each of the 33 available academic jobs in my field. Each job was only going to be filled by one person. I eventually got a job as an assistant professor at Columbia University, and because I got that job, nobody else did. My success entailed that other people did not succeed at their goal.

Unfortunately, we often don’t analyze situations carefully enough to determine whether our success fundamentally requires other people’s failure. Instead, we may make an intuitive judgment about the situation, and then assume that it is or is not competitive. And that can influence our behavior in ways that may not be ideal for the situation.

For example, social distancing has slowed the economy. As of March 28, over 40 million people in the United States have filed for unemployment benefits. When communities look to restart their business sectors they might treat the ability of their community to create jobs for residents as competitive with other communities. That might lead to battles over tax incentives to bring businesses into specific towns.

An alternative is for communities to think regionally. There may be opportunities for new companies to fill in gaps in the supply chain that were filled previously by companies in other countries. To make that happen, regions might better succeed if neighboring communities collaborate to develop compatible industries as well as warehousing and logistics to engage with an industry looking for a more resilient set of suppliers.

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That is, there may be competition globally among firms, but communities in a region need not treat their success as a competition with their neighbors. Instead, the success of one community might actually be aided by trying to create success across multiple communities.

A similar analysis works for individual behaviors such as those related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some goals do compete with each other. Maximizing social distancing behavior keeps people from gathering together in restaurants, bars, gyms, and movie theaters. Social distancing keeps people safe at the cost of revenues for businesses that require people’s patronage in-person. These goals compete. As a result, people advocating for a return to some businesses are in competition with people advocating for maintaining strong social distancing behavior for everyone.

At the same time, not every aspect of COVID-19 behavior is competitive. Take mask-wearing as an example. Although wearing masks in public has taken on political overtones, there is nothing that ought to be competitive about it. Wearing a cloth mask in public benefits other people by reducing potentially disease-carrying droplets in the air, which keeps other people safe. Indeed, it is one of the few behaviors in the pandemic that keeps other people safe without creating a competition between safety and economic activity.

Yet a significant number of the people advocating for a return to more economic engagement are not advocating strongly for the use of masks—and in some cases condone engagement in public without masks. In this case, I would argue that these individuals are placing a competitive frame on a behavior for which it is not warranted.

We can succeed at developing a healthy economy in the time of COVID-19. This success will require us all to think carefully about which aspects of our success are competitive, and which are not. And while politics and business are often fundamentally competitive (particularly in a two-party system), that doesn’t mean that it is productive to frame every engagement and every behavior in a way that when I win somebody else has to lose.

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