Competition: Breakfast of Champions or …

The Practice Collection

Much too often, these days I find myself drinking my coffee in the morning and yelling at the radio.

So one morning a while back I heard a local panel on CBC discussing the issue of student awards and prizes. It seems some schools have considered the elimination of the old school notion that knowledge was something you could and maybe should, beat others at … you know be a winner. I believe that the schools were suggesting that academic awards were perhaps sending a message to the majority of students that their hard work and efforts were not of any real significance and maybe questioning what is there in the study of math that has anything to do with winning and losing.

Back to the radio panel …

One of the panelists, a gentlemen I greatly admire, made a forceful argument for the awards. We are the same age and I immediately recognized that hoary old metaphor that dogged me in my teens … winning is a wonderful thing and you should always strive to win. You must learn how to win. You must be as competitive as possible and if you are not winning (i.e. losing) you will go hungry. Oh yes he used that old killer lion metaphor. The winning lion gets to eat, the others go hungry. Scared the living crap out of me when I was seventeen … not so much now. But indeed it was hot wired into us by way of our curriculums, our dinner tables. Our Sunday School classes and our old guys in the pool hall. In that old school thinking, it was a binary world … winners and losers

There was one other assumption in those days. It was assumed somehow, that when we finally got to work and career, these early lessons would be perfect because the big assumption was that all jobs would somehow be found in the world of business. When I was seventeen, I thus believed that all future work would be somehow directly tied to the business world. Imagine my shock when I decided that my first career would be teaching. In fact, imagine the shock of all the nurses, teachers, policeman, social workers, scientist and firemen who all of a sudden realized that success in their work was not measured the same as the business guy selling cars and there was no cause to beat anyone else on the job. Hard to measure a fireman’s worth and to figure out how he is going to be a real winner in the team based firefighting world of today.

Actually turns out millions of people in the world, work every day in a public service world, a distinctly non-business culture and some actually feel they make huge contributions as to whether this world slips deeper into a “dog eat dog” world or help to find a way for us all enjoy the leash free world together.

Back to competition …

I have to admit that if I would have strived to pursue my original dream of selling Thunderbirds, my well honed, competitive skills, attitudes and spirit would have been a great help. I would have maybe even got the lion’s share … until, of course, the gas saving Toyotas came along and cut my grass.

So perhaps it is time we take a second look at the over whelming competitive culture in schools and homes. As I observe the continuing effects of early, highly competitive hockey on grandchildren with its soul crushing tiers (tears) system of rewards and then see the wonderful liberation of sports like golf where you can go from amateur to professional and still only really having to beat one person … yourself.

We should and really, just how well does cut throat competition work out for young people in this culture today? Look at Silicon Valley learning to deal with Open Source … Wait a minute … forget them, lets look at business competition right here in my own neighborhood, Inglewood, inner city Calgary. One of the hottest new businesses to arrive here is craft brewing … good beer. My neighborhood is no exception. We already have two craft breweries and more may be coming. I was chatting with one of the owners one fine day this summer and asked her about how she stayed ahead of competition that was a few blocks away. “Not interested”, she says, “in fact we are more inclined to share both knowledge and maybe even a few hops with them if they run out.” We even send them over some samples of our beer to get some feedback. I checked with the other brewery … same story. They talked about the craft brewing culture and just because they were in separate businesses, they were still in the SAME business with the same learning needs, the same interests and the same desire to grow the whole business of craft brewing.

I saw a version of this with our little experiment with the Music Mile. Three years ago all of the music venues in this neighborhood were hard-core competitors. The musicians were no different. Both venues and musicians seemed to see the music business as a pretty small pie these days and it felt like a huge struggle to get and maintain your piece of it. They didn’t really see the value in encouraging of even more venue growth and even more musicians carving up that small pie. Well, we suggested … how about creating (together) a bigger pie … co-operation vs. competition. The lights went on … they are starting to change the model and now the whole music scene is starting to grow and hopefully everyone will do better as the pie gets bigger.

This is not just some touchy feely socialist propaganda, this cooperation stuff. The so-called free market has not really been all that free lately … try to get a bargain at the gas pumps or paint your house red in a suburb. So is it really only the strong competitive winners who survive? When you look at the one percent, I guess maybe … But is wealth the only clear measure of winning and losing? Again in our backyard, thanks to the dinosaurs dying underneath Alberta we have had a source of great wealth for the one percent and the trickle downs … Many Albertans still believe it was their incredible hard work and competitive spirit that created the wealth … sorry kids, it was a monopoly, not competition, thanks to the dinosaurs.

One little tale is of the man who worked so hard all is life climbing the corporate ladder … upon retirement he reflected that to his huge mortification he had made it to the top of the ladder but it turned out the ladder was up against the wrong wall. Alberta has had billions of oil dollars move through our institutions in the last seventy years, but the competitive business culture of the province wasn’t big on sharing the wealth.

True story … A young Alberta musician friend of mine wanted to study music theory but did not have the money. Another spot in the world (Norway) about the size of Alberta also had the dinosaur luck, but they leaned their ladder up against a different wall and all their children now get free post secondary education courtesy of the oil dividends. The spinoff results being the quick dropping of their unemployment, welfare and crime rates. They also offered my young Alberta friend an education on their oil money … I am embarrassed for our competitive rather than cooperative approach to wealth.

As a long serving public servant I was appalled at how much money the public service would spend on consultants who tried to convince us that we must run our governments more like a business. We soiled our suits trying to see Canadians as customers and taxpayers rather than citizens, trying to measure the immeasurable and rewarding competitive, bully behavior in our leaders. If I had a quarter for every time I heard sometime say to me that what we really need is a businessperson to run this country, I would have a pocket full. Look south and be careful what you wish for and what you prepare your kids for. Many down there are already looking back wistfully on the loser community development president who was so enthusiastically replaced by the winning businessman president. Trump the Lion would eat Obama for dinner and would not share the leftovers … not the model I hope for my grandchildren, I daresay.

Let me state that I am not anti business or business people … I grew up in a small business family. I just want a level playing field and I believe leadership should come from all types of citizen, not from any particular career or background. My grandkids raise chickens … I love how they are learning the business and the hard work of farming. They are not competitive in their chicken raising, never heard them once say they had better chicken than anybody else so here is a story that might serve them well …

Apparently a Dr. Muir at Purdue University was interested in productivity so he tried an experiment with chickens. He found two flocks, one was generally pretty productive, and then he created another flock consisting of the most productive chickens he could find … super chickens, real winners. After six generations of chicken productivity, he took stock, The average flock continued to do well …  plump, healthy and laying eggs. In the other flock, the super flock, all but three were dead … the rest had pecked each other to death. Competition … breakfast of champions or just another quick meal for the lions …

By the time Suzi, Billy and Marsha get through high school and all those policy handbooks, their experience of art is often one of navigating the system more than having continuous expression through the heart and soul. Of, course there have always been those who can make it through institutional bureaucracy and come out the other side, still in love with the arts, so they sign up for Art School or a BFA at the university.

Universities … I recall the kick I got when I was asked to teach at a University years ago. It was brand new at the time and billed itself as a fresh approach to higher learning. Well, lets just say that as one who was in the bureaucracies of public service a long while, I never saw anything there that matched our institutions of higher learning. Red tape, getting a decision, finding permission, risk adverseness, political correctness, entitlement, ass kissing and so on and on roll the elements of great bureaucratic swaddling in our highest learning institutions.

But are they great places to do art? In fact, in the past years I have noticed that the curatorial content of much of our art seems to reflect more the academic institutions demands for extended narrative, backstory, philosophy (hello postmodern theory It seems like its almost an theoretical art they encourage. There seems to less, “I love this, its beautiful” and more “I think what he is trying to say …” On top of this is administrative obsessiveness with metrics and trying to make everything show value by return on investment and bottom line.

Another reason to posit that perhaps these centers of higher learning may not be the hotbeds of creativity, imagination and freedom that we lay people tend to believe. The great painters and musicians I know and love today in my life will often suggest that the lack of an MFA in their resume may actually be a positive distinguishing feature in their work.

So let’s say you get through the all-inherent bureaucracies of learning institutions … and you still want to do some art. Well, now you face the acquired bureaucratic intricacies of the public galleries, the museums, the concert hall, the theaters, the funding agencies, and all the other assorted gatekeepers of the sacred spaces. Again, I am not in the arts world, but it seems to me that navigating your way into, through and around the art bureaucracies could end up becoming a way of life for the practicing artist, musician, actor, dancer, writer or whatever.

I do see some interesting developments though … For example, in my day when artists and musicians went pro, they often tried to circumvent bureaucracy by hiring out the nasty bits to producers, managers, agents, public relations people and so on. Todays emerging artists have the same bureaucracy to wrangle, but in most cases, none of the resources to outsource the solutions. Or perhaps, like me, they have just read the new Joni Mitchell biography and they are deciding that they may not really want to lose large chunks of artistic control and even larger chunks of cash to outsiders. I have seen at least three great signs of the future here …

  1. The New Economy. The big one of course is technology. We are all aware of the double-sided effects of the tech revolution where technology took away income (records, books) while at the same time increasing accessibility to production, markets and promotion. Justin Beiber starts out on YouTube … not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

One good thing showed up the morning I listened to a ninety four year old man on the radio, with a voice full of love and compassion and fierceness for equality in the world that I have not heard in a while. The good news was that he had his own podcast that allowed his voice to go out to thousands. Voices are getting out there … monetizing your voice, perhaps not so much, which brings me to …

  1. The New Learning Models.   A while back I attended a reception for a brand new music initiative launched by Studio Bell here in Calgary. The AE West program is an exciting, game changing concept in the world of youth music education.

Less about the role of the diminished fifth in music composing, it is focused on helping the young musician deal with the famous quote of Tommy Banks … ”the music business is 1% music and 99% business.” With a focus on mentoring, social media, new approaches to funding and touring, the musician gets to hang with. learn from and be challenged by folks in the realty stream of music rather than the academic stream. It appears to be affordable, relevant and real. The mentorships continue after the program, which again may distinguish it form, the education institutions.

  1. The Collaborative Entrepreneur.   As I tentively stepped into the arts, I was struck by a culture of smiling competitiveness. Everyone seemed to be a friend to all but there were some elbows in the corners. The business of music seemed to be framed in the old “toughest lion eats first” and the tough lion gets to continue eating sort of mentality. There was a small pie out there and it was a fight to retain your minor share these days. There was not a lot of talk about working together to bake a bigger pie.

I believe that can and will change. There may be an exciting development in the notion of music, musicians and the music business becoming more community and collaborative driven rather than totally star and profit driven. Caveat: I love both stars and profits but I am not so sure that these two core values are all there is to creating a vibrant music culture.

I saw an interesting sign of this new shift a short while ago. I attended the inaugural concerts of a couple of new Music Mile music venues and art galleries that were artist designed and artist managed. I found another venture is a business app that is linking musicians and venues.

Bureaucracy is no respecter of person or work, I guess. It can infect any type of enterprise … private/public, big/little, and boring/creative. As we move into a world where there are no more classic definitions of anything, we perhaps should be more curious, caring and connected as we try to once again, to reinvent our lives and culture, especially in the arts. The arts simply cannot afford the old models of doing business and making magic … we need a place for both opportunity and brilliance. We cannot afford less.