Be a Fierce Competitor

Previously we established that most forms of learning are the same thing with different names. The exception is passive “book learning” which has relatively limited value. I would also argue that the progress that a system makes and the learning it does are basically the same thing. The more things you know about the world the more things you can do in it, and the more things you do in the world the more you can learn about it. Doing new things requires learning new things and learning new things requires doing new things.

Now I assert that this singular process of learning/progressing is best way to be a valuable person and have a valuable life. One of the best way to progress is to be a fierce competitor. That means squeezing out as much performance as possible from every domain. It means trying to improve the behavior of every system of which you are a part. You as an individual, as part of a family, a community, an economy,  various polities, humanity and as part of Earth’s biology.

Why is that valuable? Clearly zero sum competitions are ubiquitous. Winning simply so others can lose doesn’t seem like it has much value.  But progress needs a measure. You can’t know how well you are doing if you don’t compare yourself to others. You can try, as Jordan Peterson argues, to compare yourself only to your past self but your memory is terrible and you are easy to fool.  That doesn’t mean that comparing the present to the past is pointless but it is incomplete. Furthermore, nearly every competition has a positive sum element. Raising the average level in practically any domain creates gains that leak out and benefit others.

The clearest domain in which to see this is the economy. Centuries ago Adam Smith explained how capitalistic competition drives firms to provide larger benefits at smaller prices and we can see everywhere how that has manifested in a vastly richer world.

To be clear, I am not saying “win” or “be a winner.” I am saying compete. The point is not the result of any given competition. Its the process of raising the bar, and thereby forcing others to do the same in a virtuous cycle.

What does it mean to be competitive at every level?

As an individual it means finding the metrics and competitions that matter to you and trying to optimize them. Whether that means the pounds you can bench press, your income or your blog traffic. There are only limited opportunities for adults to get into direct head-to-head competitions but by measuring your abilities and successes you can effectively compete against your previous self and everyone else.  It is important to look beyond the individual level to decide what domains are worth competing in.  Maximizing health, wealth and wisdom will allow you do much more for the larger systems of which you are a part. Maximizing the number of cigarettes you can smoke at once or the number of hours you sleep per day will have the opposite effect.

Make whatever organization you work for better. If you see waste or stupidity or any problem for which the solution is clear, then speak up. If the organization refuses to improve, then take your talents and efforts elsewhere. Propping up weak or failing organizations harms progress. We want the weak to die so that the strong can gather the resources and flourish.

Be an educated voter. Force politicians do better. Force governments to provide more and better services while consuming less resources. Frankly, this is the area where there seems to be so much low hanging fruit. Most people already work pretty hard. The economy is constantly innovating to increase efficiency and output. The government is relatively stagnant. Most political fights are zero sum clashes over the distribution of resources between equally matched interest groups that predictably go nowhere. Too many people seem to want to punish politicians for even trying to make compromises. This is short sighted fear. People worry, somewhat understandably, that change will make them worse off. For any given change that is somewhat likely. But the more changes there are that have more winners than losers, the higher probability that any individual will be an overall winner. In the limit as the number of good changes go to infinity the probability that everyone benefits goes to 1 (unless the distributional impact of the good changes are really highly correlated). Politicians need the incentive to find whatever compromises they can that will create more winners than losers. Voting for people who want to find compromises and improve things is the only way to create those positive incentives.

Be a discerning consumer. Force businesses to work ever harder for your money. Lazy and thoughtless consumption rewards and encourages stagnant, anti-innovative businesses and gives you a worse experience. That doesn’t mean being an “early adopter” and rewarding mere newness rather than genuine improvements. That is just a way to get ripped off and encourage wasteful fads. If we raise the bar for what we consume then businesses will rise to meet it.

At the highest level, as humanity consumes more and more of the world’s resources and creates bigger and bigger impacts on the planet, many are worried about the mass extinction that we are causing.  There is no doubt that our species is out competing the rest of life on Earth and forcing it to adapt. Many people think that by some complex causal chain the changes that our success bring about will cause our ultimate failure. But we are the most adaptable part of the most adaptable system in the known universe. Its true that we can be short sighted and exploit resources in an unsustainable way and cause harm. We’ve done that before. But as long as we suffer for our mistakes and consequently learn from them we can continue to improve. We can become more efficient at getting the maximum out of the resources that are available to us without degrading or destroying them. And then the rest of biological life can continue to adapt to the radical shock that we create.

It has become somewhat gauche to declare ourselves “the pinnacle of evolution,” but there is a sense in which it is true. We are the only species that has a chance to take life on Earth to an even higher level of success in the Universe. We can take life off the planet and spread it to the rest of the solar system and beyond. No other species that has ever lived has had that capability. Evolution is almost exclusively brutal competition for resources. And yet it is through that competition that life has conquered Earth and is now poised to extend its empire. By competing fiercely in every domain you honor and contribute to that ancient and awesome process.

I don’t know about you, but that gets me fucking pumped!

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