For better or worse, we’re all competitors

Spirit of Competition traveling exhibit

The Spirit of Competition exhibit, on display at the Indiana Historical Society.

This op-ed, written by Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of Indiana Humanities, ran in The Indianapolis Star on Sunday, May 20.

I have a challenge for you: Think of one aspect of life that doesn’t include competition.

Of course, sports inherently involve competition. Whether you’re a part of the game or watching from afar, or whether it’s a friendly match or a high-stakes contest, you’re pulling for that win. You want to be the best, fastest or greatest (even if you’re just trying achieve a personal best).

But competition goes beyond the fields of play. These days, you can’t miss the fact that we choose our leaders through a system of winners and losers. We award honors (and money) to artists and innovators based on how they compare to their peers. Our cities compete for new employers, and those employers compete for customers. TV shows put singers, dancers, entrepreneurs, chefs, interior designers and just about anyone else through all manner of contests – and we tune in to watch.

Our children compete in spelling bees, and sometimes for seats in the best schools. Lawyers work to win cases, researchers fight to be first with new discoveries, and authors aim for the “best” seller list. And – admit it – you try to beat that other car to the last parking space.

Each day, in any number of ways, we engage in competition, usually standing together or standing apart based on the sides we choose.

That’s why Indiana Humanities has launched “Spirit of Competition,” a two-year celebration and examination of competition and the role it plays in our culture. Because competition touches us all, we all can join the conversation, coming together to talk about issues that join and divide us, help and hinder us, and define us as individuals and groups.

Similar to the Food for Thought initiative we concluded last year, Spirit of Competition will take us across the state for events, exhibitions and discussions. And Indiana Humanities is inviting you to get involved, to contribute to the conversation and enjoy the activities Spirit of Competition will highlight in 2012 and 2013.

In the course of this journey, we look forward to talking with you about how competition affects our daily lives. How does it propel us forward, and how does it hinder us? We’ll have a lot of fun, but we’ll also ask challenging questions: Do we put too much emphasis on competition? Are we more affected by its positive models or its less-desirable attributes? Does our economic system rely too heavily on winners and losers, or does the competitive marketplace spur new ideas and efficiencies?

As we consider these and other questions, we’ll examine five core elements of competition: civility, rivalry, passion, innovation and failure. We’ll ponder great stories from our past – everything from Abraham Lincoln’s bare-knuckled political campaigns to the invention of the television, and from the epic Larry Bird-Magic Johnson match-up to the founding of Eli Lilly and Company – and discuss the role of competition in our daily lives.

We’ll also look at the ways competition informs our culture through art, literature, music and more, and we’ll challenge students, teachers, community leaders, businesses and other organizations to think, read and talk about competition.

This process is well under way. We hosted a number of discussions centered on Super Bowl XLVI, and the Spirit of Competition traveling exhibit already has begun its two-year trek across Indiana. On our website, we’re sharing thoughts from well-known competitors such as professional billiards player Jeanette Lee and IU men’s basketball coach Tom Crean. Our Novel Conversations lending library includes books on athletic, political, economic and social competition. In addition, we’re working on events and activities that will bring the Spirit of Competition discussion to you.

So, join us on our website (www.indianahumanities.org), and watch for us in your school gym, museum, library, local festival, county fair or sports event. We’ll invite you to play a game or two, talk about your favorite contests, read about great moments in competition, and more. And we’ll challenge you to take a fresh look at the way competition shapes and defines you, and the way it connects you with or separates you from the people around you.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for us. Now that you’re thinking about it, you’ll see competition all around you. So, go ahead and get the conversation started in your community. After all: Who doesn’t want to be first?

Indiana Humanities connects people, opens minds and enriches lives by creating and facilitating programs that encourage Hoosiers to think, read and talk.