Losers don’t get the corner office or the beach house.
Competition by its very nature is barbaric. You survive and advance by beating others.
As an ex-Wall Streeter, a passionate endurance racer — running 300 consecutive miles as one painful example — and a kid from Queens, I know firsthand the pain and glory of winning and losing. Competition is cruel and America needs a whole lot more of it.
Today, everyone gets a trophy. Wristbands have replaced stopwatches as the new performance measure. Everyone wins. The self esteem before score mantra has built a handholding fantasy culture that is leaving our children woefully unprepared for the ups and downs of life. As Bill Gates so poignantly has said: “Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not.”
Competition matters profoundly. Why? Life is a competition at every turn and many times the rules of engagement are not fair. Measuring performance matters. Without it we are a nation of underachievers. It is time our country and our kids to get back to winning and losing on the playing fields and failing and honor-rolling in the classroom. Our fun run approach to life is weaning future generations off of guts, fortitude, discipline, risk taking, confidence and other critically important ingredients for achievement. No wonder the United States ranks 25th and 17th out of 34 countries in math and science.
In 2004 I co-founded the Death Race. It’s just what you would expect. Participants sign a three-word waiver: I may die. While this race is not for everyone, there is something about the Death Race that has mass appeal — our primal desire to win, however you define that. This, too, is a founding principle of the Reebok Spartan Race. In just three years Spartan Race has grown 1500 to 650,000 participants in more than 60 races around the world. Like it or not, we are hard-wired for competition and all its toughness.
Spartan Race tracks winners, times and placements not only as a way for people to measure themselves against others, but ultimately to determine their personal best. A Spartan wants to know how they stack up against previous attempts so they can improve. Spartans crave something more and are taking the steps to find it. It is our duty to provide Spartans with clear measurements of personal success, or failure, to illustrate for them what they have accomplished.
Some say competition is toxic. They are not wrong. Life is toxic. Others will say it is lame to time race participants and track who wins and loses. They are definitely wrong. If you’re content with just showing up, then be prepared to have a long line in front of you in almost every aspect of your life.
I am the proud father of four children. Nothing confirms my belief in the lifelong value of raw competition more than parenting. Kids do much better on schedules and discipline. We have our kids up at 5:45 exercising and simultaneously learning languages during those workouts. Every night before dinner they are doing it again. They workout two hours a day, seven days a week. Some people think this is excessive and, if I haven’t already, I will soon be christened Tiger Dad.
What many people fail to realize is that like Spartans, like all of us, children instinctively want to win. Competition is ingrained in the human mind and spirit as part of natural selection. We crave it. The balance is how to take that instinctive desire to compete and fuel it while also teaching how to recover from failure. It’s impossible to do that when everyone gets a medal. Pushing the limits and testing yourself make that very possible. The sooner kids know that winning matters, the better. The winner gets into school. The winner gets the corner office. The winner gets the mate and that house on the water.
We need to teach that too. We need to let our kids fail more. Life is not a sporting event with perfect rules and regulations and without losers. The best and smartest don’t always win. Sometimes breaking the rules and not playing fairly are rewarded with victory. Will your kids be ready for that? Mine will.
Joseph De Sena is CEO of Reebok Spartan Race and managing director for ICAP, a brokerage agency. On Oct. 19, NBC Sports will televise an hour-long special on the recent Reebok Spartan Race World Championships, the first national broadcast for obstacle racing.