Games People Play – creativity and competition

Games People Play – creativity and competition
Creative Commons License photo credit: CLF (product placement NOT intended…)

As some of you may have noticed – possibly even if you live in North America! – there’s a bit of a football – err, soccer tournament underway. Kind of a big one, they say. I’m not a ‘real’ sports fan by any stretch, but like many people I appreciate amazing athletic talent and often tune in when a big international competition is on. And I live in Germany… so, I’ve watched a few games of this World Cup and will doubtless watch a few more.

Soccer/Football has an interesting nickname: they call it “the Beautiful Game”. Having learned to watch it with a bit more understanding over the years, I have begun to understand why: there is a good deal of finesse and subtlety in it when it’s played at this level, and sometimes the plays have a beautiful logic and rhythm to them. And when a player or a team is really ‘in the zone’ as the saying goes, their performance often takes on that extra dimension: creativity.

Of course, this is by no means exclusive to ‘the beautiful game’ – I think most sports, even ones I don’t get a lot out of personally like boxing or Formula 1 racing, offer these sublime moments when the normal flow is transcended and magic happens – when a player or competitor takes on that special energy and does things that seem too perfect to be quite human. When someone does that a lot, they become legendary, and every sport has its legends. Watching them in their element can often provide a window into why other people care for a sport that is not to our taste.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall…

So while watching a game last night I was commenting on a particular team’s creativity (I have no idea whether ‘real’ sports fans talk like this, but I do) and it got me to thinking about the relationship between creativity and competition. I think to many people in the arts, which again is my own area of specialization, competition is a four-letter word of sorts. We talk about non-competitive games or activities in the context of encouraging kids’ creativity, and we are nervous about the idea of making judgments about the value of one person’s art or music over another’s.

Perhaps this is as it should be, but I sometimes wonder if we’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Is competition really the enemy of creativity? Or might there be something very empowering in it – even outside professional sports?

It happens that I am reading a book just now called ‘Mastering Life’s Energies’ by Maria Nemeth, which provides an interesting perspective on all this. The book, which I’ll probably do a full review of sometime soon, is not exclusively about creativity – it has a broader personal development focus, though creativity is one of the six life ‘energies’ to which the book’s title refers.

A Game Worth Playing

One of Nemeth’s key concepts is ‘creating a game worth playing’ and in the course of clarifying it she talks about the role of competition and challenge in making games and sports interesting. Paraphrasing her example, imagine how interesting, how challenging, and how rewarding it would be to play tennis if there were no-one playing against you: every serve an ace, every match won in straight sets… the victory, suffice to say, would feel a little hollow.

By extension… what are the chances that millions (or, if some sources are to be believed, billions…) of people would be watching the tournament in South Africa if the score of every game were known in advance? Would it still have the same energy and elicit the same passions in audiences all over the world? And what about the players – would they play with all the skill and conviction and creativity if their efforts made no difference to a predecided outcome?

Nemeth’s point, of course, is not that we should all play competitive sports instead of whatever else we might want to do with our lives. Her ‘game worth playing’ concept is a way of looking at the goals and intentions we set ourselves when trying to build a ‘luminous’ life (the book’s subtitle is ‘Simple Steps to a Luminous Life at Work and Play’ – more on this in the upcoming review).

Her question is, given that we all have an intuitive understanding that challenge, opposition and uncertainty are what makes competitive sport worth playing, why do we lack the perspective to see that life goals are just the same? If goals are easy and without challenge, they are ultimately unsatisfying. We have an intrinsic desire to do things worth doing, and things worth doing often bring us face to face with opposition of one kind or another. It may not always be competition from other people, but it will be something.

Quid pro quo

If we apply this logic to creativity, it’s pretty clear that to do anything new – anything that will challenge and develop us personally or professionally or artistically – we have to be prepared to face opposition. Without it, again, the achievement will not bring much growth or satisfaction. Making something new, finding a better solution, turning an obstacle into an opportunity… all of these constitute a challenge to the status quo, and you’d better expect that the status quo will challenge you back.

Opposition, then, is a sign that we are on the right track – that we are playing a worthwhile game – and that if we persevere and meet the challenges, there will be rewards, whether financial, emotional or spiritual. So why, when trying to create something amazing or beautiful or profound, do we so often give up at the first sign of it? Why don’t we expect the opposition, accept it and let it energize us for the fight? That’s what seems to work in sports. Could we possibly learn from it?

Meanwhile, back at the office…

There is another level on which I think creative people, and artists particularly, would do well to re-examine our attitudes towards competition. At one point or another, particularly if we are going to try to make a living with our work, we will have to face the fact that we are in business, and that in business there is competition.

This is not a bad thing. Competition in the business world is the opposition that tells us we are onto something, that there is energy in a market and that it might be worth getting into the game. Competition is the force that drives innovation (hey, isn’t that kind of like another word for creativity?) and allows a company with a better solution or better service to thrive.

And it plays this role in the arts too – but not if we are too timid to face it, or if we are convinced it will somehow pollute our pure, pristine creative work. So the moral of today’s tangled tale, and your homework as it were, is to examine your own attitude towards competition and opposition in your creative life. Do you revel in competition, or shrink from it? Are you energized by challenges and opposition, or do they make you want to run and hide? Are you more comfortable creating alone, or do you do what you do in broad daylight, with eyes of the world upon you?

(Hmm. This has given me a rather interesting idea… which I’m now going to go explore. Might need a bigger platform to launch it from though – so leave a comment, and watch this space – I’ll report back shortly… )