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In the past we were taught the four Cs — character, competence, compassion and capacity. Today, there is only one ‘C’ that matters- competitiveness. This is because life is viewed as a competition. Nations, organizations, individuals are all supposed to be competitive to stay ahead in the race.

We are all continuously striving to stay competitive. We push our children hard from age two. We rob them of their childhood. We deprive teenagers the space to manage the transition to adulthood. We impose premature adulthood on them. But everything is done with a good intention which is to stay competitive to succeed in life.

Competitiveness is basically an economic concept. It should have remained that way. But it has been transposed into our social lives. It has taken over our lives, values and attitudes. It has become a paranoiac phenomenon.

There are no fair rules in the game of competitiveness. It is not merely about acquiring skills and proficiency; life is a perennial battle against uncompetitiveness. Once can be ruthless and unethical to acquire and retain competitiveness. Otherwise, rivals will overtake us in the race. Every other person is a rival, including friends, siblings, spouses and even parents.

What does the process of acquiring competitiveness entail? Every choice in life is benchmarked against the possible impact on competitiveness. Engineering, medicine and law are preferred over other professions. One has to take up the right courses in the right colleges to land the right jobs. Pursuing one’s passions and natural inclinations are looked down upon as heretical and risky. Dance, music, painting, sports are allowed to be pursued only as hobbies, Therefore, we have potential artists, writers, musicians, teachers, journalists, etc ‘gainfully employed’ as software engineers, bank clerks and officers, lawyers, politicians, policemen and so on.

It is a winner- take- all society. The success of a few people forces other to make wrong choices. For instance, the huge salaries of airline pilots have attracted thousands of youth to try to enroll in flying schools that are mushrooming everywhere. But only a few succeed. Not all have in them the mental and physical faculties required for the job. The losers would have otherwise been absorbed in other sectors of the economy.

The competitive society is most cruel in its treatment of late bloomers. Different flowers blossom at different times. Likewise, some people need time before they can discover their true calling. But the society has no time for such late bloomers. They are forced to take up jobs to avoid social ostracism. The nation loses the services of such people who could have enriched the social fabric had they been allowed to develop their inherent talents at their own pace.

The overzealous pursuit of competitiveness has imposed undesirable costs on society. The problem is that the constant urge to be on one’s toes becomes a habit over a period of time. Competitive behaviour gets embedded and ingrained in the DNA. Recent studies by neuroscientists have thrown light on the plasticity of human brain. When we frequently activate areas in the brain pertaining to aggression, selfishness and fear, the neural pathways in these areas get strengthened. On the other hand, the brain areas that originate positive emotions like empathy and compassion remain dormant.

True, competition per se is unobjectionable as it brings out the best in all of us. We all need jobs, financial security and a decent standard of life. The question is can we temper competitiveness with humaneness? Yes, we can if we adopt ethical behaviour as the defining element for shaping our thoughts, speeches and actions. Ethical conduct will ensure that the losers also do not fare badly in the game of life. But for this to happen we must practice ethics in our daily life to send strong signals to our children that life is not merely about competition; it is also about co -operation and coexistence.