I’ve never really understood the appeal of competition. Arbitrary, rule governed, masturbatory aids built to see what esoteric set of skills you possess over another relative to the aforementioned arbitrary rule structure. You want to know how to always win at chess? I’ll give you a little secret. When your opponent approaches you and invites you to compete – decline. Then when they turn around to leave, bash the back of their skull in with a tire iron and then agree to play. You’ll win like 99% of the time. It’s under a similar premise that Chessboxing matches begin to make a bit more sense.
In any event, this story is primarily about the best ways to avoid competing. Because at the end of the day the penultimate question one should ask themselves before engaging in activities which necessitate the two resultant categories of winners and losers is: do I want to compete or do I want to win? (The ultimate question is “how should achieve that?”). I am not a competitive person. I do, on the other hand, like winning. Those two need not be mutual interests. And in some critical cases, the process of committing to the latter may necessarily exclude the conditions of the former.
This wasn’t a big election. No, just a college election. If you spent any time doing extracurricular activities in college you are undoubtedly aware that virtually all of them are small. Whenever they show a student government on television or in a movie it’s always some school-wide concern where the hero and villain battle it out for something absurd – the freedom of students vs. the oppressive institution or something like that. In reality, people care less about college elections than they do municipal and state elections. So let me justify my behavior by stating: it’s not like a stole anything that big.
Anyway, I was running for president. The highest position in this organization. Candidates were lacking. I’m fairly certain only two other people wanted the position and only one person challenged me for it. You see, I was essentially “selected” to win. While elections did formally exist, they were built more so as a way of seeming democratic, meeting the guidelines for the student code of conduct, and appeasing the administration. At its core though, these elections were never intended to be truly governed by democratic ideals.
The problem all started when the previous years president mentioned he wanted me to fill his seat. While a lovely proposal and an ideal position to list on my CV for graduate school, I didn’t really care about actually being president. More importantly, the previous president was a bit of a rule follower – he liked to do things by the book rather than rely on unspoken tradition. He believed that some reasonable element of democratic procedure should be followed, and to prove that he publicly announced the competition. He gave people the dates to vote and where – he even went so far as to suggest that at least one person should run against me or that I should find a person to be co-president with (two presidents were allowed if they both agreed to it prior to the election).
Then there was Shane. I dislike Shane. I have disliked Shane for some time. It pleases me to this day to know that I injured his pride by stealing the election from him. I get a great deal of joy knowing that Shane’s life is horrible at the moment. Perhaps, in my heart-of-hearts, I believe Shane deserved what he got. There is simply no excuse, no other sin, than willful ignorance; a dispassion for learning and the refusal to critically engage with the world and the mediums through which we interpret it. Shane was appropriately punished for his crime.
About a month prior to the election I was sitting in my room reading Kant when I got a text from Shane. A challenge. He told me he was going to beat me. He invited me to run against him not the other way around. There I was being told by this ignorant little savage that he was going to compete with me; that we should put it to the voters so the “best” man would get the job. “No, no” I thought, “that won’t do at all.” So I apologized.
Saying “I’m sorry” has both an odd quantity and of power and a unique morphology when it comes to how that power is interpreted. It disarms people usually. You see, Shane wanted to beat me, and in order to do that he needed me to agree to compete with him so as to provide a structural justification for his victory. But I wasn’t about to do that. I wanted to win, not compete. So I apologized. I made it seem as if I was intimidated, made it seem as if I was hurt and scared that he wanted to beat me. Maybe I had done something wrong to offend him, who knows? And just like that – boom – he was disarmed. Suddenly he was apologizing to me, “I’m sorry TM, I just thought I might be fun to make it friendly competition.” And that’s when I told the truth: I don’t want to compete.
There is a method to this. Step 1: disarm your opponent; take their aggression away – get them thinking, confused, or anxious. Anything you can do stifle their attack. Step 2: bait them closer with vulnerability. Like a snake flicking its tail so as to lure its prey toward them. Step 3: Ally with them. Befriend them. Or lure your would-be predator in just enough so they can nibble on you. A few pieces of your flesh for their life. Yummy.
I told Shane the truth, made myself vulnerable. I didn’t want to compete. I wasn’t very good at competing in head-to-head battles like that. I told him directly that if we were to compete I’d probably lose. He seemed put-off by my apparent lack of confidence; after all he clearly was expecting a battle. So when I offered him an olive branch and suggested we could be co-presidents he didn’t know what else to say other than to agree to the proposal. Co-presidency was, after all, an easier meal. He could avoid campaigning and securing votes, and in the end we would both share power. But I had no interest in any of that.
So the agreement went forward. Shane and I agreed to a co-presidency in person, and told the president that we would be co-presidents as well. That was all there was to it. Over that period of time I covertly went around and encouraged people to come and vote for me on election day. I invited those to vote who I knew would vote for me and me alone. With the co-presidency proposal in place, less people would show up to vote than normal anyway. All I had to do was get more of my people in the room when voting happened.
On election day we both met in our department office just prior to the official vote. Shane was in such good spirits. He even greeted me as “Mr. Co-President”. As we collected food and beverages for the election meeting, I smiled politely and told him I had changed my mind. We weren’t going to run together. (Advice: always give people bad news when they are holding multiple, potentially important, items. You have more time to react in case they try to attack you). He was furious.
This brings us to Step 4: Always, always, always, time your strike perfectly. Timing is a tricky aspect of any activity. But failing on your timing is the difference between giving your presumed opponent too much time to react and giving them so much ground where you can no longer react meaningfully. The sweet spot is right in between. In this case, my timing was perfect. The election hadn’t technically started. I wasn’t breaking any rules. But it was too late for Shane to react – it was too late for him to do anything. He was trapped.
Let me take a brief moment here and explain the notion of being “trapped”. In chess a trap is a position in which your opponent is forced into making a bad decision. Example: I gave up a pawn and, in exchange, my opponent is now in a position where they will either lose a rook or a bishop. But that’s not a true trap – that is an inconvenience. A true trap is a paralytic – it stops you from moving; there is no good or bad decision whence caught in the trap. There is only the wait for the hunter. Inconveniences are handy little things, but they are purely procedural – that is to say, they are road blocks on the way toward a situation without options or one in which options are irrelevant. When your opponent can’t move any more, in that caesura between action and the finale – that’s when you see the person you’re actually up against.
As we went into the meeting hall, I quickly informed the president of my decision, I could see Shane fuming. But what could he do? Call me liar? Say I deceived him? He tried to do all those things, but no one took them seriously. Incidentally Step 5 is to keep a cool head about you after you’ve made you move. Stay relaxed, act humble, polite, and (at most) confused as to why anyone would be upset with you. The president accepted that perhaps something had just fallen through, thanked both of us for giving him an update, and began the meeting. He announced us both, sent us out into the hall to prepare our final campaign speeches to the voters present, and talked about recent or upcoming events for five minutes.
In the hallway Shane confronted me. He was angry obviously. But I didn’t need to disarm him this time. Instead I wanted to provoke him, maybe push him a little further so as to make a bad decision and make my victory that much easier. I leaned against the wall, devilish grin on my face, and spoke to him in a haughty tone. Shane asked me why I was doing it, how I could betray him like that, and pointed out that I clearly didn’t care about the position anyway. I didn’t deny anything he said, in fact I told him that I was going to win because I didn’t care as much as he did; that my detachment allowed me to be more calm about the entire situation. I told him that I didn’t want the position at all, but I wanted the title. It would be a boon to my graduate career, a pipeline to a small scholarship, and an inroad to a few other campus perks. Before he could strangle me we were called back inside the meeting hall to give our speeches.
I was invited to speak first. It was a thing of beauty. I’ve been a good public speaker since Third Grade. I used to hate getting up in front of people, talking about why thing X was good or why people should agree with position Y. In elementary school I realized I was a tad more poetic than my peers. Speaking is about passion, about showing your audience something about soul. It’s about painting them pictures they believe in or want to believe in. This college election speech followed roughly the same rubric. I articulated that I was interested in helping students, that I loved our school, that I would lead us to do A, B, and C. Blah blah blah.
Then Shane got up to speak. I love it when a plan comes together, and this was even more beautiful than my speech. Remember, he was paralyzed – what could he say? What could he do at this point? He launched into this horribly incoherent, rage fueled, tirade. He was so angry that only about 40% of his sentences made any sense. It was mostly just a bunch of conflated feelings coming out in something that occasionally resembled syntactical structure. Everyone in the audience was either confused or simply felt embarrassed for the guy. I know it sounds horrible, but it was pretty hilarious from where I was sitting.
Anyway Shane got one vote. Just one. Everyone else voted for me (which, given the minuscule nature of college elections, was only 30 people). The best line came at the conclusion of the election – Shane in his fury and pain at the loss told me I better watch it and that the next book I should read “better be the Art of War, because that’s what [he] was going to bring…” The joke was on him though, I had already read it twice – that’s probably why I won.
I went on to secure two scholarships through the position, got into graduate school, and apologized to Shane later about how it was all a “big misunderstanding” – to which he forgave me. I don’t even think I held elections the following year. In fact I’m fairly certain I just handed the position off to some girl I barely knew right after I got into grad school. She seemed like she wanted to be president almost as much as Shane had – that was my act of repentance I suppose.
Speaking of “cheating” I did anabolic steroids once… for close to four years. They should be openly allowed in every sport. But that’s a tale for another day.