The Human Condition:

One-upmanship – March 15, 2015

Dash to the finish

I was chatting with the manager of my local motorcycle dealership1 while waiting for the shop to finish my service call, and we got onto the subject of the sales process. As a salesman himself, he recently had a good experience when buying a new car, and we both started telling stories about the people who make for bad experiences.

You know the type of person. He has to drive the hardest bargain, get the dealer to give him a price below invoice, and haggle until the other person is ready to just walk away. He forces every contractor to make concessions on rates and pricing, or offer extra services, then demands the highest level of service and performance, requires extra meetings and site visits, and finally complains about shoddy workmanship.

In the living world outside of business and retail sales, this is the driver who won’t let you pass him or merge into his lane. This is the man—for it seems to be a male trait, although not unknown among women—who has to win, who crows about it when he does, and either pouts or makes excuses when he doesn’t. This is the person who is obsessive about price and quality—not just in matters of work or art that are dear to his heart, but in every category imaginable—and lets you know his exact calculations, too, with the understanding that he never accepts anything less than the best.

Every encounter with this person is a struggle, an abrading of his or her ego against yours or someone else’s. Life for this person is a matter of continuous testing, with myriad acts of judgment both large and small. He or she practically declares personal superiority, conquest, and one-upmanship as a matter of principle.

Please understand that I’m not against seeking value, because the search can lead us to experience quality. I don’t despise saving money, because the quest can lead us to habits of thrift. I’m not against competition, either, because only when people strive against each other in situations that really matter to them can we achieve excellence. But for the type of person I’m describing, quality, thrift, and excellence are secondary or tertiary goals—if they are remembered at all.

A person who is really concerned with quality adopts an outward, almost selfless focus. The search is for the thing itself: a beautiful painting, an entertaining book or movie, a lovely symphony, a fine meal that one can enjoy by oneself but also appreciates simply knowing that it exists and meets some ideal of perfection. One does not absolutely have to possess or consume the object in question and can take pleasure in the joy it will bring to others.2

A person who is concerned with saving and thrift also has an outward appreciation. These are elements of a simpler life, shorn of extravagance, mindful of available resources. Thrift can reflect a yearning for efficiency, for incurring the least amount of waste energy and excess motion. One who values thrift also admires controlled processes, tight systems, and clean exchanges of quality for value, of result for effort.

A person who strives for excellence in competition is pleased to find it, no matter who might have achieved it. Yes, a competitor wants to win, and feels disappointment if the fastest time, the highest score, or the best performance does not accrue to one’s own efforts or team action. But the focus is on the quality of play and a clean result. The true striver abhors a cheat, a shortcut, or unfair advantage as a violation of the rules and spirit of the contest.

The sort of person who makes life a struggle is acting from inwardly focused ego rather than any outward focus on quality, thrift, or competition. He only cares about competition if he can win at it. He argues about price as a matter of pride, not thrift.3 And he mentions quality only when he can possess it to the exclusion of others, as a mark of his singular superiority.

The Zen master would say this attitude is a distraction. The Godfather would call it a waste. It engenders strife where none is necessary. It brings out bad feelings where we should strive for harmony. It creates losers—intentional, hurt-filled losers—where we should work toward mutual satisfaction.

The person who practices this kind of ego-driven one-upmanship is striding the road of bad karma, because he is raising bruises and blisters on all sides. And even if one doesn’t believe in mystical forces of retribution, it should make anyone uneasy to know that he or she is littering the path behind with people who now feel no sympathy or charity, will offer no benefit of the doubt, and will gladly pay back rudeness and bad dealing in kind.

It’s a push-me–pull-you universe out there. The person who rides through it recklessly on a wave of ego has yet to learn this.

1. BMW Motorcycles of San Francisco—a good place to do business, by the way.

2. Certainly, anyone can see how the act of looking at a painting, reading a book, or hearing a symphony can be a shared pleasure and not reduced through consumption. Food is a little harder to understand—until you think how much pleasure people take in sharing with friends their discovery of a new restaurant or a great wine, or reading about it in a positive review with enticing pictures.

3. It should be obvious that someone who is driving a hard bargain on something beloved but nonessential to continued life—like art, books, music, wine … or a new motorcycle—is haggling in the wrong bazaar.