I must have read about it during my college years, but it took an article on cancer cells by Dilip D’Souza for me to stumble (again) upon the concept of Competitive Release. Competitive release is said to occur when one of two species competing for the same resource, disappears. This allows the remaining competitor to utilize the erstwhile shared resource more fully than it could in the presence of the first species. The phenomenon was demonstrated in 1961 by Joseph Connell in the context of competition for space between two barnacle species.
‘Competitive Release’ had a ring to it and the dyad kept coming back to me as I went about with my Work@Home routine for the next few days. The phenomenon, I realized can be applied to a variety of contexts.
We have heard, learnt and seen how plants of different heights compete for sunlight. In the lawn behind my house, it took a round of pollarding by a heartless gardener to bring up a carpet of green, soon after a shower.
In homes with multiple siblings and much divided resources, sometimes it takes one of them to leave the nest for the other(s) to bloom.
In work-teams, we often find unpolished gems, crusting unnoticed, and not living up to their potential. They rise and shine, to the surprise of all, soon after a leadership change, or when the gems themselves are re-assigned to a diamond-cutter.
It will sound morbid, but while conducting social assessments in Madhya Pradesh (India) in the late 1990s, I came across a village where a majority of pucca houses belonged to women rendered single due to untimely passage of their spouses. Further enquiry revealed that many of these women used to toiled as labourers (including on their family farms) even during their happier times. When tragedy struck, faced with hunger and impoverishment, they took over the mantle of the household head, engaged in entrepreneurial activities and leased their inherited lands at competitive prices, driven by a mission to ensure a good life for their children. This is how they transformed their kuchha houses into pucca ones.
Something similar goes on at the individual level too. More often than not, we let gloom, negativity and insecurities dominate our mind. It is only after we have resolved our emotions, and counted our blessings, that we are able to cast away the shroud and peace ascends to become all encompassing. A helping hand, an empathetic ear, or a few kind words, even from unexpected quarters, are enough to thin the pall for us to emerge beaming bright.
So, how can we apply our understanding of Competitive Release to day-to-day life? One way may be to remain aware and dive deeper into situations where crowding and competition are too intense to enable equal opportunities of expression, recognition, or visibility to all. Identify people, thoughts and emotions as are languishing or struggling and need a ‘release’ to bloom to their potential. We may also identify and engage with those who are, knowingly or unknowingly, impeding the happiness and growth pathway of others. As Marcus Aurelius said and I believe it’s possible, that what stands in the way, becomes the way.
Like a skilled silviculturist, explore possibilities to prune, pollard or thin-out the dominating tendencies, and provide the sensitive or repressed actor a rightful release to flourish. This would mean giving younger or weaker siblings extra attention, support and time, offering challenge-assignments and mentoring to workers toiling at tasks that no longer inspire them, and resolving our own internal conflicts and cultivating emotional resilience.
Let us go ahead and gift ourselves and to those whose lives we touch, a competitive release!