In short, I’m agin’ it. Here’s what I mean.

This morning, a colleague sent me an article by a woman who is a young Harvard professor that I think speaks to the notion of competition in a compelling if slightly tangential way. For all success-a-holics, it is worth reading:

I remember a bright autumn day when I was around six years old.  My mother took a friend and me to the park where all kinds of vivid leaves were strewn across the grass in every direction.  My mother, surprisingly (as a special ed teacher, she usually didn’t do things like this!) challenged us to see who could find the prettiest leaves.  Now, the little budding artist in me had already been enchanted by the hues and shapes spread before me and I had been about to run up and inspect them.  But my friend — whose name I cannot remember, only that she had long, red hair and was nimble — immediately responded and ran around picking up all those beautiful leaves.  Whereupon I retreated.  I wanted to enjoy and ‘study’ those leaves in situ and somehow was offended by the idea of disturbing them, as their positions on the dark green lawn where they fell were part of their charm for me.  I hung back behind my mother who, clearly dismayed, whispered gently, ‘Beth, why don’t you pick up some leaves?’.  I couldn’t speak or move.  I was paralyzed by disappointment that I was expected to perform even at the park! That scene has been replayed in my mind ever since.  I have never understood the competitive spirit.

Now, that is not to say that I have never wanted to get recognition. But I have found that curiously, I never enjoyed the notion of ‘beating’ someone else. So, when it came to team sports, I was hopeless.  I just didn’t care if we won! Likewise to this day, whenever I am about to ‘win’ the White Elephant game at Christmas, I inevitably find a way to lose, to make sure someone else gets the best gift (and I always try to bring something nice).  I am not being noble, I just feel terrible when my winning means someone else loses.

Malcolm Gladwell has spoken out recently on college football.  He, of course, is concerned about the physical harm caused to the student athletes’ brains by such a violent contact sport, and extends this to cover boxing as well.  I heartily agree on that basis but I take it a step further.  I think organized competition among children who are still formative in not only physical, but emotional, intellectual and social dimensions, is a mistake that redounds to problems over their lifetimes, with profound societal and even global ramifications.

Isn’t competition natural, we might ask?  Yes!  A clear holdover from our 5 million year developmental history as hominids. Like most living things on this planet, there is a drive for survival that has translated into a biological need to secure resources, sometimes finite, often at the expense of other organisms.  It is instinct and the animal kingdom (as well, I assume, as the fungal, vegetal and viral) is impelled to act combatively as a result.

But, we are no longer merely animals.  We have the cognitive ability to reason, reflect, and be self-aware.  Thus, the natural drive is no longer an apt excuse.

When children are taught from an early age to compete, they develop that mentality often at the expense of viewing cooperation as a more effective way to achieve goals.  This can be somewhat gender driven, as boys have a makeup that lends itself more readily to fighting. But that can be shaped into productive energy instead of conflict.  This is one reason that women tend to be more effective project managers, by and large, not only because they apply novel approaches to problem solving but because they more easily see work as a collaborative effort.

My view is somewhat radical.  If I were to re-imagine the educational system, it would be along the lines of Waldorf Education, which, over the past 100 years has proven itself worldwide.  In Waldorf schools, there are no grades from kindergarten to sixth grade.  The teachers write extensive narrative evaluations of the child, painting a portrait of the whole person, describing talents and areas for continued improvement, etc.  Waldorf students typically work together on projects and while I am sure natural competitive instincts creep into the process, the system does not institutionalize it and thus it is usually crowded out as the children learn to help one another succeed. They do participate in sports, but don’t view it as essential to be the ‘champions’.  And Waldorf parents tend to support this notion at home as well.

Another personal childhood anecdote comes to mind. When I was in the fourth grade, a new girl moved to our neighborhood and was in my class.  Her name was Ellen, she was rather pretty and very quiet.  Ellen was exceptionally good at two things: drawing and Jacks.  I was fairly good at both too and so we became friends.  Ellen came to my house one day after school and we immediately began to play Jacks.  I will never forget, after she left, my father said that Ellen was an exceptional person, because, even though she was virtually a Jacks expert, she let me win.  In my family, that generosity trumped talent. And Ellen was every bit as expert in drawing, far beyond anyone in our school, even the eighth graders.  But Ellen was bound to drop out of high school later.  Why?  Because Ellen was a ‘slow’ student.  She had been tested and immediately characterized, streamed into the lowest IQ group.  Her advanced emotional IQ, digital talents with a tiny cheap ball and flimsy metal trinkets, her beautiful artistry with paint, pastels and crayons were all discounted.  Ellen was considered by the system to be stupid.  I have always wondered what Ellen would have achieved had she gone to a different school (for that matter, wouldn’t all of us have done better?).

If we eliminate the idea of competition, academic, economic, social, personal, artistic, etc. and instead concentrate on skill development, improvement, adding talents and abilities, sharing them and encouraging one another, from earliest childhood, we open society to a more varied pool upon which to draw, maximizing productivity and progress.  I cannot think of an area that would not benefit from this approach.

As for sports, aren’t they meant to develop the individual in terms of strength, coordination, agility, endurance, flexibility, and the like?  Can’t this be done without adrenaline-producing aggressiveness that accompanies the competitive impulse?

Seeking recognition is quite another thing.  It simply means being validated, appreciated and understood, all positive outcomes of one’s individual or group effort.  Being praised, assessed fairly and encouraged are rewarding. So why do we need to compete, which implies contesting, literally taking the opposing stance to someone else, as if there is one superior or ultimate way to do something and any one of us is in a position to decide what that best way is and award a sense of achievement to one entity and failure to another. Why is a Silver medal less valued than a Gold?  Why not have Platinum, Diamond? Why not keep raising the stakes higher and higher?

When you think about it, making things into a contest or competition shifts the focus away from the intrinsic merit of the activity itself to the rather dimensionless binary win/lose axis.  Don’t you also lose control of your own creative process that way by handing over the power of evaluation to others?

Will some people excel only in that way? Probably, but how many more would feel fulfilled, if we took those rather puerile incentives away?  And how much more peaceful, joyous and enriching an environment would be created wherever that sense of achievement was based purely on productive and effective results, not besting others.  So much wasted humanity could be redeemed and put to use moving us forward as a species.

How much bullying, depression, alienation, and even suicide would be averted? How much debilitating stress, dependency and addiction avoided?

I am not saying that all competition should be eliminated, even if there were the power to do that.  I am suggesting that it not be taught, fostered, promoted or encouraged.

This is something to consider (and I am still working through the kinks in this concept myself).

It's your turn! I want to know what YOU think :-)

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