The Award Trap (Or, A Case Against the American Competitive Spirit)

I'm not a fan of competition.

That's part of the reason why I started the National Theatre for Student Artists (NTSA). When I researched opportunities for students from across the United States to share their work, I was bombarded with opportunities for them to compete against one another -- not collaborate with one another. And, if there's one thing that I've learned at Uncommon Schools, it's that a group of highly-skilled professionals working together can make extraordinary gains.

I don't believe that competition necessarily begets strong results. I remember reading McKinsey's infamous guide to layoffs, The War for Talent, during my undergraduate years. The book advocated pitting employees against each other in a race to the top -- the most "talented" would be promoted at breakneck speed, while the least "talented" could be let-go at a moment's notice. Jack Welch, former president of GE, developed the 20-70-10 System, which annually culled the bottom 10% of workers, regardless of how far their performance was above the established "norm" outside of the company. It was a Darwinian approach to business -- and one that didn't quite work out as planned. Enron, founded by a McKinsey alumnus, promoted this "rank-and-yank" philosophy, and it led to employees scamming the system instead of actually innovating. When you're under that kind of competitive pressure, all day and every day, breaking the law to get ahead starts to sound like a good idea. Or at least an idea that the guy in the cubicle next to you might not have thought of already.

Confession: I cheated in high school. I cheated in middle school. I can't really remember, but I'm willing to bet that I cheated in elementary school as well. It's not because I hadn't studied the material or because I wasn't smart enough. (I never cheated in college and still managed to graduate with distinction.) It's because the pressure to succeed, to outpace every other student in my graduating class, was so ridiculously high that I started doubting my own abilities. Yes, I could submit my best work -- but what if it wasn't good enough? And by "good enough," what I really meant was: What if it isn't better than everyone else's? There's not that much of a jump from using the textbook to "double-check your work" on a take-home test to fudging a few numbers on the accounting spreadsheet that you send into the IRS. It's the reason why I keep meticulous QuickBooks records for NTSA and never try to finesse my numbers, even if it will make life harder. In terms of slippery slopes, that one's covered in black ice of the deadliest variety.

In a 1987 issue of Working Mother, Alfie Kohn wrote: "Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you've done." The problem isn't just that our students are falling into The Award Trap; it's that this need for external validation follows them throughout their entire lives. As a Type A personality, I find myself always jonesing for my next credential fix. I'm perpetually looking for metrics that will help me measure myself against my peer group. Since I excel in my profession, I try to rack up as many teaching awards and certifications as I can. This has two effects:

1. I tend to shy away from things that I might not succeed at.
As I get older, this has gotten easier for me. I accept that I might not be the fastest hiker on the Appalachian Trail, that I might be the clumsiest climber at Brooklyn Boulders, that I might score in the bottom 20% on the quantitative section of the GRE the first time around. I've also had the concept of malleable intelligence beaten into me by Teach for America and Uncommon Schools. So I know that if I keep trying, I will eventually get better. But think about how much better I could be now if I hadn't been so afraid of failure when I was younger. Think about how many more miles I might have run if I hadn't been comparing myself to the (much "sportier") girls in my class. I know that strengths-based development exists, but we shouldn't confine ourselves exclusively to our "natural talents." We should be ready, willing, and able to stretch beyond our comfort zones. We should live to fail (as they tell me on Daily Burn).

2. I've lost sight of what "success" really means.
I'm going through a period in my life where I'm struggling to identify what success looks like. I've always looked at my credentials as a way of evaluating if I should be happy or not. But in my perpetual quest for the next degree, the next fellowship, the next feature article, I've realized that there's a law of diminishing returns. I no longer get the same rush from receiving an engraved wall plaque as I did back in high school. So I'm forced to look around and ask: Now what? If winning isn't the key to happiness, then what is? If our culture wasn't so deeply rooted in competition, then we might have fewer 30-somethings looking outside of themselves to assess their own happiness, as opposed to looking inward.

Later this week, I'll be posting about the merits of competition. There are some circumstances in which competition can be beneficial for students; however, for the most part, I'm decidedly planted in the collaboration, not competition, camp.

Day Four (31 Days of Trip Planning): Contacted Complex Youth Theatre, Draíocht's D15 Youth Theatre, and Rough Magic's SEEDS Programme. (SEEDS is one of the best artist development programs in the world. I'm looking forward to writing a post about their work this summer. Absolutely in awe of the amount of talent that's come up through their ranks.)

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