Sunday, January 23, 2011

Teach Your Children: Competition and Comparison

Here's a for what it's worth.

I love competition and competing. I love finding strong competitors who challenge and stretch me. I learn and grow the most when in the heat of competition with people who've broken through barriers that still daunt me.

I've noticed that many people find competition distasteful, something to be avoided, something that can lead to poor self-esteem, something that can end friendships. They discourage competition in everyday situations and limit it to areas such as athletics and chess matches. They'll say things like, "Why do you have to turn everything into a competition?" or "Why must you always compare yourself to others?"

They seem not to discern the difference between opponents and enemies and they seem to personalize comparison and critique.

I believe that folks who have disdain for competition and comparison miss out on endless opportunities to learn and grow. I believe that comparison is a good thing. It's a wonderful tool for learning. When we instruct children not to compare themselves to others, we deny them those opportunities as well; we teach them that there is something wrong with comparison or worse, that if they are the subject of negative comparison or losing a competition, it means something about them.

However, the problem doesn't lie in competition or comparison. The problem lies in the judgments we draw from competition and comparison, when we translate competition into winning or losing and when we translate comparison into better or worse. We amplify the effect of these judgments when we personalize them, when we go from winning and losing to winner and loser, or from better and worse, to good kid and bad kid.

Consider the following scenario. After working hard on a paper that you feel you've done a good job on, you take it to school excited to be reading it in front of your class. However, before your turn to read, Sally Smithers gets up to read her paper. It's so good that the class applauds loudly. The teacher walks over to Sally, claps her on the back and joins in the applause. Everyone is saying things like, "Wow, that was awesome!" and "I never heard anything so good before."

Sally returns to her seat, the roar slowly fading to a buzz and then to a low hum. The teacher claps her hands and says, "Alright class, let's get back to our readings. Let's see, who's next?"

She looks down her list and calls your name. How do you feel?

C.S. Lewis said that true humility does not come in the form of a brilliant woman denying her brilliance or a beautiful man denying his beauty, but instead from each person making honest assessment himself and being as pleased with his own skills, capabilities or attributes as he would were they held by anyone else. Marianne Williamson talks about our greatest fear being the revelation of the brilliance within. We judge greatness and we judge weakness because we make them mean something about the exhibitor of greatness or weakness.

In the above scenario, would we ask that the teacher not have the children read in front of the class? Would we ask the class not to applaud Sally? Would we instruct the children that they shouldn't be comparing themselves to others or competing?

I would say "no" to all the above. I believe that we want to seize the opportunity for self-instruction afforded by Sally's great performance, asking questions such as, "Why did you applaud after Sally finished?" and "What did you like about Sally's paper?" and "Why did you like that?" and "What would you have changed to make Sally's paper even better?"

Following the next reading, the teacher might ask similar questions, but additionally, "How was Henry's paper different from Sally's?" or "What did Henry do that Sally didn't do?" or "What did Sally do that Henry didn't do?", all along guiding the class with more questions that get to the critical differences between the two papers and away from the personal ones.

I believe that by actively encouraging competition and comparison, and by guiding it, we help children to become so comfortable with comparison that they use it all the time to better understand how things work, to be inspired to greater achievement, and to inspire greater achievement in others.

I also believe that when we actively discourage competition and comparison, we teach our kids that competition and comparison are things to be taken personally, that doing well or poorly means something about who they are as people. Further, by not actively guiding kids on constructive competition and comparison, we leave them open to the instruction of others who believe that winning means everything, that you don't want to be a loser, or that you need to vilify the competition. Vilification and taking things personally becomes normal.

Well, that's what I woke up with this morning.

What do you think?

Happy Sunday!


  1. Well, you wake up with the darnedest things, Tef. Thank you; keep ‘em coming.

    I happened to be pondering something related the same morning, actually. I have noticed how the 2 or 3 steps involved in comparison invariably get conflated into one, and give it a bad name. And it would seem that the intention driving the exercise has everything to do with how it's done. If you're looking for a reason to feel bad about, pick one of your weaknesses, and compare to a strong performer in that area, assess your deficit, and beat yourself up for it (optional: exaggerate the deficit). Note how you can use the exact same assessment but create an ambitious/aggressive workplan from it to propel you forward.

    By the same token, if you’re looking to justify doing nothing about, say, your inadequate finances, you can also compare yourself to Cousin Good-for Nothing and come up with the conclusion that you're actually doing just fine, thank you.

    So, as you point out, there seems to be some skill involved in picking a benchmark, evaluating the gap, generating a useful workplan from it, etc., and some honest and loving awareness needed when setting our intention upfront and drawing subjective conclusions from objective assessments. And the stronger our intrinsic sense of security and worth, the more we’re willing to engage freely in this exercise.

    Actually what I was really pondering was tennis. Currently, by virtue of his 16 major titles, Roger Federer could claim to be the greatest tennis player of all time. But if the calendar Grand Slam is your yardstick, then Rod Laver would be the greatest, having done it twice. Say Nadal goes on to do this Grand Slam deal twice, and also win more titles than Federer, then he could arguably become the greatest. However, it would always be possible to find somebody even more accomplished – somebody who excelled at playing and coaching, or in two sports, or sports and politics, and so on. So, if being second-best in a comparison is inevitably a reason to feel bad or less than worthy, the situation is quite hopeless for the rest of us mere mortals. Whose bright idea was that?

  2. I like composition - and I have often been competing against myself: can I do it a little bit faster, a little bit smart etc.

    But I can't help thinking: this is a very masculine way of behaving.

    What I mean is having a clear goal - and wanting to reach the goal - and there by end the competition is a masculin energy.

    A feminine energy might feel that the set up of the composition is limiting, "she" might half way through descide that there's something else she'd rather do.

    So I think there might be people with a strong masculine energy who will love competition and who benefit from composition.

    I think there might be people who are kind of denying their masculine energy and who do not like competition, who feels uncomfortable - but who would never the less benefit from competition if they are guided.

    And then there are the people with a very strong feminine energy who would just not care about winning and loosing - the kind of people doesn't like closings - and they wouldn't gain anything from competition.


  3. Joy,
    Although I could see the use of masculine and feminine energy as a way to characterize one's predisposition to competition, I wouldn't go so far as call them causal; they're metaphors. However, it's probably a metaphor to which many can relate.

    I think the challenge lies in confusing "lust for winning" with "competitive". For me, competing has nothing to do with winning or losing, it has to do with being the best you can be. When you compete, you're challenged in ways that you're not when doing something alone. Runners tend to deliver their best performances when competing, not when running alone. Often times, their competitive performances are significantly better than their solo performances.

    Similarly, many great musicians deliver amazing performances in the company of great performers. When you solo following someone who's just completely torn it up, you tend to go for it, to stretch and be less cautious.

    So, I guess the goal woud be to find all that which is inspirational in competition and to latch into it. Then the role of comparison is that of teacher.

    As Sree points out, you can use comparison as a cheer leader, "See, you're at least not as bad as your slacker cousin Jordan!" or as an accuser, "Why can't you be more like your sister Emma!". However, for me, comparison is best employed as a teacher asking questions, "What made Gloria's performance so inspirational? What was she doing that I wasn't doing?"

    As competition isn't about winning or losing, comparison isn't about worst or best. It's about the specifics that go into making something better or worse. So, while a discussion of who's the best tennis player or the greatest guitar player may be fun at a bar, it's not particularly useful unless the evidence of greatness can somehow be translated into instruction.

    Although I used to shy away from comparison in areas where I was just starting out, I've grown to love comparing what I'm doing to people who are considered to be truly great and to anticipate learning how to do what they do.

    So, perhaps it's competition for inspiration and comparison for instruction. If that's not one's experience, then the problem isn't with competition and comparison, but instead, with how he or she views them.

  4. It might not be causual - but I do think that masculine energy (which both men and women have) is correlated with the desire for competion - not because of the lust of winning - but because the comparison requieres a form of structure that I see as male energy.

    I like the questions after "Sally's paper" - other questions could be "let's take the person who were a tiny part of her story and construct a story about him" (that's how one of my favorite movies were made... "Leon") - that's the kind of question for kids who doesn't care about the competition



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