Thursday, September 03, 2009

Competition is bad (for some of us)

Siblings compete with each for their parents’ attention and affection. Classmates compete with each other to be ranked first in the class. HKCEE candidates compete to get the largest number of As. Researchers compete to publish the largest number of papers, to induce the largest number of citations, to garner the largest amount of funding. Professors compete to receive the best feedbacks from students. Universities compete to be ranked first. Competition is supposed to be effective in motivating people to do their best, to improve themselves.

But competition also motivate people to jump the gun in sprint races, to take short cuts in marathons, to cheat in examinations, to steal other students books so they cannot study, to steal other students’ homework, to not share information with others, to pretend they are not studying hard so that others would not study so hard, to do only what counts in the competition, for students to study for the grade rather than knowledge, for professors to concentrate on research rather than teaching because research counts more than teaching in a university, ...

Worse, there is only one winner in each competition. Or very few. All others, the vast majority, are losers by definition. The winner can be justifiably proud. But what are the others supposed to think of themselves? If I am the strongest, or at least have a good chance to be the strongest, I would not mind - in fact, I would welcome - competitions, through which I can show off my superiority. But if I have no realistic chance of winning, I would dread competitions, through which I am forced to lay bare my inadequacy.

Often we fail not for the lack of trying. I know this girl who is about 12, studying in grade 4 in an orphanage. Actually nobody knows how old she is because she was picked up from a train station. Even though she is in a class with kids years younger than she is, she cannot follow and would not able to do the assignments if others do not let her copy theirs. What are her prospects of life in a competitive world? Hers is an extreme case, but there are numerous others whose problems differ only in degrees of seriousness.

Competing with myself, against self-imposed constraints or imagined inadequacies, is a healthy way to improve myself. If I prove to myself that I can do something that I did not think I could do, I am a winner and I can be proud of myself. But I am not convinced that competition in general is such a good thing. There must be beter ways to bring out the tremendous potential in each of us.

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