I’m not a competitive person. Let me correct that. I try not to be a competitive person. I’ve recently been playing some of my favorite games from childhood like Monopoly, Chess, Spades, and Madden and I’ve been reminded of the competitive streak in me that hates losing. This streak has been relaxed in much of my adult life, and I tend to think that’s been to my benefit. Two pieces come to mind as I write this. One is a piece written by Slim Jackson of Single Black Male on the importance of asking questions. The second is what I heard on WAMU’s “Tell Me More” while driving home from work regarding the competitive nature generally assumed by (or dictated to) men.
These two concepts go hand in hand in my opinion because I’ve found that at times where I see a person as “my competition” I’m less likely to seek advice or help from that person. Doing this limits my resources and the set of people who can help me. I know that one of the hardest things to do while playing a game like Madden is asking my competition “how’d you just make that play” or listen to this competition explain how he knew to make such a play. However, its just this ability to swallow my pride and ask these questions that I’ve gotten better in Madden. I will admit that I’m not the most humble person on the face of the earth and so there are some things that I haven’t asked how to do. Generally in those things, I’ve found myself repeatedly playing the game trying to figure things out for myself.
There are applications of both sides of this to the real world. Some who love competition will say that it brings out the best in us, and they’d be sure to point out the feeling of satisfaction we get by working independently on a problem. As I look through my lists of inspirational quotes, I’m reminded of this with often repeated statements like “failure is the key to success”.
As rewarding as a competition can be, there’s also an important saying that we don’t need to re-invent the wheel. And what often gets lost in the do-it-yourself nature of competition is the ability to utilize all possible resources available to us. In particular, the skills of how to acknowledge the things we do not understand and how to formulate questions aimed at gaining understanding.
This brings us to is the other side of the competitive spirit. As rewarding as it is to be able to say, “wow, I can’t believe I was able to figure that out on my own”, it is also a stressful situation and there are many who are never able to say those words. Should these people be satisfied with failure?
I do not ask this in some devil’s advocate type of way. I ask coming from the point of view of a mathematician, an educator, and as a former student. I had a pretty dark moment in graduate school where I realized that my mere “love” of mathematics would not get me through qualifying exams. It wouldn’t suddenly make text books and academic papers instantly understandable. Suddenly I was placed in an uncomfortable position. Instead of always being the one who was the first to get the concept and who was leading the study groups on it, I’d be the one asking the questions. Looking at this in a “competitive” frame of mind (as I did then), I felt like I was losing the game.
This same moment though, is where my thinking was really changed. There was one thing, and one thing only that I would consider a failure and that was not finishing. I view everything else as a matter of swallowing my pride and readjusting my thought process to help get to that point.
Unfortunately though, many others do not get to this point. Many get lost in the scramble of the competition and do the equivalent of folding your hand in poker. They realize that at their current pace there is little to no chance that they’d win and so they just leave the game. And this is a real risk that we’re running with competition, particularly as STEM fields are becoming more and more important and we’re trying to encourage students to focus on these areas. What may be necessary to bring this about is a more cooperative approach to these things.