Phillipian Commentary: A Generation Shaped by Competition

When it came time for the kids to build a new toy at the annual Kaleidoscope program held at the Pike School, the four-year-olds and five-year-olds spun into action, pushing each other out of the away and hoarding certain materials all in an effort to create the best trinket. Some even sobbed just out of grief when they couldn’t get what they wanted. Shocked by the aggression these kids were displaying towards one another over a cup of paint or a pair of scissors, I told them, “It’s not a competition! We’re just here to have fun!” At those words, some kids frowned and turned away, refusing to listen, while others stared at me blankly. Barely having started elementary school, the word “competition,” not yet even in their vocabulary, these children were already displaying an aggressively competitive edge. Not only is the competitive instinct manifesting earlier and earlier, but the standards children are setting for themselves are reaching new heights.

I’ve seen all different forms of competition flare up throughout my life. Growing up in an Asian household grilled into me the importance of being at the top. Because I was an only child, I never competed to get my parents’ attention. Yet, the idea of competition still shaped my formative years. I was thrown into math, piano, and art competitions, and I constructed a mindset in which making a mistake was not an option. 

Throughout my elementary and middle school years, I remained a top student, and when this became my status quo, the pressure to “beat” out other students increased yet again. I was plagued by the problem that many Andover students suffer from: I was accustomed to being on top. The excitement I felt upon arriving at Andover was quickly replaced by anxiety. Everywhere, I could feel the crab mentality arise. The crab mentality, or “crabs in a bucket,” refers to the way crabs behave when they are trapped in a bucket. An easy escape for a single crab is heavily hindered by the group, leading to the failure of the entire group to crawl out of the bucket. The mentality is often summarized as “If I can’t have it, then neither can you.” The pressure to be the best has become so great that many students have become afraid to take risks. A simple poetry assignment with instructions just a bit too vague left my class floundering and firing clarification questions at our instructor. Despite the assignment being purposely ambiguous so as to allow us to explore, my classmates’ questions were all of the same flavor wanting to explicitly know what the instructor expected from us. “What are you looking for in it? How many lines should it be? Does it need to rhyme? Can you read it over before I turn it in to see if it’s okay?” The stress my class felt was tangible, and as the inquiries continued to arrive and become more desperate, I realized the reason behind our wanting a concrete guideline to follow. For one, it was because we were afraid to fail, and for us, falling short of perfection had shaped our definition of failure. It was also because each of us held a subconscious desire to outperform the rest. Each student strived to present the best poem, best not by their own judgment, but by the only judgment that mattered—our instructor’s.

Of course, there is no way to rid competition from the world; it is a vital part of evolution and a fundamental part of human nature. However, we must find a distinction between healthy and destructive competition and alleviate the resulting built-up pressure. Instead of stepping on one another as we all scramble to reach the top, finding a method of cooperation and offering one another footholds would allow us to achieve a win-win situation. To counter excessive competition, high schools should work to broaden their sights instead of fixing the spotlight on the “elite” students, such as avoiding posting students’ class rank on transcripts, the act of which can heavily discourage students and make them feel bitter. However, as students, if we want to see a change in our lifestyles, the responsibility of changing our mindset to a less toxic one lies on our shoulders as well. At the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of little people trying to live our best lives, and we can do that without dragging one another down.