I was at a parent's night at my kid's school a couple of years ago—one of those things where you go to the school at night to meet the kid's teacher and eat a cookie and listen as the teacher tells you all the shit they do in class every day, and then you nod your head in approval. "Ah, yes. MUSIC TIME. That will be good for them." Anyway, I'm standing there like the average awkward dad. I was too shy to talk to other parents, so I just walked around the classroom, picking up shit and putting it back down. I was particularly enthralled by the tambourine. When it came time to talk to the teacher, we gathered in a circle and listened to her informal presentation. One of the dads became very animated.
DAD: I would like to know what you're doing to help make the children competitive.
DAD: We want him to be competitive.
TEACHER: Well, all the students are two years old, so mostly this is just structured playtime.
DAD: But I want to make sure that he will be competitive.
TEACHER: (floundering) Oh, well he'll be very competitive.
DAD: OK, good.
There was a moment of awkward silence, and we moved on to the subject of crafts.
I never won anything as a kid. Contrary to the modern cliché, they've ALWAYS handed out participant ribbons at swim meets. I know because the doorknob to my childhood bedroom was festooned with many, many swim-meet ribbons, none of which connoted any sort of meaningful victory. There were seventh-place ribbons and eighth-place ribbons and some that just said FREESTYLE HEAT on them. I think the highest I placed was fourth. Maybe. If so, it was probably only because the event had four kids in it. And trust me: I knew exactly how meaningless those ribbons were. No child has ever been hoodwinked by phony accolades. They know when they suck.
I never won any prizes at the science fair, or any sort of talent competition. I never won an athletic honor or an academic prize. I got into a fancy prep school, but only because my dad went there, and my dad only got in because his stepdad was a teacher there. Once I got in, I was straight B-minuses all the way through (better than my old man though; he was all C's). Sometimes they would hold an awards assembly at the end of the year, and I would shut my eyes and hope my name got called for an award even though I knew damn well I had done exactly nothing to distinguish myself.
This was right at the tail end of the American era where you could get into a decent college so long as you attended some fancy dipshit school and did nothing else. These days, if your folks have enough money, they can still probably pull this trick off with their croquet buddy in the Harvard admissions office. But otherwise, in modern America, you better have destroyed THE COMPETITION at something in order to gain a foothold into some big college that will offer you a fighting chance at paying off the eventual, crushing debt that same college will heap onto your back. You better have won some academic prizes, or won some kind of prestigious tuba scholarship, or invented a synthetic cell membrane as part of a competition staged by Pfizer so that they could get new product ideas for free. If not, you will be left for dead.
We are a nation awash in competition. Want to work at Amazon? There are thousands of applicants hoping for the same thing. Want to go to the Hollywood stages of American Idol? Well then you'll have to get past the throng of wannabes crowding the audition lines at the Twin Pines Mall, shown on TV with a tasteful crane shot. Wanna get into Harvard? HAHAHAHA NO ONE ACTUALLY GETS INTO HARVARD THEY JUST SAY 5.9 PERCENT OF APPLICANTS GET IN TO GIVE YOU FALSE HOPE. Wanna be president? You better be strong enough to withstand a million mobilized opposition-party workers laboring day and night to let the country know your mom is a whore. There are reminders everywhere that you and your kids won't amount to anything unless you can beat a nameless, faceless legion of competitors. There is always competition out there, waiting and hungry and formidable. The whole damn country is a single-elimination bracket.
This is why we've developed entire microeconomies to help people defeat the competition. From nursery-school parents hiring tutors for 2-year-olds, to the $4 billion spent every year on standardized-test preparation, we are paying top dollar to ensure our exceptionalism, even if making everyone exceptional is an impossibility. We sort our kids. We rate them. We chart them, and we measure their progress against the rest of the country and pray that they come out on the high end of the curve.
And frankly, it's all horseshit. Every last bit of it. The competition industry is crushing us all.
Over the past three years, six students at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va., have committed suicide. One of the students, Jack Chen, left a suicide note saying, "There is too much stress in my life from school and the environment it creates, expectations for sports, expectations from my friends and expectations from my family." Chen was a sophomore with a 4.3 GPA. He killed himself by stepping in front of a train.
Woodson is a great school. COMPETITIVE. It's ranked 128th nationally by U.S. News and gets a Gold rating. I was way impressed when I saw the gold badge. GOLD! Eighty-three percent of the kids there take AP courses, which means that within this competitive school is another ring of competition. And it's a public school, so it's free. I would be happy to send my kids there. Or would I? It's a tricky balance. Impossible, really. I want my kids to go to good schools, but I don't want those schools to destroy them. I want them to be competitive, but not in a sociopathic manner. Is there a school that's competitive but not asshole competitive, and doesn't cost anything? No? Shit.
The school system is set up now to reward only the most bloodless of junior quizbowl studs: children who test well and are self-disciplined enough to study for hours at a time. It is a system designed for those who can handle pressure, for exactly one type of competitive personality. I asked some parent about a nearby high school that got similar high ratings from U.S. News and GreatSchools, and he told me that parents at the school hired off-hour tutors to pump their kids up and keep them ahead of the other students. That seemed like lunacy to me, but this is what many parents now feel they MUST do in order to secure some kind of bright future for their offspring. Either you let the kid slip into a life of fry cooking, or you apply pressure. Lots of pressure. Unbearable amounts of pressure. A "good" school offers such Tiger Mom-levels of pressure.
I have a 5-year-old son who hates losing. I don't mean this as a compliment. He BLOWS at losing. He rigs pretty much any game in the backyard in his favor, and if you call him out on him, he gives you a red card (he's also the ref). And if you beat him (and, as it stands now, I can totally beat him at everything), he cries and cries and cries until you let him win the next game so he stops crying. I took him to a bar to watch Mexico play Holland in the World Cup and he arbitrarily cheered on Mexico. When they blew the game, he acted like a wailing widow throwing herself on a coffin.
And so I've had to spend a great amount of energy teaching my son to lose, to explain to him that you can play hard and play well and still have the misfortune of losing. I need to get him to accept the value of losing, which is frankly counter to how losing is portrayed in the American mainstream. Losers are shunned. Losers are ridiculed. "Loser" is Donald Trump's favorite insult, which is just so telling. Jürgen Klinsmann publicly stated that the U.S. men's soccer team couldn't win the World Cup, and for that obvious assessment, he was scorned by Michael Wilbon and other assorted members of the Hot Take Collective. For Wilbon, even acknowledging the reality of losing is itself a way of losing. In his eyes, real competitors don't anticipate loss. They delude themselves into the possibility of winning even when that's stupid. This is why he told Klinsmann to get out of America. Americans do not think this way. Americans compete.
And that's not a unique line of thinking. I mean, how many times have you heard an analyst praise a guy for being a "competitor," even though, by definition, literally everyone on the field is a competitor? And how many times have you heard athletes scorned for being unable to handle pressure? Tony Romo can't handle pressure. Michael Jordan LIVED on pressure. The sentiment is always there: If you cannot handle pressure, you are a pussy. In sports, you are judged almost exclusively on your response to pressure, even though in real life, pressure is something best avoided. Stress causes headaches, depression, heart problems, addiction, you name it. Pressure will kill you. Doctors do not prescribe pressure for your ailments. You aren't supposed to live life like it's a car accident.
There are only a few people who genuinely enjoy pressure—mostly assholes—and the sporting culture and education culture is basically built to accommodate just them. No one else. From Stuart Scott marveling at Tiger Woods saying "second place sucks" to Skippy Bayless counting LeBron's rings and yammering about his legacy, the message is clear: You need to be able to handle pressure. You'll never win the big prize if you flinch, you loser.
My oldest kid came back from a basketball game a few months ago and when she walked in, I asked her the first question that popped into my brain: "Did you guys win?" I didn't have any expectations in the question. It was just something I was curious about. You played a game. What was the outcome of that game?
But my wife gave me a stern look. "That doesn't matter," she said.
"Well, I mean, it kinda matters," I said. "It's all right to play the game and want to win it. Only natural."
"I guess, but it really doesn't matter."
"Of course not."
"We lost," said my kid.
"Oh well then it REALLY doesn't matter," I said.
I was trapped in a parenting netherworld. I have a hard time striking the middle ground between zealous overparenting and hippy-dippy crunchy vegan artisanal parenting. But this is a polarized culture, so it's hard to avoid being painted one way or the other. Ask your kids if they won and suddenly you're Marv Marinovich. Say it doesn't matter and you might as well live on a commune. There's not much in between, and it's the principal goal of the competitiveness industry to ensure there isn't. You're either extraordinary or you're useless. And once you're into that sort of mentality—trying to pile up excellence on top of excellence—it's hard to pull yourself out of that slipstream.
There needs to be a way to opt out of this. The best way to succeed in life is usually to not process any sort of competition. If you don't know or care that 50,000 people are competing for some job you like, you're probably going to do better. You're probably going to have a clearer focus on your presentation and on phrasing your cover letter just so, instead of lying awake at night terrified that the Prince of Wales also threw his hat in the ring.
Winning shit is nice. I'm never gonna discount how awesome winning feels, even when it involves me crushing my kid at foosball. But winning is best viewed not as a goal, but as the fortunate byproduct of chasing another, more realistic goal—the satisfaction of hard work done well. Enslaving yourself to the almighty W makes you stupid; it deforms you, robs you of your creativity, as you pursue some agreed-upon idea of excellence instead of doing the worthwhile job of defining it for yourself. No one ever thought of a good idea in the middle of cramming for the SAT.
When Louis CK took to Twitter to decry the Common Core curriculum that is now standard in many schools, his chief complaint was that his kids didn't like learning anymore. Rather than exploring new thoughts and ideas, they were basically forced to learn how to be competitive at a bunch of tests, many of them clumsily written. They weren't learning for themselves anymore; they were learning for some faceless exam that would sort them and then tell them if they were competitive or not, and if their school was competitive enough to earn the federal funding needed to remain competitive.
This is competition as an institution, feeding itself at the expense of your kid's enthusiasm. Sure, the kid will learn to hate everything, but at least she'll be fucking competitive. National education policy only enshrines into law the secular religion of competition. Just look at the names: No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Both were premised on the notion of rewarding only those schools that attain certain benchmarks on standardized tests, of rewarding the winners and punishing the losers. (Obama's Race to the Top is notable mainly for spreading the ethic of competition to teachers, whose effectiveness is now evaluated in large part by their students' performance on those standardized tests.) In fact, it's hard to think of a time when education wasn't framed melodramatically as a competitive arena—a place where American children did symbolic battle with the children of our rivals, whether in Sputnik-launching Russia or upstart Japan or monolithic China. The title of one influential report, published in 1983, was A Nation at Risk. Winning was a matter of national security.
Though the report's dark visions of an America brought low by its own stupidity have not yet come to pass—test scores have never been higher, despite what you may have heard—the trickle-down effects of our national policy of "competition now, competition tomorrow, competition forever" are all around us.
My senior year, I applied to a bunch of colleges and was rejected by all of them, save for one (congrats to Michigan for having low standards). When I got my rejection letters, I was told by my parents and friends and what not that college is always what you make of it. You can go to Harvard and be a slouch. You can go to Banana Boat Suntanning Institute and kick major ass. All of that is within your control.
And so the other day I was sitting there, looking at all these public high school ratings on the U.S. News website and what not, and I felt like no one ever, ever tells kids that high school is what you make of it. Or middle school. Or nursery school. No one ever says the obvious, which is that competition is irrelevant once you decide on your own ambitions and the best way of pursuing them—once you've defined your own parameters for success. Being satisfied with the process of learning, or playing, or participating, is what matters. If one of 5,000 other people beat you out for that chili cook-off prize, who gives a shit? You should never rely on overwhelmingly poor odds to define your happiness. Otherwise you'll never be happy. One competitive gauntlet will just give way to the next.
I took my oldest kid to a swim meet last week. She was swimming the backstroke, which is a real bitch because swimming backstroke means you can't see where you're going. I took a video of my kid in the race. She drifted into the lane line a few times. She fell into last place. By the end of the race, she was foundering. I think she came in last. I purposely tried to not look at the other lanes.
The girl got out of the pool.
"What was my place?" she asked.
"Oh gee," I said. "I think you placed second or third." These were likely falsehoods.
"Did you get a video?"
"Uh, you know what? The camera got all weird during the race, so no." That was an outright lie.
"But you swam your heart out. Well done, girl. Did you think you swam well?"
"It was hard to see where I was going."
"Yeah, that can be frustrating. You'll get better the more you race."
We went home and I gave her some cheese puffs. I never did show her the video. But the next day, they were gonna post her times on the wall for all to see. All the kids would crowd around that sheet, to see how they stacked up, to see if they were competitive or not. The race itself would be forgotten, and a time—a cold, hard number—would take its place. A time that would mean everything to them that day but, in the long run, would mean nothing at all.
Image by Tara Jacoby.