There are a lot of people out there who like to win.
We all know them. It goes down to their very core: the drive not only to survive or to be comfortable, but to survive better, be more comfortable. They want to be the best and they want for others to recognize that they’re the best. They want to win the game visibly, even if other, non-game-related things have to suffer. In my line of work, I come into contact with these people a lot.
One SAT student I work with refuses to move forward with any lessons until we’ve graded his homework and calculated what percent he got right. Invariably, no matter how well he did, he asks how good it was compared to my other students. Every week he updates me about where he falls in his class ranking at school, the amount of extra credit he’s done, and how many more books he reads than his twin brother. Last night, his parents emailed me to ask what percentile he’s in, based on his homework and practice tests. I told them I didn’t have those numbers, but that he had 90% accuracy or better on almost everything. They responded, Well, but anecdotally… how’s he doing compared to the other kids?
In order to engage the competitive impulses in an individual, the steps are simple:
1. Introduce a framework in which different parties are judged against each other as more or less valuable.
2. Make the title of “most valuable” appear attainable.
3. Give it, for the time being, to someone else.
It sounds obvious, but set up this structure and watch eyes light up, nostrils flare, sweat drop, and money pour out of pockets. True competitive spirit, as I’ve seen it, has far less to do with survival or well-being than it does with trophies and rankings, the notion of proving one’s worth in a public way, and the only way to activate that drive to prove in people is to imply that someone else might be on top.
And there’s nothing wrong with a competitive spirit. The real problems arise when a structure is set up by and for the competitive, but everyone has to operate inside of—or in many cases outside of and around—it.
Take standardized testing. You have a system in which an entire nation of adolescents is very clearly and precisely being ranked against each other in order to prove to the universities of their choice that they are not only fit to contribute to the community, but that they are more fit than 80% or more of the other individuals applying. That’s one thing. But these students are not just being ranked and compared by their self-selected schools and programs; they are being stratified by national corporations—the College Board and the ACT, among others. These kids thereby undergo a highly public, incessantly discussed, and by all accounts, irrationally depended-upon scrutiny that measures them against each other on countless micro and macro scales. In some circles, it’s viewed as a right of passage, an inevitable yardstick by which they are measured at the exact point they enter what we perceive as social adulthood.
We push them all out of the nest at the same time, and give them a literal number telling them how ready they are for flight. We also give them the number of exactly how many fledglings are better and more prepared than them.
Meanwhile there is an unthinkably higher number of students who hardly hear about these tests in the years, months, and days leading up to the exam. They are not trying to win, because they don’t even have access to the game. It’s like we’ve invited half the nation to the arena just to be spectators.
And it doesn’t stop with the ACT or SAT. In most major cities, there’s a building pressure among the wealthy to get into the right high school. Say you live in a district in which the local public school isn’t perceived as up to par. It might be underfunded, the students might perform poorly on standardized evaluations and college admission rates, or maybe it doesn’t offer resources or support for students with special needs.
In general, your options are going to be private schools, magnet public schools, or specialty/niche independent schools (Catholic School, Jewish Day School, Foreign Language Academies, Performing Arts Schools, etc). Each type of school comes with its own exam and application process. Imagine the college admissions process in a bottleneck. Instead of hundreds of schools with thousands of admissions slots, you’ve got maybe four or five viable options, and are competing for a tiny number of seats against a proportionately higher number of candidates.
I’ve lost track of how many clients have used the expression “play the game” while talking to me. The first time, though, was a mother over the phone, signing her daughter up for tutoring to take every possible high school entrance exam. She was already in the local Catholic middle school, but that had no bearing on her chances of getting into the corresponding high school. “We’re not this kind of family,” the mother told me. “I’ve never paid for tutoring in my life. But she needs to get into a high school—I don’t know what we’ll do if she doesn’t. I don’t want to drive her crazy or make her think she’s not good enough, but the stakes are so high for her already. We’re on the field whether we like it or not, we don’t have any choice but to play the game, right?”
Which brings us back to survival. We’ve put a system in place inside which the competitive thrive. A lot of people like to win. And we’ve given them the chance to. But the competition, as we’ve devised it, is compulsory. Everyone has to play the game. And while in many cases what you win is just a trophy—a number, a percentile—what you lose could be an education. And so people are driven to do things they wouldn’t otherwise, become the type of family they aren’t. Spend money they wouldn’t to get the scores they need to. And what about families who don’t have the resources to compete? Families in underfunded districts without hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on specialized education? They’re in the game too. The message is implicit: they’re being told to forfeit. They see what the most competitive among us have so much trouble recognizing while we’re working and training to win. The game has been fixed for years.