I’ve blogged before about the nature and benefits of competitive and cooperative play, but we all know what I presented were really idealized situations. Within any community of practice, you find both the light and the dark sides of competition and cooperation. We’ll look at both, but we’re going to start with competitive play, because it’s the more obvious of the two.
We have become a very competitive society. We’re obsessed with rankings, with being “the best”, with believing that there is absolutely no one better than us. We will create incredibly obscure domains, just so we can be the best at something. And if we aren’t, it’s because the person we lost to cheated or worked connections or something equally superficial and stupid. We surround ourselves with echo chambers, and shun those who suggest we ourselves are the reason we aren’t the best.
Just for clarification, I’m not talking here about the people who seize on every little opportunity to tear you down and claim they’re being supportive. I’m sure we all have enough of those in our lives. But to those “supportive” voices, I will say this: If you won’t help someone because it risks making them better than you or you feel compelled to sabotage them, it’s a reflection on you. It says you don’t have faith in your own work, and you don’t have faith in yourself. A true practitioner of any craft doesn’t fear competition because s/he sees it as a chance to show off what s/he currently can do, and to learn from the experience.
Anyway, back to our competitive society, which has really kind of become a celebration of mediocrity. For fear that children will get their feelings hurt, we hand out participation awards like lollipops. “You punched out that kid because he got a better score than you. But it’s okay. It’s not your fault that kid is such a show-off. Here, have a ribbon!” What we’re doing, and have been since at least my childhood, is creating people who don’t take risks, who expect to be applauded for simply existing. They’re unmotivated to do anything, because they’ll get a treat for doing nothing. (Yes, I just compared our society to a bunch of dogs. Which is just unfair, because I like dogs.)
We also have created people who are unable to see not being the best as anything but an attack on their self-worth, rather than provoking the reflection and growth necessary to work harder and do their best. We’ve created a culture of mediocrity, a culture where anyone whose personal delusions aren’t reinforced find it acceptable to turn around and tear down anyone who could potentially outshine them or at the very least, try to drive them out of the competition arena so they’re no longer a threat.
I’ve spent most of my life in one performing art or another, and let me tell you: Those movies and shows you see someone exhibiting typical “mean girl” behavior trying to ruin things for someone else because of their own low self-esteem are not wrong. About a year after I started voice acting, someone convinced me to check out a well-known forum. You could chat with other voice actors, swap tips and tricks, find auditions, create your own projects. Well, the site had been overtaken by a fair number of high school or college-aged fangirls who were convinced they were miles better than their favorite voice actresses, but were tired of getting rejections from smaller producers or being overlooked on YouTube. So, they would create their own project where they would play the character their favorite voice actress played, and then hold auditions to fill the rest of their cast (usually with their own friends). They would then send out rejection letters to those who weren’t cast, often suggesting the person was horrible and should quit voice acting all together, regardless of whether or not it was true. (Strangely, those “well-meaning” rejection letters never came from guys. If anything, when a guy responded it was with an encouraging rejection letter. Something to think about…)
Not all competition situations are filled with girls campaigning to be real-life Plastics. I have become a bit of a reality show junkie. Before you worry too much about my sanity (or what’s left of it), I really enjoy watching shows like Project Runway and American Ninja Warrior. These shows demonstrate elements of healthy competitive behavior within a community of practice. Each participant is there for their own reasons, with their own goals. But they all recognize that they have a shared goal, winning, and that they’re all being put through the same ringer to get there. They’re able to commiserate with each other, encouraging each other to either step up and be good competition or to step off and out of the way. In fact, there are few things more fun than watching Project Runway designers rally around a designer they feel got the short end of the stick, or react to one they feel has been kept over harder working, more talented designers.
Competitive play is an excellent opportunity for those involved in a craft to grow, to share experimental techniques, and to raise the quality of the craft. But it’s also a haven for those with low self-esteem and strong influence to really come in and wreck things, which in turn lowers the quality of the craft. (Are you noticing a theme with these downsides?)