I was looking at a friend’s photos yesterday and realized that most of them are better than mine. In fact, I know four women, including my daughter, who are remarkable photographers and they all take better photos than I do. But that’s okay. I could say it’s okay because I don’t claim to be a photographer. I could say it’s okay because I don’t sell my photos. I could say it’s okay because we aren’t competing. But you know what? It’s okay because that’s just life.
I’m always going to be second best at everything except being Mary Maurer, and that’s okay.
We are a nation, a society, a culture, a species that strives to be the first, best, fastest and greatest at anything and everything we do. Name any sport, occupation, activity, condition, or trait and chances are there is a competition of some sort that will declare someone the BEST at it, at least for the moment. Don’t misunderstand. I enjoy some of those competitions as much as anyone. I’ve even won a few competitions. And striving to be the best often brings out the best in people who didn’t know how much they could accomplish. Competition is not a bad thing.
However, as a teacher I’m also in a position to see the darker side of competition. Parents, teachers, and coaches sometimes forget that winning isn’t everything. If we take that position then we also convey the idea that winning is worth any cost…even lying or cheating. Little boys across the nation recently competed in the Pinewood Derby and I promise you that there were some boys in the competition who did not build their own cars. Don’t tell me the rules. I know parents. I’ve been to more than a few science fairs. I’ve seen the work of talented children, and I’ve seen the work of anxious, competitive parents. I’ve seen kindergarten homework done in cursive! I saw a talk show once that revealed that 70% of the audience admitted doing their child’s homework. It starts with something that small and grows until a school district is fined for falsifying state test results.
I also think we have to be careful with the idea that doing our best and being THE BEST are the same thing. They are not. I think one of the worst things we can teach our children is that the people who aren’t winners are therefore losers. Our children get the impression that the person or team without the trophy is somehow inferior when in fact they might be just as good and might have competed just as well. It is a reality of life that outcomes often rely on luck, subjective judging, or a tenth of a second on a clock. It is also a reality that most winners are the best for only a night or a day or a year, until someone else wins. And that is the lesson to be learned. Winning is a great goal, but it is temporary. What we learn from playing, competing, striving, trying, doing…that lasts forever.
I’m old enough and confident enough to know that someone else’s superior ability does not make me inferior as a person. I do the things I do because I enjoy them and they make me a better person. I do the things I do because they fit my personality and my skills. It is enough to be the best ME that I can be. But children don’t know that. And children who feel inferior often withdraw from trying, or cross the line into lying and cheating in order to feel better. Or they bully other people so they can maintain their perception of superiority.
Somehow we have to learn to balance our need to win with the satisfaction of “just being nominated”. I know that sounds like a naïve cliché. But I think it is an important distinction that many of our children are missing.
Winning is fun. Winning is exciting. Winning is gratifying. But winning isn’t everything. It’s only a way of measuring a moment in time. Real life is measured in years and tears and laughter. It’s about enduring the race, not crossing the finish line.
Have a wonderful day!