Friday, June 5, 2015


The competitive impulse is often the ONLY drive for success.

So wrote reader Foreverman (side note: not only is there a PhD somewhere in a study of self-naming behavior on the internet, but what, I wonder, would happen if we had all of our students choose classroom names?) in a response to my post about defending music education. He has plenty of company, folks who are sure that the only reason the human race isn't still riding in buggies and living in caves is because, competition!

Me? I'm not so sure. I think a case could be made that competition isn't the drive for success often -- in fact, it's probably rarely the drive for success. Cue the video that everyone on the internet has seen at least once and which I have linked to roughly a zillion times:

Dan Pink's talk is one more reminder that many of the things we're sure we know seem absolutely right until somebody makes us think about it. And Pink, unlike certain bloggers, has science on his side. You should watch this. Here are some of my favorite moments.

We are not as easily manipulable and predictable as you would think.

This is bad news for all educational approaches that assume that humans are basically vending machines-- put in the right change, press a button, a can of Dr. Pepper comes out.

The MIT study

Performed by economists and funded by the Federal Reserve. Stack-ranking performers so that you can give bonuses to the winners and ignore the losers-- that works only as long as you're talking about simple mechanical tasks, tasks where you just follow the steps. But if there were any cognitive skills at all, a larger reward led to poorer performance.

This has been replicated over and over, from MIT to rural India by scientists in many different disciplines.

This sort of stack ranking (hit the top step, win a prize) would be the epitome of competition. But it doesn't work. It also explains, in a backwards way, why schools can so easily drift into a dumbed-down position-- because when we give students simple mechanical procedural tasks and offer rewards, they do well. They are successful and we feel successful. But when we start trying to get them to do cognitive work-- well, if we have nothing to use for motivation but competition for the best rewards, we get worse results, and we all feel like failures. It's no wonder that schools may drift back to doing what works-- offering students rewards (grades) for doing simple tasks.

Three Factors Lead to Better Performance (and Personal Satisfaction)

The factors are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy has been steadily stripped away from teaching, and it has never exactly been the hallmark of the Life of a Student. So there's one thing that we don't always have going for us in schools. And competition doesn't put it back. In fact, when competition is implemented in a very narrow manner, like, say, let's all compete to get students to get good grades on these tests, or let's all compete to get the most students to buy our marketing, we're making schools worse, not better.

Compliance is the opposite of autonomy. But all of ed reform is organized about making schools comply.

Mastery is about getting good at doing things, and this may be where competition has a place, because competition against other people with mastery is a good way to measure just how well you've mastered the skill. The best measures of mastery are not necessarily external, which is why so many people are happy to pursue their hobbies and avocations in private on their own time. But there's no question that some people like to measure their mastery against others. This is where competition can make sense.

Purpose is where competition can be the most corrosive and toxic. If the purpose is to win, to beat the other guy, to get the most money, you end up doing bad things. How many many many many MANY examples do we have of individuals and corporations whose only purpose was winning, and so they were willing to do anything to win, and they did, and it was bad. Enron, the banksters that sank the economy, the guys who are currently running my dad's old company into the ground-- these are all people who competed just to win without any better sense of purpose than that.

A company that competes to be the most money-making car company will (and did, for those of us who remember the seventies) make crappy cars. Companies that compete to turn the most profit by finding the cheapest, most screw-over-able workers, do not make the world a better place.

I believe that some advocates of competition say, "Competition really fuels greatness" when they mean "Competition tempered by a sense of ethics and a decent regard for human beings and the community fuels excellence." I believe they do not understand that the various charter frauds and scandals that we've seen over the last decade are not aberrations, but the result of people who say "Competing to win is good" and that's all end everything that they mean.

People imagine, say, a race, in which there's a track and officials and of course some behavior that is Not Allowed. But in modern corporate competition the push is always to get the government to back off and hire fewer referees and make fewer rules and after a certain point, we find people running down the track swinging clubs at the competition while sneaking scooters into their own lane.

So no

Success and excellence are not the result of simple competition any more than a great marriage is the result just of kissing. There are lots of ways to win a competition that have nothing at all to do with being the best-- and if you only care about winning, and not about being the best, you will not stumble upon excellence. And if you can't tell the difference between being the winner and being the best, then you have no business entering the race at all.


  1. Competition undermines collaboration because other people become obstacles to our own success. And competition may "motivate" the top few people who have a chance of "winning", but it can destroy motivation for those who know they don't stand a chance.

    1. That's what I think. People enjoy competition when they feel "competitive": when they already feel they excel. And even then that's usually not their main motivation; they're often trying to compete against themselves, as it were, and take themselves out of their comfort zones.

      But not everybody is comfortable doing that, and as you say, for others it can be very negative. Intrinsic motivation is always better than extrinsic. And for many collaboration is a strong motivating force.

  2. Funny, I just wrote a post about this.

    1. Thanks for the link to your blog! I enjoyed reading through your thoughtful posts. Your analysis of the word "driven" as in "driven by data" is fascinating. It's not often that I run into someone as into the etymology and semantics of words as I am.

      And you're a really good artist! I especially like the portraits because I always think they're the hardest thing to paint, and you really seem to capture the essence of the person. You have such varied interests and talents!

    2. Wow such compliments! Thank you - but I want to point out it is this blog that continues to inspire me. I don't see how he writes so well, so often.

  3. Alfie Kohn has done a lot of writing about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. I'd rather have intrinsic motivation any day of the week, both as a parent and as a teacher. :-)