This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 Harker Quarterly.
by Chris Nikoloff, Head of School
My son’s basketball team had its first tournament of the season recently. It was my son’s first basketball tournament in his life. The tournament was an opportunity for the team to experience the dual nature of competition: each contest can teach us about our opponents and ourselves. Sun Tzu, in “The Art of War,” says, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”
At the end of the day, our primary competition ought to be against our own potential, not others. We compete and compare with others all the time, but hopefully only to understand our own potential more clearly. Aristotle said that man is by nature a political animal. We learn about ourselves when we compete and compare, but our competition with others ought to be secondary. Making the comparing and competing with others our primary focus can throw us off track.
A parent recently referred me to William Deresiewicz’s book “Excellent Sheep,” in which the author talks about how students in elite colleges lose themselves to conformity of thought, majors and career paths. A review in The New York Times captures his proposition: “We’ve spawned a generation of polite, striving, praise-addicted, grade-grubbing nonentities.” I don’t think this is entirely fair, but a herd mentality, striving toward a limited definition of success, breeds unhealthy competition and an uninteresting conformity that Deresiewicz laments.
As the nation’s high school seniors are in the thick of early admissions season for college, the parent’s book recommendation is timely. It used to be that a few go-getters applied early to college. Now the majority of ambitious students apply early and often. Competition and comparing are rampant. Deresiewicz caused a stir with his article in The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” and its subtitle, “The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.” Apparently no one is listening to his advice.
Deresiewicz is not without his critics, but I believe his message can help us pay more attention to the second half of Sun Tzu’s advice, “know yourself.” Too often, comparing to others can lead to following others, as Deresiewicz warns. The parent’s son who referred me to Deresiewicz’s book followed his own path in high school, didn’t necessarily load up on APs, and is currently studying something he is deeply passionate about at an Ivy League college.
That is the irony: parents compare their kids to others hoping for any hint of advantage toward getting into top colleges, but those same colleges are actually looking for hints of authenticity in the students they admit. They want interesting learning communities and students who “think outside the box.” As Deresiewicz learned during his stint in admissions, colleges are looking for students with PQs (personal qualities) or who are deeply “pointy” if not well-rounded.
My son’s basketball team learned in competition that they need to switch between man-to-man and zone defense more effectively, and that they need more plays that they can execute. Perhaps they learned more; I don’t understand basketball well enough to say. They could only learn this in competition.
But after the competition they have to return to their practices and face themselves to see if they can reach their potential. Plato famously said, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” That battle with ourselves, our potential, has to be fought alone, and in that battle our true identity is forged, our true path found, after which comparing should mean very little anyway.