Monday, July 18, 2016


"You both worked very hard, and in a way you're both winners. In another more accurate way, Barney's the winner." ~Homer Simpson

I joined my first sports team as an eight-year-old, a baseball team, and continued to play competitive sports through high school. I never minded that there were winners and losers, at least I don't recall ever celebrating or mourning beyond the immediate aftermath. Sometimes I hear professional athletes say that they hate to lose. Maybe that's what prevented me from going any farther in my sports career: I didn't sufficiently learn to hate losing.

I was raised on the mantra, "Just do your best, that's all we ask," which meant that if I was going to have any special competitive motivation it was going to come from within. When I closed the door on my competitive sports career, it was without regret, although it had shaped the story I told about myself, one that took decades to re-write. You see, I had enjoyed the competition while on the field, and so had taken to talking, and even thinking, about myself as a "competitive person." That began to change, however, as I moved out into the real world to find that the kind of competition one encounters on the field, pitch or pool, with its rules and clear definitions of winning and losing, and shaking hands at the end, bore little resemblance to the icky, rule-less, backbiting crap in which the adults out there were engaged.

At first I thought, being a competitive person and all, that my problem was simply that I hadn't yet figured out the rules or that I'd not yet found "my game." So I dodged my way through that first decade of my adult life, this self-described "competitive person," trying to learn how to be competitive in business. I'd come of age in Ronald Reagan's America and it was a life-changer to finally realize that the so-called meritocracy was a myth. I saw idiots winning and geniuses losing; I saw hard work and innovation pushed aside in favor of what used to be called "networking," but was really just schmoozing. If I was going to succeed in business, doing my best wasn't going to be enough: I was going to have to care so much about winning that I was willing to walk on other people, cheat them even, deceive them, and make them into losers.

I walked away into a lost decade during which I had to re-write the story of who I am.

Today, I think of myself as a cooperative person. I'll still compete with you on a basketball court, at a ping pong table, or backgammon board, but I'm truly motivated by getting up each morning and seeing what we can do together. Those are the real successes in life: the ones we share with others.

I hope everyone recognizes that preschoolers are far too young for competition, and I sincerely hope that our public school system comes to understand that it is never appropriate to make competition a part of education. And even when it comes to sports, preschoolers simply aren't developmentally ready for the beat or be beaten world. Too much too soon can really do a number on a kid.

I also hope that everyone recognizes that no human is ever too young for cooperation. The whole reason our school exists is to be a place in where children come together to practice the skills of friendship and community, a place where "doing your best" really is all anyone asks, and where we're all here to help one another succeed rather than view our classmates as benchmarks against whom to measure ourselves.

Awhile back a boy at school began challenging his friends to foot races. When they accepted his challenge, they would line up at the top of the playground hill, then together, race pell mell down to the bottom. The finish line was reached when one slapped the doors of the shed. At first, he would crow, "I win!" with each victory only to soon find that no one would any longer accept his challenges. The races disappeared for a few days only to reemerge when he shifted his approach. Instead of racing, he practiced moderating his speed making it so that each race resulted in a tie. The kids would charge to the bottom, then slap the door together, beaming into one another's faces while shouting, "Tie!" then do it again and again and again.

Or in another, more accurate way, they are both winners.

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