Less competition, more cooperation

By Ande Jacobson

In the U.S., it seems like everything is turned into a competition. Our economic system, capitalism, is based on competition, at least in theory. Schools are usually based on some kind of competition for grades. We’re trained from early childhood to compete. To win. We’re often told by society that if we don’t win, there’s something wrong with us. Rather than striving to improve our skills for the personal satisfaction of doing something well, the goal is instead to be better than somebody else. Sports permeate society reinforcing a mindset of striving to beat the other guy rather than focusing on helping one another hone our skills.

All of this competition has a seamy side and causes far too many people to struggle competing to get into schools, or places of employment, or housing. Even just in everyday interactions on social media, it’s not enough to put one’s thoughts out there. We have to get “likes” on those thoughts, and for some, their self-esteem is too often tied to a pathological need for public reach.

As adults, the news focuses on those who have the most. Whether it’s money, customers, name recognition, possessions, or any other measure, far too many people are focused on acquiring more than they need, especially if it prevents others from obtaining a fair share. But to what end do those at the top keep acquiring more of everything? Nobody lives forever, so why should anybody strive to have more of something than others? When they die, somebody else will take control of their belongings, so why hoard more than they need in the first place?

The truth is that humans are communal. As living creatures, we need the support of our collectives. Almost nobody can survive completely on their own. We all rely on the combined skills of our societies for the things we need to live. We rely on farmers and ranchers for our food. We rely on municipal districts and suppliers for clean water to drink. We rely on a whole raft of manufacturers and contractors for our shelters. We rely on a combination of government support and private contractors for our transportation including vehicles and roads on which to travel.

What if we could cooperate more and compete less? I think back to high school and a few of the unique experiences that helped shape my views toward more cooperation, in part because I loathe the ultra-competitive aspects of so much of society.

My math and science classes in high school were graded on a straight percentage basis rather than a curve, so each student’s mastery of the material was evaluated objectively rather than trying to stack the students against one another. When I was a freshman in high school, I got the opportunity to be a TA in my math class because I came in with a working understanding of the material, freshman algebra, even though I technically hadn’t had the class before. The reason for that went back a couple of years. In seventh grade, we were supposed to be tested to determine who got placed into algebra in eighth grade which would later allow those students to take calculus in their senior year of high school. The problem for me was that I was out sick the day they administered the test, so I ended up in the advanced eighth grade math class instead. The algebra class was the period before ours, so when I came to the classroom each day, the teacher hadn’t yet erased the board from the algebra class. I would often ask him questions about what was there before he erased it, and somehow, between that and further discussion after class, I managed to absorb the year of algebra in addition to my own math class’ material.

When I got to high school, it became clear that I already had a working knowledge of algebra, so my freshman math teacher had me do a self-study algebra course for the first few weeks of the school year, had me take the two semester finals, and then he gave me a choice. I could either study geometry the same way, i.e., through self-study, and then join the trigonometry class my sophomore year, or I could remain in my freshman algebra class as a teaching assistant (TA) helping my classmates with the material during our study sessions after each day’s lecture. I chose the TA route because I didn’t think I had the same kind of background in geometry that I did in algebra.

I very much enjoyed helping my classmates that year, and it was nice to get some experience as a TA so early on. A little later in high school, I became a private math tutor and had a few students from other schools. It wasn’t about grades. It was about helping people understand and master the material.

I was also part of the math team throughout high school which was technically a competitive activity with each school in the district sending a team of students to solve math problems against the clock and each other. Despite the team competition, these events were more about the problem solving and the cookies after the fifth problem than actually winning anything for most of us. Everyone there was a good math student. We all enjoyed the puzzles and talking about math with others who shared our appreciation.

I later encountered a couple of courses at university, one as an undergraduate and the other as a grad student, where the grade wasn’t the thing. The focus was ensuring that every student could master the material rather than having them compete against one another.

The first class was an undergraduate linear algebra course. In that one, the professor decided to grade the class on a straight percentage basis, and each student ended up getting an A or a B of some sort based on their mastery on the homework and the tests from an objective rather than a relative perspective. He said it wasn’t how the department usually graded, but he specifically didn’t want to penalize anybody just because they landed in a particularly high performing class.

In grad school, I had an unusual algebraic number theory course. It was a small class, and most of us got together on Saturday mornings to tackle each week’s homework. We told the professor what we were doing, and he thought it was a great idea. Each Saturday, we shared a tasty international potluck brunch while we debated the proofs for that week. Then in class we each handed in our versions of the solutions. The professor ended up cancelling all of the tests, and although we had to attend the final, he held it in the campus pub where we discussed math along with a wide variety of other subjects for the allotted time. Because it was clear that everyone had a working understanding of the material through our group efforts, everyone got an A. There was no competition. It was all about helping each other understand and appreciate the complicated course material.

In the work world, competing against one another could sometimes be an impediment to success depending on the makeup of an individual’s department or larger organization. At my former employer, teamwork was supposed to be a core value because the projects that we undertook were far bigger than any one person. They required us to work together to solve difficult problems and come up with innovative solutions. Unfortunately, we weren’t evaluated based on our teamwork. We were pitted against one another individually for merit increases and promotions, or in some cases just to avoid a layoff. To make matters worse, rating distributions were imposed on the various organizations, and if somebody worked on a high performing team, some members of that team would be penalized because of those distributions. While there wasn’t a hard rule to layoff some bottom percentage of performers at my former company, at least not officially, some companies do impose such policies which further exacerbates the negative aspects of competition.

I often wonder what it would take to move our society away from competition toward cooperation. We could be so much happier if people were less concerned about outdoing others and were more focused on helping everyone thrive.

A Good Reed Review gratefully accepts direct donations via PayPal to help defray the costs of maintaining this site without creating paywalls.
Donate with PayPal


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.