Education and competition

As the parent of a kindergartner, my most important goal is to see that she fully develops her enormous potential.

Although I suspect that most positive outcomes in parenting can be attributed to a handful of factors - among them, simply being intentional - I believe that we must go even farther to equip kids for stark realities in the economy that exist now and will intensify as they eventually enter the job market.

A recent editorial in The New York Times[1], points out the causes and effects of wage stagnation in the US. Although a bachelor’s degree was historically a ticket to a relatively high-paying job, the editorial notes that: “having a B.A. is less about obtaining access to high paying managerial and technology jobs and more about beating out less-educated workers for the barista or clerical job.” While Americans stress the importance of doing what you love and loving what you do, the reality for today’s students is that competition will play a larger role in ensuring their success than ever before. You may be doing what you love; but you need to be better than the next guy.

Professor Quanyu Huang in his new book “The Hybrid Tiger” looks carefully at the factors that shape the success of Chinese-American students, a group that is almost always best positioned in the academic competition. He stresses the importance of viewing education as a competition because it heightens ambition among children. American children, it seems, are increasingly shielded from competition in an attempt to protect their self-esteem. Instead of promoting self-esteem, though, it robs them of the drive for personal betterment and it gives them a distorted view of the way the world actually works. There are, after all, only a handful of spots in the freshmen class at each of the Ivy League schools.

Although there are strident opinions, both positive and negative about the effects of competition on performance, there is evidence that the context of competition makes a significant difference. Competition often improves performance when done to win (rather than to avoid loss), when the stakes are low, and when the reason for competition is to increase the level of mastery over a discipline. It seems that the benefit (or harm) of competition is in the framing.

Dr. David Shields, Professor of Educational Psychology at St.Louis Community College, has written about the framing effects on competition. He distinguishes authentic competition from decompetition wherein the latter is the typical “contest is war” embodiment of the term. In Dr. Shields’ framework, the looks at the role of metaphors in shaping the frame in which one can begin to think about competition.

Metapor Authentic competition Decompetition
Goals Align talent with service; grow, learn, develop, create Dominance, elimination of competitors
Motivations Intrinsic: provide value, serve a larger purpose Extrinsic: obtain rewards, maximize security
View of competitors Stimulators of innovation, efficiency, service Interferences
Views of regulation Necessary "rules of the road" Largely unnecessary infringements

Table adapted from David Shields, PhD, Harvard Business Review [2]

To synthesize the ideas of both Huang and Shields, competition is important. It creates a vital striving for excellence. It sets up a gap between where one is today and where she would like to be in the future. The gap is the “potential energy” that gets converted into work toward a goal. But it’s also the parents’ responsibility to frame competition this way. We know from our understanding of current events and the economy that the job market is highly competitive; but children lack an understanding of what this means for the future. In framing competition as an opportunity to push personal limits we can create the necessary conditions for ambitious striving without exposing kids to stakes so high that defeatism is the likely response.

But for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t give kids medals just for participation. Remember: participation is an expectation.


  1. The New York Times, “Where Have All the Raises Gone”, March 3, 2014, Full text link

  2. Harvard Business Review, HBR Blog Network, “A More Productive Way to Think About Opponents”, David L. Shields, February 22, 2013. Full text link; Accessed 2014-03-03