I’m insanely envious of my friend Felicity. I know she’s probably not actually perfect, but the thing that matters to me is that she sure seems that way. Brilliant, beautiful, kind, rich, artistic, thoughtful, athletic, philanthropic, and—worst of all—modest, Felicity has everything going for her, even the American Girl Doll name (and of course it’s the most perfect American Girl Doll, too: the wholesome Revolutionary-War-era Virginian who knows how to ride horses and make her own apple butter).
I know I should like Felicity, but I spend so much time being angry at her that I can’t. I feel guilty that her perfection annoys me so much, but resenting her feels so right. It fills me with rage that she’s won every possible lottery in life. Couldn’t she at least forget her doorman’s name every once in a while? Couldn’t she sometimes choose the wrong pair of pants to pair with a simple peach silk top? God, winners make me furious.
But this is not an article about how even people who seem flawless are actually suffering from intense emotional anguish, blah, blah, blah. This is an article about something much bleaker: envy and, eventually, competition.
Envy and competition are two ugly sisters (let’s call them Edna and Candace) that moved into my brain around sixth grade and have refused to leave ever since. Edna and Candace are as inseparable as they are cruel. When somebody is smarter or just generally better than I am, Edna leads me to easy and intense envy, and then Candace gives me a heaping dose of competition. At the root of it all is wanting what somebody else has.
I keep this all hidden, of course. I hate cutthroat environments; I have residual anxiety from the “what did you get??” frenzy whenever exams were handed back in high school, so I value the way that we at Wesleyan manage to refrain from slicing crucial pages out of library books with X-Acto knives so our classmates don’t have access to them. I went to Wesleyan instead of a more high-strung school because I thought it might make me less competitive, and to some extent it has. When the people around you aren’t competing, it feels slightly vicious to compete one-sidedly. Still, though, Edna and Candace remain. They are mostly dormant, but every so often they return, just as alarmist as ever.
The issue is hardly that I’m used to being the best. I can’t think of a single area in which I’m the best in my group, let alone the nation. I accept that people will always be smarter and prettier and kinder than I am. At my fancy private high school, my classmates did impressive science research involving mosquitoes and brains, spent thousands of dollars on beautiful clothes and plastic surgery, and perfected the art of kindness when dealing with their servants. I don’t have a superiority complex. I’m just really competitive.
People in our generation aren’t supposed to be this competitive, I think. Last week, I wrote about wanting to abolish the Dean’s List; I argued that because it produces competition that helps neither the awardees (it might in fact decrease their motivation to excel) nor the non-awardees, it makes little sense to keep it around. Many members of older generations, however, have urged me to enter the real (competitive) world, as though I haven’t lived here all my life. I think members of those generations fancy themselves to be the rough-and-tumble junkyard dogs of the “real world,” and they forget that they’re the ones who raised us soft-handed little hypochondriacs.
We do, though, come from a generation in which everybody gets a gold star or a soccer trophy, even if they’re stupid and clumsy. Because of new cultural attitudes—in America, at least—that losing is unhealthy for self-esteem and that it’s necessary for every kid to think he or she is special, our parents and teachers have worked to decrease the amount of competition in our environments. But who are we kidding, really? We can’t avoid competition. Regardless of what generation we find ourselves in, we’ve all been raised on it. How could we not be? We compete for jobs, for admission to Wesleyan, for the crisp part of the vegan apple crisp in Usdan, for class spots, for our friends’ approval. According to “The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison, love itself is a competition. Who cares if we we’re all given gold stars? We know who the smartest and prettiest ones in the class are.
Even if we can’t stop competing, we have the luxury of being able to question whether competitive environments are productive. If we decide that they are, what do they produce? Indeed, many important things came about from competition: the Space Race put a man on the moon, and companies’ rush to beat competitors have born products we can’t imagine living without, from technology to laundry detergent to food items. There’s no mistaking it: competition ignites ambition, directs us towards specific goals; when used appropriately, it gives us a healthy sense of what it feels like to lose and what it feels like to win. If you’re looking solely at the end products, maybe the ends do justify the means.
But what are the means, exactly? The lure of getting to the top often means higher incentives to cheat, lie, and, in some unfortunate cases, murder. In my case, wanting to be the best—succumbing to the siren song of Edna and Candace—eclipsed what I liked about being alive. Focusing so much on being the best chipped away at being anything at all. My life became all negative space: I was what I was not.
There’s something powerful about being driven to produce because you feel called to, not because you want to be the best. That’s what I struggle with. I desperately want to be able to say that every meaningful thing I’ve accomplished has come not because I was competing, but because I was interested in the world and felt compelled to explore it. I don’t want to make things that I’ve only thought to make because somebody else couldn’t. I want to do things because I think they will make the world more beautiful. I’m holding out hope that shutting out Edna and Candace will make me better—not better than Felicity, but better than the person I was last year or the year before. Maybe I am, as one commenter on my last article about the Dean’s List suggested, a little snowflake. So what if I am? I’d rather be a snowflake than a wet blanket.
Davis is member of the class of 2017.