When I was in elementary and middle school, I felt I thrived in my independence from others and would usually study and practice writing, geography, and math by myself or with my family (whom I consider an extension of myself). Any time there was an exam or quiz, I was in strict competition to have the highest grade every time. I was in chess club until I could be in cross country, wrestling, and track. All great activities, but those which are more individually oriented than team focused I would argue. I felt the only way I could help the team is if I did better alone myself.
Although I wasn’t involved in any official sports in college, my experiences there changed not only my way of thinking about competition, but the way I felt about working independently from others. The urge to compete for the highest grades was partially replaced by a collaborative interdependence and give-and-take bartering.
For example, structural geology was a difficult class many in my cohort (including me) struggled with. The terms were outrageous, the maps were confounding, and the concepts left most of us in a daze by the end of the hour. The lab for that class was even more ridiculously stressful. Due to the size of our class, there were two labs, one for each half of the class. With some scheduling luck, I had time available to attend my own lab first and then sit in on the second. This second lab allowed me to finish my own work, but also to unofficially tutor others who were taking the lab for the first time. I was given the opportunity to assist others with what I understood which would free up their time to reciprocate when I needed help.
My friends and I collaborated for hours as we studied and worked with one another to improve everyone’s understanding of the subject matter. I looked at the overall class success as my own. When the class did well, I felt I did well, and vice versa.
In one of these labs I was sitting in on, I remember something my high school Spanish teacher told me. Learning is limited if we merely read or write the work on our own. If we teach what we are comfortable with to others, our learning becomes more complete. This seemingly simple concept truly felt like it was the case for structural geology where many students struggled, including myself. Not only did I feel like I learned the subject matter more thoroughly, nothing gave me more joy than seeing the sudden excitement in someone’s face as they made an important connection.
Naturally, there was competition in college as well. Playing Ultimate Frisbee with many of these same friends and classmates created some of my all-time favorite memories of my college experience. The competitiveness in me certainly came out during these games, but not as aggressively as when I was younger. I wasn’t in football in high school, but I imagine the collaborative competition of football would most resemble Ultimate Frisbee. Teams of players worked together in the same instance for a common goal against a common opponent. The only difference in college Ultimate Frisbee was that the teams would be unpredictably scrambled, so an opponent in one series of games would be a later teammate. Looking back, this was critical in my development as a young adult as it instilled within me a strong spirit of collaborative competitiveness and a sense that it’s okay and important to be opponents with friends and friends with opponents.
With my college study sessions with friends and our gentle leaning on each other when we recognized our own limitations, I feel my class cohort grew not only in knowledge of the subject matter, but as a family away from home. I believe in a collaborative competitive philosophy. I feel blessed to have been in situations where everyone pulled their own weight for a common goal, and yet didn’t have to do everything themselves in order to accomplish personal goals.
Sometimes we’re opponents, sometimes we’re teammates, but always we’re working together.
P.S. To Todd Pearson and your article posted in last week’s paper. I appreciate your interest in engaging with me on a topic many (understandably) are less inclined to broach with neighbors. While I find your statements notable, I do not wish to initiate any newspaper debate about atheism or faith. Only discussion.