It’s important in school and later in our careers to be competitive. Healthy competition helps us thrive, grow and push us to become better versions of ourselves. Without taking risks or competing, our development slows down and we become complacent.
But we should keep that competitive nature in check — some things are not a competition and you shouldn’t make it one.
I went to a private all-girls school for most of my life. We were a small class, brought together by our mutual suffering and experiences, and we loved each other like family. However, because we were also a group of intensely competitive individuals, the academic environment itself was toxic.
All too often, I heard, and even participated in, conversations that compared one person’s pain to another’s.
Student A: “I slept like two hours last night trying to finish this paper.”
Student B: “Yeah, same, but I pulled an all-nighter and got no sleep!”
The underlying message in this conversation is that student B worked harder than student A because they suffered more by staying up longer. Not only does this one-upping normalize unhealthy habits such as pulling all-nighters, but it also cultivates a culture wherein you need to suffer to be successful.
Particularly in competitive academic environments, students influenced by this unhealthy comparative culture begin to parrot and act on the messages they hear. This creates an expectation that if you aren’t dying, then you aren’t doing enough.
Jamila O’Hara, a first-year student at Harvard University, said she believes this mentality stems from the assumption that being busy and stressed means that a person is doing really important things. People perceive accomplishment not in terms of personal standards of success, she said, but through the notion that quantity equates to importance and impressiveness.
“I’ve even heard a friend say recently that she thinks she’s ‘sleeping too much,’” O’Hara said. People’s value in these environments is derived from a twisted form of competition rather than personal health.
Though often unintentional, making these statements can feel come off as an invalidation of what student A went through, for example.
Comparing struggles and pain is not productive. Our struggles are shaped by a number of factors that make them unequatable. In trying to do so, we’re teaching ourselves to repress our feelings because they’re not “enough” to be recognized as true pain or because other people are going through worse.
That’s not healthy, and it invalidates people’s experiences.
Though these conversations have become normalized in academic settings, it is our job to break them down. We should not be one-upping each other with unhealthy behavior or trauma. We should not be putting perceived academic success or work ethic over our mental and physical health. Students are often so caught up in the stress of schoolwork that they forget to prioritize their health, and competition culture only exacerbates that.
Success comes in many different shapes and forms and is not defined by one thing. But if we sacrifice our health to be successful, we will never truly succeed.