Amanda Woods, one of the students at UB who I’ve gotten to know penned an excellent commentary in the UB Spectrum recently:

A significant shift happens in college: people who were at the top of their high school classes become average, and everyone is competing for the chance to shine. Only a couple of points can make the difference between excellent and mediocre. Competition becomes natural, and students develop a hunger for statistics telling them how they measured up to others.
I know many people who thrive under competition, but I’m the kind of person who breaks under it, and I know that many feel the same way. Even if my score falls a point below the average, I take it personally and wonder why my classmates are smarter than me.
Intense peer competition may lead some students to believe they don’t belong in college and drop out of classes or college entirely.

Amanda has figured out what took me years to understand: that some of us work better collaboratively, while others thrive on competition, even cutthroat competition. I’d like to say it gets better “on the outside” but that’s not true. In fact it just might get work, especially when a lot of money is at stake.

Friends in the media business, especially those in big markets often say that they wish they were back in a small market with a bit of a higher salary. They loved the work, but hated being poor.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity for spiritual growth here too. What’s the price of your happiness? It might be 3 or 4 extra hours to get another half-letter grade higher. It could be $10,000. But we all have our prices to pay. We all sell at some point–the question remains what did we sell for?

While an element of competition is natural and could be good, it also can be demeaning. One person’s success could breed jealousy in another and instead of being happy for their teammate, they have to try to out do them the next time. That happened to me in a few office environments that I was in before. I knew a ballplayer who I’ll keep anonymous who’d walk into the clubhouse and say “I’m gonna get more hits than all y’all today!” Love the enthusiasm, right? Wrong, he’d also be wishing everyone else to go 0 for 4.

How do we balance staying competitive with maintaining a healthy collaborative environment without it grinding the work to a halt?

Well, I think knowing one’s strengths and the strengths of your colleagues is a great start. Use the Gallup Strengthsfinder as a start and then help your team decide who is best for whatever project you might have.

Students, the same applies to you. Speak up in class when you have something to say. Be quick and bold and beat others to the punch by answering often when you can. Try your best to get the top grade but also balance that with helping the weak link in your class get up to snuff.

The students in the Gross Anatomy Lab at UB are a shining example of this often. They work in teams of 4 or so and each one gets a shot at something. Sure, some are fiercely competitive but others are assertive without being aggressive. I remember one student that first day who was queasy and here entire table rallied around her without depriving themselves of the experience. By the end of the day she was right there with them.

I think that’s what I admire most about many of my ministry colleagues. They are competitive, but compassionate. The bottom line isn’t the only concern, so is how we get there together.

A quick aside, I remember running on the Cross Country team in college (distance running). A friend from another school looked like he was about to drop out–so I slowed my pace down from my usual middle to lower end of the pack, to dead last–with my friend. He needed someone to keep pace with him in the first race and when we got to the last quarter mile, I bolted and left him behind me but not so far behind that he couldn’t finish alone. We hugged at the finish line. I said to him “Next time, if you stick with me through most of the race you should beat me across that line. You’ve got a lot more natural talent for this than I do.” Determined, he got in fantastic shape and we both would finish in the upper middle part of the pack after that.

Today, let us pray that we might be able to be compassionate without being doormats. That we all have something to produce for God’s glory and we also have the ability to do so without crushing people along the way.

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