On American competition

By | October 9, 2012

'Play hard and good things will happen.' (motto on the wall of Yale gym)

An obvious aspect of US culture is the omnipresent accent on competition, ambitions and achievements. A common misconception is that America 'is all about money'. This is inaccurate – it is not money that matters. It is achievement, which can be measured by many alternative ways (money, but also fame, prestige, power) and all of them have their value in appropriate environments. And in this sense America 'is all about achievement'. In Europe, and even more in Eastern Europe, career and achievement are ofter ridiculed and problematized and although people are also ambitious, they are definitely more secretive about it. In the US it is nearly pornographically simple: Achievements are good. Openly demonstrated competitiveness and ambitions are something that is taken for a sign of health, it is something that is encouraged and broadly cultivated from an early age (Americans love their sports). Of course there is cooperation – no social structure can survive without it. But my impression still is that competitiveness is encouraged more. And that people choose to cooperate with the strong ones, and they do it completely explicitly.

I was lucky enough to directly witness and participate in a process of recruitment of new PhD students in Yale University. A successful candidate is the one that best demonstrates his ambitions and competitiveness – this is judged from his looks and from the ability to clearly demonstrate his ambitions in spoken form. The actual past achievements are less important than one would think.  You can have many high-profile publications but if you fail to demonstrate your ambitions you won’t get the job. Similarly, university seminars and lab-meetings are an arena of egos and ambitions – in a ritualized form a speaker is given 1h of attention in exchange of being subject of a merciless game. The (post-reproductive) elderly have the strongest weapons and are the closest ones to the speaker but they have the least need to demonstrate anything because they have already achieved their fame and power. Their role is to guard the game and they are allowed to be silly. The grad students and postdocs in the back rows are the ones who compete for the opportunity to raise questions which should be as clever as possible (so that they increase their respect and prestige) but they need to overshoot the row of the elderly and they have to weight their words carefully not to make asses of themselves. The presenting speaker plays for lot. If he/she is not witty enough the scale of the loss is weighted by the prestige of the department and he/she is risking a long-term loss of attention of colleagues. If he/she wins, the benefits are considerable and direct. So during these events it is not about the science itself – nobody goes there primarily to get new insights about interesting problems – the primary motivation is the sport, it is the fun of the game.

At the beginning of my stay at Yale I made a mistake by throwing what was supposed to be a small informal postdoc seminar. My aim was to present one specific problem for which I had no solution, and to seek the solution in cooperation with the others, I was hoping to get some help. So I prepared it rather informally and with a loose end. This is what happened: Around 20-30 people turned out, including some prominent faculty members, they arranged themselves in this typical ritual position, and they did not leave a single dry spot on me. I was such an easy target for them – by explicitly asking them for help I gave them space for their egos. There were hands raised constantly by people ready to shoot comments that were always extremely clever but rarely helpful. I was unable to push forward an idea that we can all together explore an unknown territory, without a guaranteed reward, without a leader or a clear winner. It felt impossible to eliminate the omnipresent and latent competition for the "smartass" title.

The competitive nature of everything makes it sometimes hard to sort out problems because people are constantly more alerted. So people are less spontaneous in bringing out random ideas (random = potentially stupid = lost points). Because they are also scared of the idea of losing their time (time is money) and to say something stupid, Americans are much less willing to engage in tedious never-ending conversations with seemingly no conclusion. But my experience is that it is exactly this kind of conversation that ultimately gives the most interesting insights because the core ideas and patterns are the ones that keep occurring more frequently, but are hidden in simple statements. And to estimate the frequency I need a sufficiently long conversation. Finally, Americans are also less willing to admit fault. This can block an effective solution of a problem because I then seek the fault elsewhere (incorrectly).

Because Americans are more competitive by very nature, they almost never give or loose voluntarily, just for the thrill of it or without a promise of any kind of reward (no fun in it). The do not like the idea of loosing. The most obvious realization of this is the obsession with personal property. Although I agree that the well-known large-scale experimental disrespect to personal property turned out to be a deadly in the East, sometimes it seems to me that Americans are pushing it to the opposite extreme. The out-of-proportion laws related to trespassing, the stand-your ground law (the Florida shooting case), the ever-growing copyright system (people want to own ideas) and so on.

There are more peculiar examples of this fear from loosing things. For instance, people in the US do not find it funny when something is a nonsense or when it is losing sense. American humor is mostly up to the point, the point is always there. For some unknown reasons the typical British nonsense humor did not cross the ocean so easily. Here, nonsense is being considered as infantile, childish. Another example is that the word “looser” is pejorative in English. This is very American thing - loosing a game is somehow stigmatized. In Czech language, none of the existing words for "looser" have pejorative flavor. To keep up with the Anglo-American trend, Czech had to recently adopt the English word in the form “lůzr”. In Czech words, the sentence “you are a looser” (“ty jsi poražený” or “prohrál jsi”) has no pejorative connotations, you are just frankly informed that you have lost a rank, but not dignity or sympathy.

Maybe this whole competition thing grows from the fact that Americans take the game much more seriously than Europeans, they really play harder, and the game is in every aspect of peoples' lives. So it is more difficult for them to imagine that they can take a break from the game, that they can loosen the rules, or loose the sense of the game, or that they can play without the idea of winning. “No wonder that they can’t take a break”, Darwin makes a remark from the front row, “their game is being played for life. Whoever takes a break, loses the game”. Very clever thing to say. But the problem is that it does not help.

One thought on “On American competition

  1. Eric

    Your experience in lab meetings is generalizing from a biased sample. As you mention, entrants to Yale are specifically selected to be competitors for whom the game is their life. Other universities are different.

    In my research group, the three functions of the lab meetings are: to learn about others' research in order to find synergies, to provide a forum in which we can bring tough problems to be worked on by the rest of the lab, and to have others hear your plans in progress so you can make corrections earlier rather than later. These functions are not merely goals on paper, but what I have witnessed.

    Though I have heard about the antagonistic attitude you experienced, it is not a good generalization to all USA universities. It may, however, prevail in the prestigious universities since all of the schools where I have heard it mentioned were prestigious.


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