The Myth of Competition
Why do we love The Hunger Games? Chopped? The Bachelor? The Bachelorette? So You Think You Can Dance? The Voice? America Ninja Warrior?
Many of our most popular shows involve contests: people competing against each other to survive, to cook the best meal, to be the most alluring and desirable date, to dance the best, sing the best, or to be the only one to finish an impossibly difficult obstacle course.
In these contests, if you don’t win, you lose. Today I want you to think about approaching your lives beyond the dichotomy of winning and losing.
Some people claim that being competitive is innate, but I would argue that it is impossible to definitively prove whether being competitive or being cooperative exists from birth.
In his book No Contest, Alfie Kohn argues vigorously against the premise that we are innately competitive. He says that we compete not because we are born that way but because the drive to be competitive is in the culture. While I am a great advocate of competition in specific contexts, and I relished every victory over Homecoming Weekend, today I want you to consider the idea that life does not have to be about competition.
Kohn emphasizes that there is a vast body of thought that says humanity would more likely survive on this planet with cooperation more than competition, and certainly this was never more true than in this summer’s remarkable story of the survival of a boys’ soccer team that was trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand.
I want to share specific details about the boys themselves with the hope that they will inspire throughout this school year.
As you probably remember, towards the end of June, 12 soccer players ages 11 to 16 and their 25-year-old coach entered a cave in Thailand called Tham Luang, a cave that is within a bike ride of all of their homes. The cave is on the border between Myanmar and Thailand.
Although it was initially reported that the boys entered the cave as some kind of bonding exercise or to celebrate a teammate’s birthday, in fact they entered the cave simply because they were curious and some boys had never seen it before. The team’s head coach, Nopparat Khanthawong later said: “They are at an age when they want to explore and learn new things. It’s natural for them to go in the cave.”
After about an hour, the boys turned to go back, but by then the cave was partially flooded and the exit was blocked. The boys moved about 200 meters further into the cave, and settled down for the night. But the next day, it was worse, monsoon rains filled the tight passageways and blocked their escape, pushing them deeper inside the cave.
Only one player had been picked up after practice and not gone on the bike ride to the cave, and that evening when parents began calling and looking for their sons, they learned from this player that the team had gone to the Tham Luang cave. Without this happening, the team would never have been found in time.
Late that night, the rescue team found the boys’ bicycles outside the cave, but it would be another 10 days of searching inside the cave by expert cave divers before the boys were found. And it would be another 8 days, for a total of 18 days in the cave, before the final 4 boys and their coach were safely rescued.
Everything seemed to be against the survival of the Wild Boars, the name of this soccer team, but that does not account for the enduring spirit of the boys.
The young, twenty-five-year-old assistant coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, who was once a monk, began to draw upon his life skills in his effort to save his players’ lives.
He coached them to drink only water that was dripping down from the calcium formations on the ceiling, called stalactites or to lick the water from the limestone walls. Ekkapol told them to never drink the dirty floodwater, which was probably full of bacteria and bat dung. He coached his players how to meditate and how to sit very still to conserve their energy. With these seemingly simple but life-saving lessons, Coach Ekkapol kept his players calm and united and hopeful.
This is a widely shared cartoon of Coach Ek, as he is affectionately called, showing him sitting cross-legged, as a monk does in meditation, with 12 little wild boars in his arms.
During the week after the boys were discovered but before rescuers could even attempt the extremely dangerous mission of getting the boys out of the cave, the oxygen levels in the cave were only about 15 percent and falling. Imagine being trapped underground, almost 3 miles from the entrance of the cave, with no food, absolutely no light, and air that was so poor they were in danger of hypoxia, a condition where a person is incapacitated by insufficient oxygen to the tissues and unable to walk or think.
None of the boys knew how to swim, and this was one of the most significant challenges that divers faced in figuring out how they could get the boys out of the cave. Many of the cave tunnels were filled with water, and in some places the water was rushing so quickly that it ripped off the face mask of expert divers unless they kept their faces pointed directly into the current.
An important perspective for all of us to understand and embrace ourselves in our lives where we have light and air and food and water, is that the boys knew what they could control and what they could not control, and this allowed them a frame of mind that sustained them. While they did not have basic elements necessary for life, they could control their effort to sustain themselves with nothing but their mindset and each other. They could control how they “played” together, “play” as a metaphor for “to live.” Through this kind of discipline, cooperation, and teamwork, they survived for 10 days. When the boys were eventually found, they were skeletal as you can see in the pictures.
A few days earlier a search team had been within 300 meters of the boys, but did not know it. Finally, on July 2, the Wild Boar soccer team was discovered by two British divers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton.
During this period when the boys were found and the rescuers were preparing the passageways to try to get them out, a Thai Navy Seal died when his tank ran out of oxygen and he lost consciousness.
One of the most remarkable details of the Wild Boar soccer team —at least to me—is that the boys themselves decided in what order they would be rescued, and it was not decided on who was the strongest or the weakest. It was decided by who lived the closest to the entrance of the cave, and all of the boys, together, embraced this decision to save their families from worrying. They figured that those who lived closest could get home the fastest and spread word to families that they were OK. The team had no idea that anyone beyond their families cared about their whereabouts. They had absolutely no idea of the vast and extensive international attention on their disappearance and rescue.
This is also the story of countries collaborating together to rescue the Wild Boar soccer team. The 18 expert cave divers who saved them came from Thailand, and also from Australia, China, England, Holland, and the United States. Beyond the divers, there were 100 rescuers inside the cave along the escape route and 1000s of volunteers outside the cave, who offered meals, who set up rescue communications, coffee stalls and massage stations. The boys survived because of their own team spirit combined with worldwide collaboration.
I use this story to emphasize that success is not always about competition. It is often about cooperation. We may think that competition makes us stronger, but I argue that it is teamwork and cooperation that allows us to soar, both individually and collectively.
So what does this story have to do with the school year ahead of us?
To return to my opening references, sometimes students erroneously believe that in various ways they are in competition with each other. For example, some students might believe that teachers can only give a certain number of A’s and if one of their classmates earns an A, it decreases their chances of earning an A.
Some schools suffer from a cutthroat competitive culture, where students do not share their ideas in discussion because they are afraid that others will steal their ideas. Here at MBS, we embrace opportunities for collaboration and working together and supporting each other.
Here, along with our natural collaborative spirit, we have an abundance of formal programs that actively inspire combined effort and synergy.
Our programs intentionally nurture a cooperative spirit of students helping students be their best. We have Peer Leaders and Peer Tutors. We have a Writing Center filled with Peer Writing Tutors. We have discussion- based classes where students naturally and enthusiastically ask questions and share ideas, and we begin the year with students running summer reading discussions alongside their peers.
MBS students know that the more you collaborate, the more you improve both individually and collectively.