The Quaker approach to competition has influenced my life greatly. From my experiences, I’ve learned that competition can be utilized to motivate, making it a tool, but if it is not done in the correct mindset, it can become a weapon.
Competition is much different in Quaker schools, at least this is true at Greene Street Friends School (GSFS). One example is during gym class, we never really keep score for any game of soccer or street hockey that we play, and on our annual Color Day, we all try our hardest, but we all end up getting popsicles at the end. Everyone is celebrated for just trying, even if they didn’t win. In this way, equality is a very important part of the Quaker way of competition. I like to call this philosophy PC for “popsicle competition.” There aren’t technically winners and losers, but everyone gets praise, or a popsicle, at the end. This philosophy isn’t awful, but it has its pros and cons. Some pros are that nobody ends up upset over losing, and it’s much less cutthroat; this usually leads to less grudges. On the other hand, you have the cons, one of which is if all you know is PC, once you experience real competition, you won’t be used to it and this might hinder your performance.
Another kind of competition is the election of a student government, or even a real government. In this case, I’m going to discuss the process at GSFS for electing middle school students for our student government called TORCH (Togetherness, Open-mindedness, Respect, Compassion, and Heart). Instead of a traditional structure where people cast votes and the person with the most votes wins, we use the good old Quaker decision-making process of consensus. This process entails people “lifting up” others that they believe to be a good fit for representing their class (or other jobs) in TORCH. This process is not exactly a competition because everyone has to agree and there is no voting.
The selection process goes like this: The people who are running go out of the room, and the people deciding aren’t allowed to “put anyone down,” meaning you can only say positive things. In many ways, this is a good thing, because otherwise someone whom you might not get along with could put you down with only negative statements because they only see your flaws. On the flip side, your friends might only see your positive traits and think you’re perfect. At least this year, many people who didn’t get picked claimed that the whole process was just a popularity contest. These statements made me feel slightly guilty because I was the one elected to be the representative for our class and I am not particularly eager to consider myself as popular. The more I thought about it, people were saying that because they were going into the experience with a mindset that was overly competitive. They wanted to know why they weren’t picked, chalking it up to bias instead of just accepting that they weren’t picked. I understand their disappointment, just not their reasons for why they weren’t chosen. If they had had the mindset of being happy for whoever won (reflecting the Quaker principle of community), then everyone would be satisfied with the results, even if they did not triumph.
This competitive mindset doesn’t mean, however, that competition is always harmful. Competition can also be a motivational tool. Posing a prize will motivate people to try their hardest to win that prize. I saw an example of this recently during our annual Winter Concert. Fifth and sixth grade was having a bit of trouble being enthusiastic while singing, so this year our music teacher proposed to us that the five students who were most enthusiastic in the concert would win an all-expenses-paid trip to a particular fast food establishment right near our school. Because everybody wanted this trip, we were even more enthusiastic then we might’ve been without that competition in place.
The last example I’ll share takes place outside of school. When I first went to Miquon Day Camp in the summer of 2014, I was surprised to learn that they operated under a similar principle to GSFS. I thought before then that only Friends schools used it, but it turns out I was wrong. For others at the camp, not keeping score in sports and always shaking hands after every game was alien to them (though our hands were often muddy, discouraging contact), like another world that they were visiting for one to eight weeks. Fellow Greene Streeters who went to the camp with me were very used to the competition structure, and this might be why I’m slightly frightened of going to a new school in the future (that might not be a Quaker school), because I won’t be used to a typical competition structure and will be at a disadvantage.
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