Sophie Marques argues that each person’s “best” is an inner process. Is it possible that competition is pushing us away from the best version of ourselves?
Competition relies on external judges and external rules to oneself, determined in advance and/or out of our control. It is constructed in a limited way from what is already known and often with a predicted goal depending also on the limited perception and understanding of the judges. The outcome of the competition is often difficult to detach from emotions. As a result, it often triggers a distorted evaluation of self-worth and inaccurate identifications that are, to me, often the cause of mental health problems.
In my opinion, “our best” cannot be efficiently determined with competition. It is an infinite inner process. If “our best” is limited by the finiteness of the formalisations of our conscious minds, it would push us away from the possible discovery of our best self. Not to forget, the planet might soon need a large-scale powerful constructive interdisciplinary collaboration to survive, maybe almost competition free.
I could never argue that humanity is able to function without competition. This would require too many variables and knowledge beyond my expertise. But I believe that everyone can make a choice about how much of the competitive world he or she is willing to accept and needs in order to fit in and be healthy. While doing so, I feel, it is important to stay aware of how limiting competitiveness is.
Looking back at some of the people that made the impossible possible, including the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Galileo Galilei, several questions may come to mind. Could they have been competing with anyone? Even with themselves? Or did they have a very clear and precise vision and did not allow judgment to deviate them from it?
Listing the biggest competitive events in history, including wars, hierarchies, competition with nature itself, competition between disciplines, competition for resources, competition for power, competition for being true, competition for consummation, competition between gender, and races further questions may arise. Was progress a result of this competition? Or was progress independent and set itself away from the competition, made by people who learned how to detach themselves from it?
Let’s consider a scenario where one aims to achieve a goal and, in the process, to work towards detaching oneself from competition and to make use of opportunities to learn from others, therefore growing and building meaningful connections. This may require one to question everything and listen to everyone without judgment, suspicion, or prejudices, oneself included. Perfecting that skill would therefore require a setting aside of oneself. That does not mean having a low self-esteem. But rather requires one to detach oneself and the beliefs of the external world from one’s questioning and listening to obtain a “justified true belief”, as philosophers call it. This is the hardest thing for me, in a judgmental world imprinted in social media. We are almost, in my opinion, programmed by society to judge. According to my perspective, judgement is a permanent scar remaining after competition; judgement is indicative of an opinionated, subjective value.
This I consider to be in contrast with the idea of evaluation that refers to a neutral, objective value. Objectivity is to me an ideal that I believe I will never be able in my entire life to say honestly, I have achieved. We might need to keep in mind that our perceptions are distorted in a unique way by nature. But continuously perfecting the skill of objectivity is a quest that, in my opinion, could perhaps get us closer to unraveling our purpose and set us further away from competition.
Mathematics is the formal tool that permits us to form comparisons and, in a sense, makes competition very concrete.
How could we apply this philosophy to teaching mathematics? One could try to create a space free from judgement: valuing mistakes, struggles as part of growth, acknowledging and valorising any contributions or inputs. One could respect and value any form of knowledge and discipline. One could shape the students into independent learners. One could also encourage questions and sometimes leave the students with more questions than answers. One could try to build on ideas instead of swiping them away. One might not present oneself as having all the answers and free from making mistakes. One could value the learning process and progress without any fixed goal if not a constant will for improvement and growth. One should inspire self-awareness, empathy, and compassion, and work on emotional intelligence at all ages. To me, human beings strive for meaningful connections and need those for a balance and healthy lifestyle by “definition”. It could be beneficial to know how to encourage and set meaningful connections and collaboration in classrooms. Finally, in each single class one could encourage students to be concerned about their well-being and not neglect enjoying themselves with and without others. Life is also about that.
In closing, I believe that a large part of learning is acquired by learning from role-models. We might need to make sure to set the example we wish to see in the world and that example is in harmony with our actions and words. Why is that relevant to society? Universities and schools have a considerable influence on how future generations will be in the world, with no-one being understated or overlooked.
Knowledge without wisdom, which will happen without emotional intelligence and constructive connections, is very dangerous and sad to observe.
Dr. Sophie Marques
Department of Mathematical Sciences,