My ongoing quest towards healthier academic competition

Illustration by Zurab Janelidze

How does one have a healthy relationship with competition? In this contribution, Ashwin Kamaldien writes that it starts with being a humble learner and an insightful ‘loser’.

Growing up I was a bright but extremely arrogant child; I thought my knack for mathematics made me better than others and never saw anyone as competition when it came to school. The first primary school I attended did not have the best systems nor equipment to help us learn, but I was quite well off in my personal life, so I found it a lot easier to learn than the other kids. My arrogant self-put down others when it came to explaining work to them, simply proclaiming them as ‘too stupid’ to understand while partially not wanting them to learn as I liked being top of the class. This time of my life I would describe as me being on the extreme of my unhealthy competitive nature.

After moving to a better primary school and graduating to a decent high school, I quickly realised that the microcosm of super-genius status I enjoyed was a facade. Personal issues like girls and pre-puberty plagued me as well. I realised the tables had turned, and I was now ‘too stupid to understand’. Things continued like this until I made a conscious decision in grade 10 to start applying myself more and become someone, I could be proud of. I’ve never been the kind of person to be buried in a book, but my number one speciality was doing my homework, as commitment proved easier than learning. My upward trajectory allowed me to become one of the first two matriculants at my high school to receive the 80%+ average award. These achievements and acclamations once again gave me a small amount of arrogance, which helped with my bravado and confidence going into university.

After being declined by Stellenbosch University’s engineering faculty, I came to terms with the fact that my maths and physics marks simply weren’t good enough. I felt that by extension I wasn’t good enough either. By some miracle, I was later accepted to the engineering faculty just a week before orientation. I came into the faculty flustered and with thoughts that I did not deserve to be there. This feeling of not having earned my place was a huge reason for my struggle with depression during the first semester. I felt like I could never take a break, working more than 30 hours a week outside of class. “If the other students were accepted because they are that much smarter than you, you have to work this hard”, was my constant motivation for this unhealthy behaviour. I would describe this time in my life as me being on the opposite end of the extreme, never feeling good enough because others are doing so much better.

Photograph by Sophie Marques

After meeting with the university’s psychologists, I realised that I had been measuring myself against my performance in school – if I failed a test, it felt like I have failed myself. I started becoming more involved in my group of friends and doing more outside of the classroom. I rediscovered myself as a person outside of my academic studies. One day it finally clicked, I am so much more than my grades. I learned how to distance myself from my grades: if I failed, I just didn’t know enough at that time. Developing these ways of thinking, especially when you are told in most of your school years that you must do well in school to accomplish anything, can be hard.

It is still difficult at times, when your friends are doing better than you or when you are doing better than all of them. This rush of positive or negative emotions is what drives our competitive natures, the need to stay on top and the fear of being at the bottom. But I have found somewhat of a balance between the two extremes I’ve experienced in my life. Therefore, the title of this piece is phrased as an ongoing quest – an ongoing and ever-changing challenge to change the way of thinking that I’ve been exposed to for my entire school career.

 For any high school students reading this, I recommend that you begin changing your view on school and assessments now. The earlier you start to have a healthier relationship with your competitive spirit (or lack thereof), the better. I hope my journey helps you become better prepared for the road ahead, as these skills don’t only apply to tests and results. Being a humble winner and an insightful and objective loser will serve you well in the long run.

Ashwin Kamaldien

Second Year Engineering Student,

enthusiast, honest, passionate

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