The influence of upbringing on collaborativeness and competitiveness

Ronalda Benjamin draws on her own experiences growing up in an under-privileged community and asks whether people from such backgrounds are more inclined to collaborate than to compete.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Some environments encourage collaboration

When reflecting on my relationships with people who are attracted to Mathematics but grew up under conditions of poverty and attended poorly resourced schools, I cannot think of a single person who was so focussed on ‘winning’ and ‘competitiveness’ and ‘individual success’. Somehow, ‘suffering and hardship’, has installed in them generosity and openness to share information and intelligence in an unselfish manner. For this reason, I am convinced that there is a correlation between the poverty levels of (mathematics) students and their collaborative nature during their academic careers. However, I have also noticed that, regardless of how willing they are to collaborate, once their contributions are underestimated, these students immediately disengage.

Illustration by Sylvia Marques

But do people from humble beginnings compete? Against their peers or a system?

I argue that it is highly unusual that a person from a deprived neighborhood, who has succeeded against the odds and has managed to get into a university, may have a competitive spirit. Such individuals however often feel too ‘poor’ to compete against their respective peers. Instead, they grapple privately with the challenge of being around peers from high-income families.

I grew up enjoying and devoting most of my time to two things: doing Mathematics and playing Volleyball. However, the less privileged ubuntu community, in which I was raised, did not encourage competitiveness. Even as a volleyball player I did not have a competitive bone in my body. I have always tried to enjoy what I do, learn as much as I can and put forth my best efforts – not caring about winning at all. Yet (surprisingly?) I was still presented with ‘prestigious’ awards in sport and academics.

Illustration by Sylvia Marques

It was not an easy decision at first, but I decided to pursue a career in mathematics, rather than sport, and I remember all too well my first mathematics lecture. I stood in front of the class whilst both looking for a place to sit and someone that ‘looks like me’. That day I remembered the words of a lady from my neighbourhood: “What makes you think you will make it?” This lady’s voice, which I oftentimes still hear, has certainly caused me to work a lot harder as I was even more determined to excel despite the many challenges I had to face along the way. Yes, even now, I still compete against her words.

Though competition inspires some people to reach new heights, I believe that, especially for those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is primarily just about making your best contribution – and not beating your peers – to get that scholarship, or most importantly, “make it in life”. For me, bringing your best to the table (while still remaining respectful), has always been enough to get you to your next level, regardless of who you are, where you from, whether you work by yourself or in a team.

But I cannot help but wonder, if I had grown up in a different environment, where community wasn’t the order of the day, would I still have operated like this?

Dr. Ronalda Benjamin

Lecturer, Department of Mathematical Sciences,

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