Your School

“Competition” • GATHER Talk by Dr. Scott Erickson

  • Head of School

On Friday, September 15, Head of School Dr. Scott Erickson delivered a talk on competition – the third in a three-part series addressing challenge, achievement, and competition.


So as we come to the end of another week, let's close our eyes, get very quiet, sitting still and facing forward, and then very gently, lowering our heads toward the ground. A great opportunity to focus and think as we conclude another week.

So today, Ms. Knoth has recommended a poem by Sara Holbrook. It's called Taking One for the Team. And it has to do with the topic of competition. Listen up.

We practiced together,
sweat and stained.
We pummeled each other
and laughed off pain.
Teams may disagree,
may tease,
may blame.
Teams may bicker and whine,
but get down for the game.

You had my back.
We fought the fight.
And though our score
was less last night,
we're walking tall.
Our team came through
and stuck together like Crazy Glue.
I'm proud to say
I lost with you.

And when I get to one, you can open your eyes and pay attention. Three, two, one.

I like to win. Okay, there, I've said it: I like to win. Ask my family. When I was your age, I wanted to win card games against my cousins at holiday gatherings. I preferred winning over losing. And I could be really competitive about it, too, yes. I suspect that all of this is true for you, too.

It's understandable to want to win, and to be competitive. And it's really nothing to be embarrassed about. If you're a Golden State Warriors fan, it's more fun to win championships than to lose them, right?

If you've auditioned for a spot in the choir or a part in the play, it's more exciting to get that spot and to get that part, than not to get it, right?

If you're part of a technology team competition it feels great to finish towards the top.

And if you're a Chicago Cubs fan, I suspect winning that World Series last year was much more fun than all those years when there were many more losses than wins, right?

(Audience: Yeah.)

Yes, so it takes a drive to win You can't just sit back and let things happen. It takes big-time desire. Sometimes we call that being competitive, or we call it a competitive edge. You have to go for it. You have to go for it to win an NBA Championship, to get a spot in the choir, to get a part in the play, to finish strong in a tech competition.

You have to go for it to win the World Series. Even so, you might hear some questions, too. That drive, that big-time desire, that competitive edge. Is all that against our core value of kindness? Can we be kind and competitive at the same time? Yes? Maybe.

Maybe, that drive, that big-time desire, being competitive: is all that against our core value of community? Is the competitive edge to win always at the price of the group? I mean, if someone is winning, someone else is losing.

All this, my friends, creates a problem with today's topic of competition. On the surface, it can look and feel like competition is unkind and anti-community. But I want to be clear. I do not think that's the case.

I'm here today to ask us to dig deeper, and to explore a more nuanced, PBS-meaning of competition. To do that, I have a story to help draw a picture of competition.

When I was in Kindergarten, a while ago, a truck pulled onto our family farm. The guy was selling pianos. I begged my parents to buy one. I promised to take piano lessons and to be the most awesome piano player in the world. I won, they purchased one, and I took to the piano really well.

It was challenging, and I embraced the challenges whether it was Beethoven or Mozart. I had some achievements too, saying yes to myself so I could be my best. In seventh grade, the choir director in school asked me to play the piano to accompany a music piece that was happening just in rehearsal. After we finished, everyone broke into applause, without asking.

That felt great! My friends were impressed. They had not seen a student piano-player for the choir before that.

So starting on that day my friends, I wanted to perform in front of people every chance I got: playing the piano, acting, public speaking. My music teachers entered me into competitions. Sometimes I won, sometimes I didn't. I liked winning more than losing. But that's not the point.

Everybody likes winning more than losing, that's a great, thank you for saying that.

(audience laughs)

That makes me feel better. But, sorry, that's not the point.

(audience laughs)

Here's the real lesson about competition from that piano bench, from the piano bench.

You have to practice for hundreds, no, thousands of hours before there is any applause, before there is anything to compete for to win. It's a lonesome job. Just me, sitting alone on that piano bench, practicing and sweating all by myself to bring those music notes to life.

There was no one in that piano practice room to compete with me. There were no obvious winners and there were no obvious losers. It was a competition of one: me.

I learned a lot about the real meaning of competition. The drive, the drive to want more of myself. It was an inner, a personal competition, and the only goal was to improve. I needed to go for it, and if the winning happened later, great. But if I lost, I went right back to that piano bench to keep practicing.

You see, competition is not always at the expense of the other athlete. It's not at the expense of the other team, the other musician, the other debate opponent, the other person you're auditioning against for a part in the play or choir.

Competition at its best is this: it's the drive to want more of yourself. It's an inner, personal competition all alone, and the only goal is improving yourself. Finally, you have to go for it. You can't sit back, you have to go for it.

So my PBS friends, you are on an adventure like Odysseus, back three weeks ago when we talked about the Odyssey. Here's what I want your PBS learning adventure to look and feel like. Challenge: embrace the challenges whether you choose them or not. Achievement: say yes to yourself so you can be your best. Competition: You gotta go for it, you gotta want more from yourself.

And I think if we get these three things right, then we will be making the most of school year and we will be living up to those core values we love so much.

So together, let's have an awesome learning adventure. Let's do it this year! Thank you for listening.

(audience applauds)

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