For Marin Parents and Students, Competition Drives Anxiety

The Problem: Competition and Comparison

“Comparison is the death of joy,” to borrow Mark Twain’s words. And there may be no stronger or more venomous psychological force for students than incessantly comparing themselves to one another. It’s so pervasive that it might seem logical. And yet, in terms of mental wellness, it’s just another holdover from our evolutionary origins; comparing and contrasting reinforces and ensures a social hierarchy, when most of us just need some mental peace and quiet.

The media industry knows that anxiety begets urgency, which in turn prompts us to look for speedy solutions. So, its main goal is to generate anxiety, and one-two punch with a $27 solution to the need they just fabricated. This is Edward Bernays’ infamous “Engineering of Consent.” The obvious examples are Bowflex machines, Bacardi commercials, and cheap flights to the Bahamas. They shower you with images of people being better than you, and then double up with a “solution,” affordable enough that your frontal cortex won’t be alarmed when you whip out your credit card. In short, there is massive profit potential in inducing comparison.

Let’s turn to education. GPA and SAT score obsession are alive and well, as any parent or teacher is woefully aware. And nowhere more so than in Marin, where, like it or not, students can’t help but to internalize high expectations surrounding academic, career, and college outcomes.

The question is, who wins as a result? Well, we could ask another, related question. Who were the real winners in the wake of No Child Left Behind? The answer is: educational titans like Pearson and McGraw Hill. These are the same companies collaborating with college bookstores to make physics textbooks so expensive that you’ll take out another loan. They are the winners when education turns into a data-driven measuring stick, and they win because they’re in the best position to capitalize on our comparison anxiety.

At the level of higher education, US News and World Report’s rankings have etched the logic of numerical comparison into stone, enshrining competition as the single most valuable behavior for a student to aspire to. They tell us there’s no alternative but to compete. In high-achievement communities such as Marin County, the power of these narratives induces parents and students themselves into a routine of (self-)discipline, pushing harder and harder in pursuit of maximizing competitive value.

But thinking of opportunity exclusively in terms of competition make us sick. The trick is learning how to move beyond competition and toward cooperation (even when you can’t change the institutions around you).

There are infinite examples where comparison – i.e. “this is better, this is worse” – clearly makes no sense. Take culture, for instance. What would you say to someone who tried to rank world cultures in terms of “best” and “worst”? Or language – could you ever justify the statement that Cantonese is “better than Spanish”? What would that even mean? Lastly, imagine that you and a friend were looking at the same Rorschach blot. You see a sailboat, while she sees a banana slug. Would it be remotely logical to say that one interpretation is better than the other?


In a phrase, Start With Why. This is the title of a Simon Sinek book, and a profoundly helpful way of approaching almost everything. It means, instead of thinking in terms of what you do (e.g. running a restaurant), or how you do it (by hiring staff and creating an experience) you focus on why. In the restaurant case, you do it because you want to create meaningful social spaces where people feel at home. Another example would be a high school senior who’s all set to double-major in biochemistry and public health in college, before applying to 40 med schools to become a neurosurgeon. Why does she do this, exactly? “To help people,” she might say. Well, that’s a perfectly good rationale. But if your motive (your “Why”) is simply to help people, is the route you’ve decided on the only viable one? Could there be other ways of honoring your Why?

When we see only one way forward for completing our mission, we stuff ourselves into epicly crowded channels (like med school applicant pools), which ensnare our attention and prevent us from transcending the competition. What if I harnessed the power of that applicant pool and started a project like Teach For America, providing med student hopefuls a way of contributing while they wait for their admissions decision? The power of networks would be on my side, instead of fighting through the chaos of endless competition.

Start with your strengths. Start with your “Why.” Remember that comparison kills joy (and makes others millions at your expense) – so, joyfully, look to blaze your own trail. You are more powerful than you think. And we need you out here.