I recently had the Q&A portion of a presentation go a bit off the rails. The presentation itself was meant to provide a very broad overview of the types and goals of American youth STEM programs, and many of the other people in the room were leaders of nationally recognized organizations. Their work has reached hundreds of thousands of students. So I was caught off guard when what was meant to be a glorified inventory review turned into a passionate shared soapbox against one particular subset of STEM programs: competitions. The group argued against the winner/loser valuation, the artificial pitting of people against each other, and the resulting focus on personal victory. With their combined experience and authority, and my place as by far the youngest one in the room, the resulting chorus should have been compelling. While I agreed with certain aspects of their concerns, I felt the need to stand up for the value of competition. But what I found myself talking about wasn’t any of the times I had won things. I wanted to talk about the times I had lost.
The logical thing would have been to talk about Science Olympiad, and as I stood there it crossed my mind. I had the opportunity to serve as a National Event Supervisor for a few years. As I have written about in the past, Science Olympiad is an organization I have a long history with and a huge respect for. But the most powerful moment I have ever had interacting with students actually happened just before handing out the exam at a recent national competition. Event supervisors are encouraged to introduce themselves to students. Mentioning the fact that I was a Science Olympiad alum got a few nods of interest. Sharing that I had been a part of the Solon team was met with equal parts looks of respect and rolled eyes. That reaction comes with being part of a school system whose middle and high school teams have repeatedly won the national tournament – sometimes both in the same year. But when I said that I only got to compete for one year before being cut, my words were met with gasps.
Many schools struggle even to fill the 15 slots to make a Science Olympiad team. Solon not only had tryouts, but it had enough students to outfit an A and B team with room to spare. The surprise in the room was understandable. I had been cut and, somehow, I was standing in front of them as a National Event Supervisor with a PhD. Losing hadn’t meant devaluing the competition or myself. I was still there. No – my feelings about the experience were not so balanced or positive when I was 14, but it was the start of a very important lesson I still find myself learning.
But when it came to speaking up in the Q&A, I ended up describing some experiences from many years later. I started by saying that there probably couldn’t be a more direct example of competition than people physically fighting each other. The comment was enough of a non sequitur that the rest of the room quieted down. I explained that in the Eastern Collegiate Taekwondo Conference, competition happened in teams of three. Each group was made up of a light, middle, and heavyweight fighter, and moving on to the next round of competition depended on your group winning two of those three matches. The third member still had to compete – if you forfeit a round you were not eligible for any future ones. For safety reasons athletes are not allowed to fight below their weight class, but they can choose to fight one class above where they weigh in. Fighting above your own weight might sound like a terrible idea individually, but having two of your three members weigh in either as light or middle weights provides an important strategic flexibility. If the other team had a particularly unbeatable member, the weaker fighter on your team can choose to face that opponent to give their teammate the chance to take on a person they might possibly be able to beat.
Throwing yourself in the ring with someone who outmatches you is not an experience for those who seek personal glory above personal growth. Getting point gapped – when the ref calls the match because you are losing by more than ten points – is never encouraging. But being part of that kind of unit provides a stark example of what it means to truly be part of a team. Being part of a team is not always about the greatest personal glory; it is about the overall goals of unit. Being part of a team means learning to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses and being able to express and acknowledge them without embarrassment. Being part of a team means that sometimes you do the things that you are better at rather than the things you enjoy the most. And most importantly, being part of a team means making sure that the victory is felt and shared equally by those who had the least glamorous roles and those who had the most.
Those lessons from taekwondo were part of what helped me come to terms with experiences like getting cut from Science Olympiad. Looking back, they had 15 slots to recruit people who could cover 23 events. The events I liked were objectively popular, and the combination of events I had focused on were well covered by older and better-established members of the team. The kids who made the team were the ones who found a niche of events that needed better coverage and spent the summer making themselves experts. That kind of focus, willingness to adapt, and willingness to learn about whatever is the most important at the time is part of what it takes to be a scientist.
And while people might be inclined to argue that competition breeds animosity or enemies, competing in a familiar league forces you to develop a constructive response to setbacks. Both Science Olympiad and taekwondo gave students the chance to cycle back and face the same opponent again – competition to competition and year to year. There is something profound in the handshake of the opponent who beat you match after match for years when you finally learn and grow enough to best them. Now no longer students, many of those old opponents are coaching Science Olympiad teams side by side. Other teammates have grown up to compete against their old partners or captains, standing on opposite sides of the ring.
And while I understand that my colleagues would hope for a future when the science landscape can be more collaborative than competitive, being a good member of a collaboration sometimes means learning do some unflattering self-assessment in the context of your peers. Sometimes it means learning to stand up for the unpopular or unpleasant decisions that better serve the overall goal. Sometimes being a good manager means taking the harder client or issue on yourself so that the rest of your team can succeed. Sometimes being a good leader means taking the time to make sure that successes are equally shared by those who did the thankless and hidden work as much as those who got to give the final presentation. Those are lessons I wouldn’t have necessarily learned without facing people whose skills objectively exceeded my own, whose adaptability were of as much value as their inherent aptitude, or whose trust I needed in order to know that sacrifices in one part of a team would lead to successes shared by all.
I don’t know if I changed any minds, but the more I think about the competitive world of STEM research, the more I think that a realistic attitude about competition and collaboration is important. Competition doesn’t need to just be about celebrating individual victory. Competition can be an ecosystem to learn about assessing your own strengths, learning to think about yourself as part of a unit, dealing constructively with setbacks, and valuing the good of the group in the long term over your personal feelings in the moment. Competition can teach you that losing is not the end of the world. In the broad landscape of programs welcoming students into the world of STEM, I hope there is room for both.