In what ways does competition shape the expression of our identities, particularly for men-identified folks? I have been thinking a lot about this question since last summer, when I had the chance to participate in a summer research program in Europe with 50 other graduate students from around the world. It was one of the most fulfilling academic experiences I have ever had: over the course of three months, I formed several close friendships, learned a lot about different cultures, and expanded my academic boundaries to new fields of study. In fact, I remember thinking halfway through the summer that our student cohort was remarkably close and supportive – that is, until the day that our supervisors announced there would be a prize for the best student paper to come out of the cohort. After that day, we still remained friendly, but there was something unmistakably different about the tenor of our interactions. People started gossiping about who would win the award, and gradually many of our interactions changed from a frame of appreciative inquiry – the feeling that we were all on a journey, learning from each other – to one of judging and critiquing each other’s work. This subtle shift also had gender implications: the people who were rumored to be favorites for the award were almost all men, even though the female students had clearly done equally impressive work, and the male students tended to take up more conversation space whenever discussions turned toward the award.
Even months after I returned from the summer program, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we lost a little bit of what made the experience special the day we heard about the award, and I was especially curious to explore the gender implications of competition. We know from psychological research that competition is often associated with “agentic” or “masculine” identities, whereas “feminine” or “communal” identities are often associated with cooperation. With this in mind, we recently had a MAVRIC lunch discussion around masculinity and competition, taking on questions such as: How does competition contribute to our identities as men, and in what ways might it suppress expression of our full, holistic selves? Equally as important – how can competition serve to include/exclude other individuals from important groups and spaces?
We touched on several ways in which masculinity and competition intersect, and it was especially interesting to think about what purposes competition serves in various aspects of our lives. For example, competition plays a central role in athletic life: our identities are often defined by teams we belong to and in opposition to our athletic adversaries. One aspect that came through clearly in our discussion about athletics is the fine line that separates healthy from unhealthy competition. On the one hand, competition can provide the structure and pressure necessary for individuals to pursue greatness – without clear rules and a challenging measuring stick, it can be difficult to measure progress and set ambitious goals. It also provides an intense, shared experience that helps to facilitate deep relationships, including male friendships that often seem increasingly out of reach for men as we transition into adulthood. On the other hand, a narrow focus on “winning at all costs” can blind us to other important aspects of a healthy, well-balanced life. The pressure of concentrating our complex identities into an almost impossibly tight measure of success contributes to relatively high levels of anxiety among athletes, and can also lead to jealousy and enmity between individuals who might otherwise form deep friendships in a less competitive atmosphere. The fear of losing in a competitive atmosphere might also dissuade us from taking chances or stepping outside our comfort zone, which are key ingredients for our own personal growth.
Many of the athletes and coaches in our discussion group mentioned that they manage this double-edged sword by setting clear boundaries for competitive spaces: competition is turned “on” for practices and games, when the main goal is to best your opponent, but turned “off” once you leave the field. This distinction is crucial not just for team bonding after an intense practice, but also as a release valve for our own physical and mental health, to ensure that we are not solely defined by competition against someone or something. But what happens in other aspects of our lives, where there isn’t a physical field to constrain our competitive impulses? How should we think of competition in our classrooms and workplaces, in casual settings with friends, with siblings, or even with intimate partners? Here again, competition can inspire us to push further towards self-improvement and facilitate bonding, but left unchecked, can be used to exclude others, and to constrain different aspects of our own identity. In the summer research program, I felt the paper competition both motivated me to work harder to produce high-quality research, but also stifled the part of me that was genuinely interested in learning more about others’ work. I also found that I subconsciously presented a competitive “front” to my male colleagues – emphasizing that I was confident about my work and knew what I was doing – while often relying on female colleagues to express my doubts and cultivate non-competitive relationships. Again, what consequences might these behavioral patterns have for the ability of others to express their complex identities, whether it be other men who were also looking for non-competitive friendships, or women who want to be perceived as fierce competitors?
I believe one key difference between these situations and athletic environments is that in most aspects of our lives, the boundary between the competitive and non-competitive arenas is less clear. This can be especially problematic for interpersonal relationships, where a seemingly harmless dynamic of “one-upmanship” can escalate into increasing bitterness without a clear safe space for removing competition. Furthermore, infusing competition into key decision-making spaces in workplace or social environments is often used, intentionally or unintentionally, to disenfranchise gender identities traditionally perceived as less masculine and competitive. One of my key take-aways from our MAVRIC discussion is to think more explicitly about the question, “competition in service of what?” Harnessed for constructive purposes – whether that is bonding, self-improvement, excellence – competition can be an incredibly powerful tool in many facets of our lives. But we must be equally aware of what we risk giving up in creating competitive environments, and set clear boundaries for when competition ends, and when we are allowed to grow other parts of our identities.