One night recently at the dinner table, my wife said to me, “You know you’re the reason why the boys are the way they are.”
While I might have hoped this was general praise for their overall wonderfulness, I think what she was referring to specifically was their petty competitiveness.
As is often the case, our 4- and 6-year-old sons were enjoying their dinner with a side of brotherly bickering. School had recently started for both, and they were arguing over who had received more points from their teacher that day.
Our older son’s first-grade teacher uses an app to help parents track their child’s behavior. The children receive points for things like being on task and teamwork and can have points deducted for bad behavior. The teacher updates the app in real-time throughout the day. My younger son’s pre-K teacher has no such system, but that hasn’t stopped him from claiming he’s accumulated hundreds or millions of points per day.
Needless to say, I was immediately captivated by the app. The second day of school, I refreshed repeatedly, waiting for the point total to tick up. Four points for being on task before 11 a.m.? Yes!
I quickly realized, though, that there was one major problem. Without a point of reference, I had no way of knowing if, say, eight points in a day was a good total or not. In other words, I really needed a class leaderboard so I could see if my kid was dominating the competition. Otherwise, the whole points thing felt a bit empty. Kind of like playing tennis and only keeping count of your points and not your opponent’s.
I resisted the urge to message the teacher and ask where I could find the class leaderboard because I assumed that would be heavily frowned upon. Instead, I dropped a few hints to my son when the moment seemed right.
“So, do you see how many points you have while you’re at school?” I asked casually.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s projected on the board.”
“How is everyone else doing? Do they have a lot of points, too?”
“I think I probably have the most. I was kind of at the top of the list.”
I gave a subtle fist pump.
It was only later when my wife scolded me for trying to turn everything into a competition that I realized I was probably getting a little carried away. She had a, um, point
An arbitrary point system for a bunch of first graders is certainly not something to obsess over. No matter how appealing the instant gratification the app provides might seem, I really should save my energy for more important things like Little League, tiny tot soccer and under-8 tennis.
In all seriousness, there is a danger in our competitive and connected world of becoming fixated and obsessed with trivial matters. For example, businesses attempt to exploit our weaknesses every day. They prey on our need to compare ourselves to others, to prove that we belong, to believe that our wildest dreams are achievable.
Whether it’s the burst of adrenaline you get when one of your Instagram posts gets tons of likes or the shadow of depression that lurks when you see friends and family living seemingly perfect lives online, our technologies and the businesses that create them are continually pulling our emotional strings as if we were their marionettes.
Perhaps even more insidious, there are businesses that get cheap labor by gamifying their workplace. As a writer, I’ve come across this on many platforms. Companies often offer freelancers the opportunity to make their own schedules, get their work seen, build connections, develop new skills, and, very often, compete for compensation against other desperate writers. Like the classroom app, many of these platforms are brilliantly designed to appeal to our obsessive natures. Unlike the classroom app, most of them have leaderboards or contests or various forms of rankings, making them even more addictive for those of us with maniacally competitive tendencies. They share tricks and tendencies with the ubiquitous multi-level marketing systems that often clutter your social media timelines.
These businesses offer periodic hits of dopamine in the form of peppy digital notifications, head-to-head wins, and various contests and rewards. What they don’t typically offer is fair compensation, benefits, or a stable financial future of any kind. They get tons of great content from talented people by exploiting our obsessive tendencies, need for competition, and the sense of belonging and achievement that comes with “winning.”
I know this because I’ve participated on these platforms. I still do. And I’m borderline obsessive about it even though I know it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Human nature is a weird thing. But, it’s not just instinct. We’re often taught from an early age that if we just work hard, delay gratification, and compete to win, something better is just over the horizon. However, in the online freelance world that better thing often doesn’t come. Instead, if you’re not careful, you can spend years making a lot of money for other people.
Yes, there certainly is a darker side of competitive drive. Particularly when competition is increasingly presented to us in attractive, technologically sleek packages. When it comes to providing a model for my kids, it’s probably best that I keep that in mind.