It’s when competition rears its ugly head that we suddenly realise how very detrimental it can be to experiences that are meant to be positive or even joyful. Art school lends itself as the perfect example. An increasingly diverse bunch of individuals coming together in some architecturally significant building to create for the sake of self-expression. Sounds absolutely fantastic in theory. But even when open-minded students unite in the name of the arts, we just can’t let go of that one thing that has been a driving force in this world – competition.
Often, cooperation is seen as the opposite of competition.
What is competition, actually? The textbook definition for this umbrella term is a rivalry between two or more parties in which everyone involved is trying to achieve a goal that cannot be shared. In short, one’s gain is the other’s loss. A phenomenon primarily studied in game theory, competition can result in prestige, leadership, or resources of all kinds. It can arise between individuals and groups in both social and economic circumstances. Often, cooperation is seen as the opposite of competition. However, according to English philosopher R.G. Collingwood, a mixture of the two is needed for a well-working system, especially in economics.
In an online survey conducted by 1 GRANARY for this feature, the 3829 participants are undecided when it comes to the perception of competitiveness. A small majority of 53.7% say it’s a negative characteristic in a person. Being competitive is an innate biological trait present in every human being. In fact, we compete as much as animals. Therefore, there is no reason to feel bad if you’re highly competitive. It’s in all of us. But why is that the case?
“We are all competitive to a certain extent because it means being rewarded with acknowledgment. The same applies for school – you want to survive, if not succeed.” – Katharina Weiler, MA Phychology student
To answer this, we consulted Katharina Weiler who is currently finishing her master’s degree in psychology from the Karl Franzens University in Graz, Austria. “Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, the ones who are the best or the fittest survive. There is this deeply-rooted need of belonging in all of us and usually, the weakest link won’t make the cut. So, we are all competitive to a certain extent because it means being rewarded with acknowledgment. The same applies for school – you want to survive, if not succeed.”
What makes students consciously experience competition are scholarships, contests, or group projects – seemingly harmless and widely used tools in education – which ultimately result in rewards, prices, and rankings.
Competition is a major factor in education and is often encouraged with the goal of bringing out the best in each generation of students. This notion of succeeding due to high academic performance is instilled in us all throughout childhood, adolescence, and well into adulthood by parents, teachers, and superiors. Mostly, that happens unconsciously. Just think of something as simple as praise. What makes students consciously experience competition are scholarships, contests, or group projects – seemingly harmless and widely used tools in education – which ultimately result in rewards, prices, and rankings.
75.2% of the 4019 poll respondents said that universities encourage competition between students, while 84.4% of 3604 former or current students reported that they have experienced peer-to-peer pressure themselves during their degrees. Just based on the numbers of our own survey, it becomes clear that feeling competitive is part of the education package deal. It isn’t wrong to argue that the world we live in, especially in terms of the job market, is fiercely competitive and that it would be irresponsible and naive not to prepare students adequately. But isn’t university supposed to be more than some work boot camp?
Regardless of BA or MA, art college, or science faculty, the university experience encompasses not only the preparation for one’s future profession but also making connections and memories. Someone you met at orientation may become an ally in a team-driven industry. Besides, the creative field has presented itself as a safe haven for many in the past. Free of rigid roles and strict rules. Nevertheless, when it comes to achieving goals and doing well, carefreeness and fun often make way for competitiveness and its consequences.
“I decided to do a project for my BA degree with my friends, who were a little laid-back as compared to me,” shares Shriya Zamindar, a freelance writer who has been published in Vogue and Grazia India, and is currently working for NYC-based website Rose Crosby. “Them being non-performers really put me in a tough spot because I wanted to get the best grades, and so I started creating deadlines and taking more initiative. That didn’t sit well with them, and eventually, we argued, and I wasn’t part of my friend circle anymore. I probably spent two out of my four years of BA sitting alone in the library. But I was fine with it because I was better than them in my work.”
According to the National Art and Education Association students need to possess a certain level of emotional maturity in order “to separate the concept of losing from the idea of rejection as a person.”
Shriya’s experience during her BA in Fashion Media Communication at Pearl Academy of Fashion in New Delhi is no rarity. In a time when support by one’s peers is needed the most, competition often leads to arguments or broken friendships. When one student continuously brings top results, the rest is left with a cocktail of emotions. Some have a strong mental disposition, such as Shriya, and are able to see the value in their work and muster up confidence regardless. Others, unfortunately, struggle more.
According to the National Art and Education Association, an organisation founded in the United States in 1947 consisting of visual arts educators and alumni, students need to possess a certain level of emotional maturity in order “to separate the concept of losing from the idea of rejection as a person.” Easier said than done. You may know not to take it personally, yet pressure and the feeling of simply not being enough creep into your head. We’ve all been there. A 2020 study by Luthar, Kumar, and Zillmer published in the journal American Psychologist showed that significantly high levels of anxiety and depression were found in students who are part of a high-achieving school environment, both public and private.
Out of 3976 people, 80.3% stated that experiencing competition has negatively impacted their mental well-being.
Gradually, mental health is taking on a more substantial role in educational systems around the world. And rightfully so. In the special survey we conducted for this feature, out of 3976 people, 80.3% stated that experiencing competition has negatively impacted their mental well-being. Effects can be found on either side of the spectrum. Top students often break under the pressures of keeping up their score, giving up important social activities for studies and work, while less successful ones lack motivation and confidence, besides frequently struggling with fulfilling parental expectations as well as the ones set by themselves.
So – how can competition be positive? Put simply, it’s down to two aspects – a healthy environment and a good attitude. It can be a driving force for motivation, wanting to do better by being challenged through other people’s work to improve and grow yourself. This approach to competitiveness can be realised in a non-toxic space that promotes unity, collaboration, and variation instead of envy, stress, and pressure.
“Our ambition, from the Fashion Programme perspective, is that all students are supportive of each other, and we aim to foster an environment of mutual respect and trust.” – Hywel Davies, Fashion Programme Director at Central Saint Martins
Central Saint Martins is one of the world’s leading institutions in art and design. Every year, only a few lucky ones get admitted to pursue careers in undoubtedly competitive industries. Fashion Programme Director Hywel Davies shared his stance on the matter. “Our ambition, from the Fashion Programme perspective, is that all students are supportive of each other, and we aim to foster an environment of mutual respect and trust. We are fortunate at CSM as we have a diverse group of students from all over the world – all with different experiences, knowledge, and skills and by working together and supporting each other we can create safe spaces where everyone has the opportunity to develop their own individual voice,” he says. As much as the university itself aims at keeping the spirits up even during tougher times, it’s up to oneself and the mix of individuals one shares the art school experience with.
Zoel Hernández graduated from the MA Fashion Communication at CSM in December 2020 and has since been working as a freelance journalist and social media editor for L’Officiel Spain and METAL Magazine. He felt very at ease in his batch. “I wouldn’t say I felt this sense of competition, to be honest. It is true that seeing so much talent and creativity around you makes you want to push yourself even further, but not in a competitive way. At least not for me personally. Also, in my batch, most people have very different interests and talents, so I don’t think we were jealous of one another.”
In reality, it is hard to unite a safe educational environment free of pressure and full of equal opportunities when the real world that awaits after graduation looks so very different. With being a student comes a lot of independence and responsibility, but yet there are teachers and tutors to guide you when the occasional wave of uncertainty hits. What is the best approach to prepare future creators while simultaneously ensuring they’re having a good time?
“I push my students to reflect critically on the world we live in, using fashion as a lens to better understand the power relations that underpin it. The fashion industry needs reform, yet many of our students will end up working within it.” – Dr. Elizabeth Kutesko, MA Fashion Critical Studies and BA Fashion History and Theory pathway leader at Central Saint Martins
To get an insight into the teaching of art students, we got the perspective of Dr. Elizabeth Kutesko, who is the pathway leader of MA Fashion Critical Studies and BA Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins. When we asked if competition with classmates has spoiled the fun of art school, 76.8% of 3547 survey participants shared that they’ve felt that way before. Both a lecturer and an expert on the inner workings of the fashion industry past and present, her approach is based on the students’ understanding of what they’re getting into and ensuring they don’t lose themselves along the way. “I’d say that I see my role as lecturer to develop the students’ sense of their place within the world, who they are, and what they are about. I push my students to reflect critically on the world we live in, using fashion as a lens to better understand the power relations that underpin it. The fashion industry needs reform, yet many of our students will end up working within it. If I can stress the importance of taking fashion seriously, and equip my students with a toolkit of skills in critical analysis and communication, then they can participate in the industry but also contribute to the wider cultural, social, and political debates that fashion renders visible,” she says.
Just ask the people around you what “success” means to them, you’ll be surprised, and maybe comforted in the fact that every person’s journey is and should be different.
Not experiencing competition is nearly impossible. However, the arts are a field that allows for more variety in the way one approaches things and finds solutions. As difficult as it is, what is important to remember is that you should stick to your own pace and stop comparing yourself to others. There is this false notion that space for success is limited and the way to it is singular, when in reality, it comes in all shapes and forms. Just ask the people around you what “success” means to them, you’ll be surprised, and maybe comforted in the fact that every person’s journey is and should be different.
What never fails is finding “your people”. A place of retreat where you can share your joys and achievements, as well as safely address your worries and inner demons. Experiencing the pressure of competition is natural and, at times, exhausting, but voicing your feelings is what’s key to mastering this remnant of evolution and pillar of the modern economy. After all, a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.