Sunday, August 12, 2012

Competitions in life...

When I was just a lad, I spent a number of years singing in the choir at St Paul's Cathedral. On the wall in the choir-room, there was a giant board with everybody's name listed on it. At the top, was the head chorister, and at the bottom were the newbies. Each week, choristers would get a score on their performance. If they'd sung well, improved their singing, helped others out in the choir, they'd get a pass, credit, distinction or - the paragon of excellence - a double-distinction. These would correspond to a score, that affected their ranking. If somebody made too many mistakes in a given week, and just weren't trying enough, they'd get a "fail", and often drop down in the rankings. The choir even had its elite - the "Top Sixteen" who would perform at special events and functions.

Bear in mind that this was a choir - a musical ensemble - of 10 to 14 year old boys. It brought certain elements of stress and emotional trauma to what should have been a joyful, musical venture. However, there was also the expectation that the choir would provide quality performances on a daily basis - we sang in the cathedral for services six times a week. By rewarding excellence and punishing poor performance, it created a culture where we strove for improvement and perfection, which was reflected in our ranking within the mini-community that was the choir.

Moving on to high school - particularly, its final years - I was in an education system where our final mark that decided our future was not an empirical score based on how well we went, but rather a ranking - the Tertiary Entrance Rank - which told us where we stood in society in relation to every other graduate from that year. This embedded in us a culture where many aspects of life are a competition, and we need to learn how to be a contender.

Which brings me to my main point:

One of life's lessons seems to be that, in order to be successful, you need to be winning. I've been recently in a situation where I've been job hunting, and thus engaged in that competitive process. In this competition, there is literally no prize for second place. You get the job, you win. There are situations where the competition is limited, and I've easily become a contender. There are ways to bend the rules of the competition to your advantage - i.e. networking, getting your foot in the door through casual / temp work at the organisation. And then there is plain "cheating" - i.e. get your dad to hire you. It's still one of my career goals to gain a highly-sought-after position through a fair merit-based recruitment process, and unless I do that, I'm not winning. But to get to that point, I need to work hard. I need to build my range of skills, and establish a strong track record of quality and success in my professional work. Because it's not enough just to enjoy the work as it comes, and cruise along whilst the going's good. Or is it? I'll come back to that point.

Last night, I entered a swing dancing competition - the Australian Jitterbug Championships. I've been dancing lindy hop for a bit over two years now. I took classes quite intensively for the first year or so, and at least year's championships, I did moderately well in the beginner / midstream categories. This year was a completely different situation, though. I only recently started taking classes again, after a nine month hiatus overseas. Furthermore, I entered the Open Jack and Jill competition - one that I was unlikely to win because, frankly, I'm still very much a beginner in the scheme of things. I danced with three amazingly awesome dancers - all of whom made it to the finals - and for that experience I was grateful. However, the feeling of competing, and doing my best, and not making the cut, has still left me with a feeling of disappointment. I'm at a point where competition is pretty much the only reason to work hard at improving my dancing, and unless I win - or even make the finals - how can I ever truly know if I've improved? It's all well and good to rock the social dance floor, but it's exactly that - social. You're there to be pleasant to each other, and enjoy each other's dance for what it is - not what it should be. It's only in competition where people are truly judged for how good - or lacking - their skills are. Without that, where's the motivation to technically and aesthetically improve one's dancing? Or, again, is it enough just to enjoy it for what it is?

So, there seems to be three options in life. One is to work hard, improve, compete, keep working hard, keep improving, compete, and repeat with winning as the ultimate goal. The other is to not compete at all; take on a job / dance / craft and enjoy it for what it is, with no aspiration to perfect it, but simply have as a moderately-skilled feather in one's cap that you can pull out for social engagements. Or the third option is to move onto something else. I definitely feel like I'm at a crossroads here - I'm doing okay with my current life choices, but I'm not winning. I don't feel that working harder is getting me any closer - I know a number of people who work much harder than me in these areas, and only end up more frustrated.

So, I think it's time to start enjoying these things for what they are, and focus my serious energy in finding new battles to compete in.