A Culture of Competition

3 May

I have been reading the book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters by Tim Keller off and on now for a couple of months.  I recently came to a very brief section in the book called “A Culture of Competition,” and found it to be such an accurate description of the emphasis that is placed on success in our society.  Also, I found it incredibly relevant to my own life, so here it is.

Our contemporary culture makes us particularly vulnerable to turning success into a counterfeit god.  In his book “The Homeless Mind,” Peter Berger points out that in traditional cultures, personal worth is measured in terms of “honor.”  Honor is given to those who fulfill their assigned role in the community, whether it be as citizen, father, mother, teacher, or ruler.  Modern society, however, is individualistic, and bases worth on “dignity.”  Dignity means the right of every individual to develop his or her own identity and self, free from any socially assigned role or category.  Modern society, then, puts great pressure on individuals to prove their worth through personal achievement.  It is not enough to be a good citizen or family member.  You must win, be on top, to show you are one of the best.

David Brook’s book “On Paradise Drive” describes what he calls “the professionalization of childhood.”  From the earliest years, an alliance of parents and schools creates a pressure cooker of competition, designed to produce students who excel in everything.  Brooks calls this “a massive organic apparatus . . . a mighty Achievatron.”  The family is no longer what Christopher Lasch once called a “haven in a heartless world,” a counterbalance to the dog-eat-dog areas of life.  Instead, the family has become the nursery where the craving for success is first cultivated.

This profound emphasis on high achievement is taking a great toll on young people.  In spring 2009, Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, admitted what many educators have seen for years, that a disproportionate number of young adults have been trying to cram into the fields of finance, consulting, corporate law, and specialized medicine because of the high salaries and aura of success that these professions now bring.  Students were doing so with little reference to the larger questions of meaning and purpose, said Hatch.  That is, they choose professions not in answer to the question “What job helps people to flourish?” but “What job will help me to flourish?”  As a result, there is a high degree of frustration expressed over unfulfilling work.  Hatch hoped that the economic downturn of 2008-2009 world force many students to reassess their fundamental way of choosing their careers. (pg. 78-79)

There are sooooo many ways in which that passage is relevant to my life right now.  For one thing, I have multiple friends who want to pursue careers in law, medicine, etc., solely because of the salaries and social status that come along with the professions.  I actually had seriously considered pursuing a career in medicine myself, and even “worked” with a psychiatrist for a few months while doing my Graduation Project in ’08.  However, it didn’t take me long to discover that my motives for wanting to go into medicine/psychiatry were totally not what they should have been. 

Although I am in high school (not for long though!) and do not have a career, I definitely relate to the sentence, “You must win, be on top, to show you are one of the best.”  Right now I am ranked #2 (or 3, not sure which) in my class, and that is kind of a big deal to me.  It makes me feel good to be on top (or as close to the top as you can get without actually being #1).  As the end of my senior year has been approaching, I have slowly started to realize that academic success is what has really defined me over the past four years.  Perhaps that is just one of my idols that God has exposed to me.  And it hurts when God exposes our idols and when you can’t get what you want – or in my case, what you think you deserve.  For instance, lately I have had the tendency to think that I deserve all kinds of scholarships for college since I have worked so hard in school and have a 4.0 GPA, and blah, blah, blah, listing all of my achievements.  And it makes me angry that I have worked so hard and get nothing in return.

As much as I like to think that Christ is the only One who defines me and whom I find my identity in, I know that is not always true.  And I’m working on that – or, actually, God is working on that.


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