On Competitions

[Their] Relative performance tells us nothing of interest because all of them may be shamefully low — or impressively high — on whatever measure we’re using. Comparative success just gives the winner bragging rights (“We’re No. 1!”). And again, it creates the misleading impression of inevitable, permanent failure for some.

But boy, do we love to rank. Worse, we create artificial scarcity by giving out awards — distinctions manufactured out of thin air specifically so that some cannot get them.

Framing excellence in these competitive terms doesn’t lead to improvements in performance. Indeed, a consistent body of social science research shows that competition tends to hold us back from doing our best. It creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely, encourages gaming of the system and leads all concerned to focus not on meaningful improvement but on trying to outdo (and perhaps undermine) everyone else.
— Alfie Kohn, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?”, New York Times 6/17/2019