We just wrapped up finals week at UC Berkeley, so as always, there’s been lots of chatter about how competitive Berkeley tends to be, both in and out of the classroom.
I would hesitate to say Cal is meaningfully more competitive than any other university of its class. Competition permeates college life no matter where you study, and the tougher the field and larger the school, the stronger the pressure to out-compete the rest. But beyond school, in the industry or academia, problems aren’t solved by besting the competition. Problems are solved by great teams, and once you have a group of good-enough people on a team, what makes a good-enough team a great team is often the chemistry and dynamics of a team, and much more rarely the exceptional caliber of individual team members.
This incongruence between competition-driven education and collaboration-driven work is something we talk around abundantly, but I don’t think we talk about it enough. Impactful progress is made by good people working together, helping those falling behind and offering to join those running ahead in their mission. The maverick soloists who churn out category-defining work alone are the exceptions that prove the rule. This couldn’t be more different from the way students make academic progress, and we bear the cost of the difference in higher stress, imposter syndromes, and imagined barriers to entry. There is a place for structured competition, and it’s not simply everywhere, all the time.
It’s tempting to be jealous of our peers sprinting farther ahead, and feel a tingle of pride while looking back at those behind us. But the race that matters is not in how quickly we finish, nor how far we run. The race isn’t for us to finish; it’s for us to endure and enjoy, to pass the baton to the runner next up. Let’s learn from those running ahead and offer to help them keep running, and learn from those behind and offer to help them keep running. The race isn’t to be won, just to be run, and the best ones are never alone.
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