In my perspective, the society’s problem is the type of competition. Too many students want the same thing. They want to graduate from the same best university in the same best department, and get a job in the same best company. They adopt the same strategy for studying, for extracurricular activities, and for working.
Students can be successful and happy if they eschew mainstream competition. Economists have known for decades that there are different sorts of competition, and cut-throat competition through wages or through effort is not the best sort. If you find a good way to compete against others, a niche area with breathing space to let you develop a long term vision, you gain without being massacred in the process.
The key is to think carefully before you enter the race, and use creativity. Taking the same type of classes, and competing through GPA will not get students the skills that they need in the long term, even if it were convenient today. True creativity cannot be memorized or conquered once for all. It needs to be practiced or even better, embraced throughout life.
Classes where you easily sail to an A or where you cram before exams will do little for you in the long term, at most exercising your brain cells. Remember you are young, and the job you are polishing yourself for is ten or fifteen years ahead in the future. Your goal is not to compete for the first internship or office job. The ultimate achievement will be the third or fourth job to which you will eventually steer. This job will require more than a certification in MS-Office or a perfect TOEFL score.
Better classes and extracurricular activities are those that unsettle your perspective and open your mind permanently. These are exactly the classes that hurt your brains. They challenge you to design something previously undesigned, learn by trial and error, and realize that no definitive answer may get revealed at the end of the semester. If you get hooked, that is how creativity is learnt!
The ultimate job you are vying for will be less biased toward men, unmarried women or people with spotless family backgrounds than today’s jobs are. Do not limit yourself by investing in obsolete jobs, or jobs for twenty-somethings. If investing in eccentric skills sounds like a bad idea today, market evolution might prove you right. At the same time, be honest with yourself. Will you really continue to pursue your career after you get married? Acquiring creativity is more worthwhile when sufficiently amortized.
The “Competition Dilemma” conference concluded that more creative education is needed. Several high schools now experiment with ‘esoteric’ sports (baseball) or arts (trumpet playing) classes. While these give students more courage to express themselves, I doubt they instil in students true appreciation for the creative process. The class of students who ate a fried chicken and later glued the bones together to construct a full skeleton has learnt more!
* Professor Vladimir Hlasny is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics. His research is applied on consequences of competition, environmental spillovers in trade, firms’ discrimination, pricing in online markets, and more. He holds a doctorate in economics from Michigan State University.