Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday Musings: Competitiveness versus collaboration

The older I get and the more I think about the way I wish the world worked, the more I study things for patterns.  It's simplistic to suggest that all of society's problems can be boiled down to one specific thing, but I do think there are certain behaviors that are indicative of the culture at large, and one of the ones I find most disturbing is the way everything seems to have become a competition.  It makes me wonder: are we so busy competing with one another that we've forgotten about the power of collaboration?

You can learn a lot about a society by studying its popular culture, and I think part of the reason why dystopian young adult literature is so popular is because it explores this theme of life as competition.  The Hunger Games is the most specific example, of course, but there are others as well: the Divergent series, the Partials series, and many others I could name.  While many of these books don't explicitly talk about competition in so many words, it's one of the central themes in the books.  In essence, these books show, there is an "us versus them" mentality that can have a very insidious effect on our world.

When I came up with the idea for the Contributor series before NaNoWriMo 2011, I thought I'd write about education and how it's becoming more of a competition by the day.  Students are under a lot of pressure to be the highest performers, to be the quarterback or the class president or the captain of the girls' swim team.  Teachers are expected to compete with other teachers, and oftentimes their job performance is judged based not on how much their students have improved, but on how they stack up against their colleagues.  

However, as I wrote, I realized that this cultural shift has applications outside of the classroom as well.  Rather than providing her with an education, Dara's schooling is more like a training program for how to be competitive in life.  Everything in the world of Contributor becomes a competition: who's the best performer, who gives the best presentations, who can contribute the most to their Job Creator?

But is this the best way to look at the world?  When we're so focused on individual achievement, are we overlooking what can be accomplished if we form teams?  Speaking as a former teacher who witnessed how overbooked many of her students were, I think a lot of teenagers are tired of the constant competition--and they haven't even made it to college yet.  I think that's why many teenagers like reading about the struggles of characters in dystopian novels.  It's satisfying to think that it's possible to buck the system and win.

Yet, it's not as if adults have this figured out either.  It's hard not to be aware of what's been going down on Goodreads and the books blogosphere if you happen to be an avid reader, as I happen to be.  I find it perplexing that some authors view other authors as "competition".  I find it strange that authors feel their competitive edge is threatened by readers who happen not to like their books, and who write reviews to express their negative opinions. 

This makes absolutely no sense to me.  First, because tastes in reading are subjective.  It hurts when someone doesn't like one of my books and is critical about it, but it also helps me to grow as a writer to read their critiques and reflect on them.  Chances are, I can learn something from those critiques.  And, secondly, if a reader dislikes what I write, it doesn't automatically mean every other reader will dislike it as well.  Part of the beauty of the way the book world is turning is that there's more choice than ever, which means authors get to tell the stories they want to tell and readers can read the stories they want to read.  Everyone wins.  There's no need to think of it as a competition.

I guess what I'd like to see in all walks of life is for people to take a minute and to reflect, really reflect on what benefits the world most.  Of course we need to have those extraordinary people who stand out, who can achieve big things.  But not everyone can be that extraordinary person.  And that is where collaboration comes in.  By working with others, by thinking about their opinions and their ideas, we can create things that no individual could ever have created on their own.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm perfect and I'm above it all.  I'm as guilty of engaging in unhealthy competition as anyone else, but I know this, and I want to change it.  When I think about my particular corner of the world, I see readers and writers who can work together to make books and stories that are better than ever.  I love the way the publishing world is changing, and I'm eager to take it all in and benefit from it as much as I can.  That's why you'll see me promoting other authors' works or writing reviews of books I particularly enjoyed.  I want to promote other people and, hopefully, they'll want to promote me as well.  That is the effect that collaboration can bring about.