Thursday, May 11, 2006

Friendly Competition

I can’t help it. I want to stop. I tell myself that I’d be happier, healthier, if I just didn’t do it. But I do. All the time. I just can’t stop.

It’s not attractive. I know. But I’ve got a competitive streak in me, deeply ingrained and ready to take charge. I want to be good at what I do. Hell, I want to be great at what I do, though I’ve been humbled enough times to learn, you can only ask for so much. Still, I try. Try and fail and try again. I’m a glutton for punishment.

“Remember, there’s always someone better.”

I’m reminded of this all the time. I see it in the work of people around me, people much younger than me. I see it in the accomplishments of friends, strangers, who’s CVs are filling up more quickly than an English pub at happy hour. No matter what, there is always someone better, smarter, more creative.

So, when I sit down at my computer each day, for a brief moment, I’m overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by how much I don’t know, how much I need to learn, how much I have unfinished. Overwhelmed by those around me, whose work humbles me, inspires me, takes my breath away. For a split second, I stand here at this precipice, pondering the possibility of giving up, calling it quits, leaping off into the oblivion and escaping from it all. But I don’t. I turn around, and head back in, my competitive streak once again in charge.

It is the double-edge nature of competition. It can drive you forward, push you beyond your comfort zone. In a studio setting, a bit of friendly competition can raise the productivity and quality of the work produced, everyone feeding of the ephemeral energy of wanting to do more, try harder, be better. I felt, for the most part, that my undergraduate experience benefited from this atmosphere, this unspoken desire to try and be just a bit better. I found the work of my classmates inspiring, if not because I thought it just a bit better than my own. And from this inspiration, I pushed my boundaries, forced myself to reconsider my project, its development. It kept me from being comfortable.

But competition, taken to extremes, destroys the energy that it can create. It can create sociopaths who are willing, by any means, to ensure that they win. They will lie, cheat, steal, all in hopes of coming out ahead, disregarding the destruction they leave behind.

I benefited from five years of positive competition. I felt it, especially around crit time, when we would be scanning each other’s work to see who had done what, how much they might present, how pretty their drawings were. That air of competition sustained us for the long nights and relentless hours that ran together into one blur of sustained activity.

But in one of the years that followed my own, I saw competition turn mean, turn into everything that it shouldn’t. Students would find their work vandalized – maybe bits and pieces of a final model missing, drawings suddenly gone from their portfolios, final presentations destroyed. In that atmosphere, paranoia set in. Students in that year began hiding their work, locking it away each night, ensuring no one could see what they were working on, how much they might have. Studio, the sacred realm of my school experience, had been, for them, violated. It had become a place of pettiness, ego gone amuck. It was a divisive experience, forcing classmates to second guess each other intentions and motivations.

With that class in mind, I think of my studio experiences, reflect on the space that had become my second home. And I note the one great difference. Never, for a moment, did I worry about the safety of my work, of leaving out drawings, sketches, study models. A small part of me even hoped that, by leaving my work out, I might attract some attention, maybe inspiring someone else along the way. (I mean, let’s admit that we all have egos, even if mine has been crushed endlessly.) I can’t imagine how it might have felt, to be a part of that class, and worry each night that, if precautions weren’t taken, my work might not be there the next morning. It was a freedom I took for granted, a freedom that, only in light of those who have lost it, becomes particularly special, particularly poignant.

Despite the layers of cynicism that I tend to wrap myself in, I am perhaps overly idealistic about the potentials of a positive studio environment. I’d hate to imagine my feelings towards architecture had I had to endure the experiences of that class. As a bystander, an older student, who turned quasi-counselor, I already feel a sense of loss, sadness for the way they will reflect upon their own studio experiences. And it reminds me of the fragile, yet powerful, nature of the architecture studio. The creative potential that can barrel out of a studio depends, in great part, to those who partake of it. It’s there, ready to be tapped, ready to nurture. But, abused, and it will turn against you, leave you cold and alienated. I hate to imagine those who have endured years of that.

So, bear with me and my pedestal moment of the day. For any potential architecture student out there, remember to respect your studio, your studio mates, the culture that you create. The consequences of pettiness, of sour egos, aren’t worth the miniscule moments of feeling number one. You ruin a lot more than friendships. You destroy the thing that makes architecture education worth the sleepless nights.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:30 PM  

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