Friday, April 25, 2014

competitive edge

I watch reality television. Mostly competitions like Masterchef and The Voice. Not Survivor or American Idol, oh no, that’s a bit too contrived for me. What I find, especially on the shows which deal with specific skills like cooking or singing, is that the participants invariably get a lot better the longer they are on the show. And in their carefully edited interviews, the participants also remark on how much they have learned, how they have been pushed to do better than they ever dreamed, and how they discovered something deep inside themselves that they were never quite sure they had.

But something about these shows has always bothered me a bit, and it is this. Is the competitive platform the only way to get the best out of people? Must we be pitted against each other in order to personally succeed? Why must we always compare ourselves to others? Why must others be eliminated in order for me to get ahead?

Most of our culture is based on competition: our entertainment, our education, our sports, our business, our politics. And yet, I don’t see competition in the ministry of Jesus. In fact, when two of the disciples tried to secure a position of power and preference over the other disciples (or rather, their mother did), Jesus was not impressed. You have no idea what you are asking, he replied.

Why are we so obsessed with comparing ourselves to others? Why is winning so important in our culture? Why is one of the biggest put-downs calling someone a loser? I don’t know exactly, but I would like to suggest an alternative. I think all the benefits that we believe we get out of competition can be found in community. In fact, I think competition is a cheap imitation of community. 

Here are 5 elements I have identified in competitive settings which help people get to the top of their game. You will note that none of them would be out of place in a community, in fact, I contend that most of them were birthed there.

1. Mentors. There is nothing quite as inspiring and motivating as being taught by people who have been working at their craft for a long time, are really good at it, and have learned valuable lessons along the way. They not only have talent but a solid work ethic, high standards, and a good reputation. And if they are mentors, they are also generous teachers, not proud, but genuine ambassadors of their craft.  I believe this is also called discipleship.
2. Practise, practice, practice. While contestants are in a reality television show, it becomes a full-time job for them. They rehearse, they learn, they practice, and that’s basically all they do. The distractions are minimised so that they can focus on the one thing that is important to them.
3. Accountability. In a competitive setting, what you do matters.  Every time. Because it can change the course of your life. People who succeed in competitions take what they do more seriously. They make sure they are prepared, and when it is their turn to shine, they hold nothing back.
4. Being surrounded by others who have the same goals. Yes, there is something to being in the company of others who are all pursuing the same thing. Not only can you learn from each other, but you end up talking about your dream, your work, your passion, in every conversation. And that’s okay, because everyone around you feels the same way. In a community of musicians, even the novices begin to talk and act and sound like real musicians.
5. Teamwork. In most of these competition shows, there is always an element of teamwork. If people don’t know how to set aside their own agendas to ensure the success of the team, they probably won’t do well in the long run. If you can make others look good, it will probably come back to reflect well on you. I admire Luca Manfe who won Masterchef Season 4. In one episode, a fellow contestant had neglected to get a key ingredient out of the pantry. When the contestant asked to borrow the ingredient from Luca, other contestants assumed he would refuse, but he didn't hesitate to give what he had. He explained that if he was going to win it would be because his cooking was superior, not because he refused to give someone an ingredient. That’s the spirit of community!

All of these elements appear in competitions, but these same competitions can also have some sour side-effects on people. Egos can run rampant, people can use deceptive strategies to gain an advantage, some set their fellow contestants up to fail, others begin smear campaigns, and people sometimes develop unhealthy alliances that they believe will help them get ahead. In the end, pride, greed, and lust win out too often. And inevitably, some sensitive spirits are crushed along the way. That’s unattractive. We might admire someone who has a win-at-all-costs attitude, but would you want them as your friend?

Community, I suggest, offers all of these valuable qualities without the unattractive self-serving, competitive attitudes.  Okay, there might not be a cash prize or a dream job or a recording contract, but are these the only incentives we respond to? I hope not. All of us have the opportunity, right now, to become wholeheartedly involved in a community that helps people to become their best selves. In turn, the community will help us develop into better people as well. No need to audition. Just sign up and show up. Every day.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

scary donuts

The scary donuts
This past term I taught a course on Christian Spirituality at the university and Friday was the last class. I wanted to do something special for the final time we would meet as a group, besides giving a rockin' concluding lecture about incarnational spirituality, so I tossed around a few ideas on Thursday night. Give everyone a book on Francis of Assisi? Too expensive. Go on a field trip to a nearby church? They had already done their own field trip as an assignment. Bring chocolate? I did that for the Valentine's Day class. Go out for drinks afterwards? Not everyone would be able to make it due to exams and other classes, and since it would only be 11:30 am, maybe not the best idea. A cake? I didn't really have time to make one. Bring donuts? It seemed like the best solution. Everybody likes donuts, right? Well, maybe not. I had observed that quite a few of my students seemed to be on a health kick, bringing fruit, smoothies, and nut mixes to class. Perhaps some were even gluten-free or diabetic. No doubt I wouldn't be able to please everyone, but donuts seemed like the best option to lend a bit of a festive, celebratory air to the last class.

I still wasn't sure I was going to go through with it when I stepped off the subway at 8:20 am on Friday. There was always a line-up at the donut shop that time of the morning, so I decided that if that was the case, I wouldn't bother. Surprisingly, there were only a few people in line that morning, so I stepped up to the counter and ordered 2 dozen donuts, enough for every student in class plus a few extra. It took a few minutes for the server to place the sweet, sticky, fried orbs in large, flat boxes and then he handed them to me.

After taking a minute to adjust everything I was carrying so that the donuts were gently cradled in my arms, I started down the underground hallway which led to the building where my classroom was. And as I walked, I became aware of a range of emotions washing over me. I felt conspicuous, self-conscious, almost ashamed, exposed, stupid, ridiculous, insecure, and afraid that my students would view this as an inelegant and clumsy gesture on my part. My stomach lurched, my heart rate increased, my breathing became shallow and rapid, and I had the urge to flee, to drop those blasted boxes and get as far away from the despicable donuts as I could.

What was was going on? How could a few donuts scare the heck out me?  Where was all this anxiety coming from? Did I not buy enough Boston creams? Or was this really, truly a stupid idea and I was just awakening to that realization now? It didn't take me long to identify the cause of my mini panic attack: I was putting myself in a vulnerable place, a place where I was not in control. Giving a gift is, at its essence, offering someone a part of yourself. Doing this in a professional setting with a group of people you don't know very well...that's risky business. Many years ago, I brought some food to a work gathering and as the evening progressed and my snacks remained virtually untouched, it slowly dawned on me that my contribution to the refreshment table was the most homely, unsophisticated item there. It made me feel ashamed.

Gift-giving or true generosity makes us vulnerable. Our gift can be rejected, ridiculed, deemed inappropriate, and ultimately, change the dynamic of a tenuous relationship. And this means that we are subject to rejection, being ridiculed, and feeling out of place and alone. Gift-giving is not for the faint of heart. True gift-giving is not about good taste and a big budget; it is about tremendous courage, because giving a gift is opening our hearts and letting someone see our soft spots. It is holding out the things we value most for others to scrutinize and evaluate. Gift-giving opens us up to a variety of negative and hurtful responses. And that's why those donuts scared me that Friday morning.

Gift-giving is at the heart of God and this extravagant generosity is most evident in the person of Jesus. Here we find God incarnate in paradoxical divine vulnerability, carrying the largest box of donuts ever to a world which would rather have chocolate croissants and espressos. To a world which is likely to take a few bites of the humble apple fritter and then spit it out. To a world which might sneer in disdain at the chocolate glazed donut because it has bumped up against the maple glaze and the colours have run together. I will stop with the bad donut analogies here, but hopefully you get my point. All we can ever offer is what we have in our hands, what we hold close to our hearts. People may not think it is enough, and it probably never is, but Jesus is enough. And Jesus can be part of every gift we give. He is gift incarnate.

My students were reservedly happy when they saw the donuts. One student asked, "Can we eat them?" Another student said they appreciated the gesture but didn't want one. A few shyly came forward and picked out their favourite. At the break, some boldly returned for seconds. I saw smiles on many of their sticky faces. After the class ended, I wandered the halls, offering the leftover donuts to a few students. They all looked at me with suspicious glances and politely said No. I understood. It is hard to accept a random donut from a too-friendly stranger in a pink scarf. I headed over to the IT department and dropped the box of donuts on the counter while I fished out the key I had to return. I saw the eyes of several techies fixate on the box. "You want some donuts?" I asked. They were silent, timid in their desire. I said, "I'll just leave the box here and you can do what you want with them, okay/" Smiles all around. The girl at the counter responded, "Really? That's so nice of you!"

And then I walked away from the scary donuts, the donuts that taught me a little bit about courage.

Monday, April 07, 2014

perfectionism vs. vulnerability

I have been reading a book about the gifts of imperfection over the last few weeks [1]. For someone who has perfectionist tendencies (if you are a graduate student, you inevitably fall into this category), it has been a good reminder that what I am really looking for is not perfection but being loved and being okay with who I am. Perfectionism is often an attempt to keep fear and vulnerability at bay by controlling every detail of life. And because this level of control is impossible (life always involves things much larger than us), being a perfectionist can get pretty stressful.

Adhering to high standards and working hard to do one's best, well that's something else, and not defined by a joyless, obsessive drive to be perfect. In fact, working really hard at something you care deeply about in order to get it right is generally exhilarating! And usually accompanied by lots of trial and error as one figures it out. However, the ugly desire to control every last detail no matter how it affects others around us...well, that is something that shows me how much I fear being vulnerable.

Perfectionism is me berating myself for not blogging here for two weeks. No excuses are acceptable. Perfectionism demands that I come up with something innovative and crowd-pleasing every time I write a blog. Perfectionism checks how many hits I have on each post and gets dejected at low numbers. Perfectionism asks in a screeching voice: what did you do wrong? Perfectionism is no fun to be around. Honestly, I sit much easier in the realm of vulnerability than I do in perfectionism, but I still resist it many times.

Vulnerability not only accepts human limitations, but embraces things like an unexpected illness, printers running out of ink, forgetting to bring something to work, the interruptions of a neighbour or colleague, and getting rejection letters. Vulnerability doesn't freak out at these things; vulnerability says the Yes of acceptance, takes a deep breath, and then embraces the chaos in order that it might become a lovely, meaningful, and rich part of the tapestry of life. Vulnerable people are people who can trust others, who can take risks with joy, who love with freedom, who walk by faith, and who know that nothing is ever hopeless.

Perfectionism makes demands; vulnerability gives gifts. May I be a gift-giver, giving who I am and what I have been blessed with to the world.

[1] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazeldon, 2010.