Competition, sanity, and self-worth
Fluctuating between being caring too much and not caring at all
The Harvard-MIT Math Tournament, which happened a few weeks ago, is one of the most prestigious math competitions for high school students, attended by mathletes from around the world. Having them around campus reminded me that I was one of them, once upon a time. The competitive math community was one of the anchors in my adolescence, but the nature of competitions made me develop an aversion to high-stakes situations.
Every time I sat down to a packet of questions in a math competition, my fingers would run cold, and my entire body would become tense. It felt like everything was resting on my ability to answer these questions. Not only would doing well allow me to move onto the next rounds, but it was also important (apparently) for showing colleges that I had a longitudinal and prolific run in an extracurricular activity, as well as validating all the time I spent on it. That pressure became a mental block, making it impossible for me to come up with clear and efficient solutions. Talking with my teammates afterwards was always me realizing my failures, instead of a discussion on our solutions to each problem. The fun of untangling the quirks of math problems was lost to me probably in the middle of sophomore year. I became uncomfortably skilled at nodding and smiling when someone explained their proof to me, when I understood none of it.
Now, as part of the MIT Ballroom Dance Team, I compete around the New England area a few times each semester. Supposedly a way to showcase all the figures and technique we work on behind the scenes, I’ve found that my mindset for ballroom competitions avoids thinking about those things at all. Yes, getting marked would be nice, and I’d advance to the next round, but I constantly repeat to myself that “this doesn’t matter.” My success at ballroom competitions doesn’t bear weight in my academic success, my career path, or my social life. I try to directly focus on having fun, lowering my expectations for ribbons.
It can seem on the outside that I don’t care. BDT is a competitive team, after all, and there are ways for me to pursue dance in a non-competitive setting. I realize that I should be making an effort towards advancing and winning. I should constantly want to do better, to outcompete all the other couples on the floor, and to have fun while I’m at it. If you don’t care as much as the other competitors, you don’t deserve to win as much as they do. But I know that if I worry about the significance of each round, I will freeze, causing a lot more problems for both my partner and myself. Superficially, lowering my expectations makes it easier to stomach getting cut from rounds.
I don’t believe that having an apathetic mindset will lead to success (in anything, really), but I also don’t think that being too serious and cutthroat will make the journey anything but miserable. I love the ballroom team. I love the practices, the waking up early to go to competitions, and the people who have my back no matter what. Right now, I can’t handle the extra disappointment, so I’m actively ignoring it. Is it wrong if it saves me from putting excess pressure on myself? Here’s to hoping it’s possible to strike a balance between the two; I just haven’t found it yet.