Race to the Bottom

We’ve overheard this conversation:

   “I have five assignments due tomorrow, one midterm project next Monday, three college essays and SPC this weekend.”

   “That’s rough. I have one paper, two tests, four interviews and a debate tournament in Dallas.”

   “I also have a fever, but I’m here anyway.”

St. John’s students compete over just about everything – from who got what part in the musical to who is getting the most playing time to who got what grade on a major assignment.

Sometimes competition is healthy and can lead students to work harder, train longer and move closer to their goals. But when competitions go too far, we develop problematic habits to remain on top. We stay up all night to finish history papers that we had put aside in order to study for our science test after practice or rehearsal.

In reality, the most prominent competition stems not from the desire for greatness but from an advanced case of Misery Loves Company.

Whoever has the worst life wins. It’s a conundrum. While it may be cool to be stressed out – and we want to appear hardworking – we’re afraid of being labeled as a “try-hard.” If we fail, then the worse the grade, the better – we don’t want anyone to know that hard work pays off.

It’s what we call the Race to the Bottom.

‘Hidden’ competition

One way in which self-sabotage manifests itself is through sleep – or a lack thereof.

“Any first-period class, someone will tell you how much they slept,” senior Gabby Perkins said. “I hear it literally daily.”

When Candice Alfano, the director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston, spoke to the Upper School about how important sleep is for success in all aspects of life, most students agreed with her assertions, but many still felt that getting the recommended eight hours of sleep is unattainable as a St. John’s student.

Senior Ishan Shah says he gets approximately five hours of sleep per night. Socially, this unhealthy exhaustion seems to be a good thing. “On the cross-country team, we’re always comparing how much sleep we get because we’re all waking up really early and we all have work to do,” Shah said. “In that moment, the winner is always who gets the least amount of sleep.”

Alfano also referenced a Challenge Success survey conducted last school year which reported that the average amount of sleep per night was 6.9 hours. The data was met with disbelief. When the statistic was revealed, Perkins said, “the entire room rioted. People were screaming, ‘I got four!’”

Our desperation to win the lack-of-sleep competition provides and excuse to chat with friends, watch YouTube videos and find other ways to procrastinate. But the results of that procrastination lead to the other routes on our Race to the Bottom: who works the hardest, yet least efficiently, and who gets the worst grades?

“It’s like trying to do well is idolized, but doing well is not,” senior Colton Morgan said. “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”

We seem to strive for a specific image: put off work until the very last minute, then somehow complete it through generally unhealthy means, followed by a declaration of its poor quality.

“For a recent paper, a lot of people did not do it until the day of or the day before,” one sophomore said. “I know I did it in the car on the way to school.”

When discussing grades, students will rarely address their successes. In fact, they are more willing to admit that they failed a test instead of saying they did well. “When people do well, they don’t receive any praise,” Morgan said. “But when they do poorly and they share it, they get attention.”

We assume that nobody truly wants to fail. Perhaps the competition of D’s and F’s is a coping mechanism to eliminate the humiliation of a bad grade. No matter its origin, it has reached the point where it’s deemed “better” to receive a 45 on that physics quiz than an 80. Sometimes, we share tales of the worst grades we’ve ever gotten, reaching as far back as eighth grade to recall that 53 on an algebra test.

If the universe tends towards entropy, then high school students tend towards manufactured drama. When life is going well and we are succeeding, we hide it and reflect on the things that have gone wrong. Nobody wants to hear about their peer’s great night of sleep or the “A” they worked so hard for.

“No one wants to be supportive,” Morgan said. “It’s just hidden competition. If you talk about how well you did, people will feel like you’re trying too hard.”

In order to get rid of that mindset, we should embrace our failures and use them to fuel our future efforts, not perpetuate the vicious cycle. Why welcome the negativity and create a spiral defined by a lack of success? More importantly, why don’t we celebrate our successes and use them to remind us of our capabilities when we put forth our best efforts?

Success in its narrowest definition

It seems we’re always stressed. Politics, climate change and other current events provide an ever-present backdrop of tension. Struggles with meeting elevated academic requirements and the perpetual pressure for a successful college admissions process add fuel to the fire. Our Race to the Bottom only heightens the fervor.

“Positivity builds positivity and negativity builds negativity,” Upper School Counselor Ashley Le Grange said. “The bottom line is that people are seeking connection, and there is a visible fear: If I share something positive about myself or how I feel, you may perceive me as conceited or bragging. This makes it feel more comfortable, or even ‘safer,’ to say something negative to connect with you. But doing this just breeds more competition and negativity.”

Much of the anxiety that defines the St. John’s experience surrounds junior year. Eleventh grade is rumored to be riddled with poor grades, college stress and overextension as we strive to fill our resumes with impressive activities and accolades.

It’s true: being a junior is challenging. Juniors have an immense amount of work. They feel more pressure to engage in extracurricular activities and clubs, and they are increasingly focused on college admissions. But competing with one another over who is experiencing the most stress benefits no one.

“Rather than blaming your junior year, consider identifying the specific reasons behind your issues, not just some made-up concept that older kids, teachers and maybe even your parents have fed to you for years,” Online Editor-in-Chief SJ Lasley wrote on Sept. 4 for the Review Online.

Studies show that stress can, at times, be beneficial. Stress stretches our boundaries and allows us to accomplish things we could not normally. Stress can even boost memory. But when stress develops from nothing other than drama or leads to bad habits like staying up all night, it’s time to take a step back.

Perhaps the worst outcome of the competition surrounding stress is that it prohibits sincere engagement for those who are genuinely affected by it. We lose the chance to have genuine conversations in which we can form connections and offer and receive empathy. As it stands, when stress is truly debilitating for someone and they express their concerns, it is often written off as something that is experienced by all students.

Last year, St. John’s began a partnership with Challenge Success, a program that focuses on improving engagement and redefining success in order to limit the stress that students face while still maintaining a rigorous curriculum. Challenge Success looks at each school and tries to figure out possible solutions for improving the health, well-being and engagement of students. In order for Challenge Success to understand the culture of St. John’s and gather data, students took a survey that addressed topics such as sleep, stress and cheating.

Jennifer Coté, the School Program Director of Challenge Success, visited campus to introduce their mission, share data from the survey and discuss with faculty and parents how to address stress and handle it in the healthiest manner.

One of the main goals of Challenge Success is to change the narrative around stress. They have discovered that high-achieving students and their parents tend to fall prey to a fairly limited definition of achievement.

“We see this misconception of a very narrow sense of success that entails talk like, ‘I have to get really good grades and do tons of extracurriculars because I have to get into a very prestigious college, and if I can do all that, I can get a good job and make a lot of money, and I’ll be successful and happy,’” Coté said.

This dialogue makes us stress out over inconsequential things like a test that will hold little relevance to us in six months. We can limit our stress by not getting caught up in a constant cycle of trying to check off an endless list of accomplishments that we must complete in order to succeed in its narrowest definition.

Stress also impacts our community through cheating. We tend to pride ourselves on the Honor Code, but according to the data collected by Challenge Success, over 61% of students at St. John’s had cheated in the month before the survey was conducted. The most significant type of cheating was when students worked together after being asked to work alone, but students said they viewed such infractions as a means of survival and not as “legitimate” cheating.

According to Challenge Success, cheating speaks to a “constellation” of underlying stressors. Perhaps with less pressure and more sleep, the amount of cheating would decline. “Health, mental well-being and the amount of sleep students get should get priority over everything else in their lives,” Coté said. “You have to develop practices where you can reset – for example, meditating or exercising. Even just having play time, down time and family time can make a huge difference and really improve mental health and well-being.”

While St. John’s students get an average of 6.9 hours of sleep a night, the recommended amount of sleep per teenagers is eight to ten hours. When SJS parents were asked how much they think students sleep, their guess was a little bit higher than the reality. “Sleep is like a magic pill, if we consistently get eight to ten hours,” Coté said. “So many issues will just clear right up.”

The three words students most often used to describe St. John’s in the Challenge Success survey were “fun,” “challenging” and “stressful.” Fundamentally, our school is a place where we enjoy doing what we love on a daily basis, but it’s also difficult.

We are expected to do things that sometimes feel impossible to achieve, like developing a screen adaptation of “Macbeth” or building a musical instrument out of a cardboard box. But these challenges allow us to build character, develop resilience and learn how to take life in stride.

Undoubtedly, life can be stressful, and that pressure can be debilitating, so we need to discern the difference between stress from assignments or obligations and stress that results from our desire to compete. Ask yourself if you are truly stressed or are simply caught up in the drama of your peers. Be thoughtful about what you can do to improve your situation. Don’t join the Race to the Bottom.

In their own words: Why do students race to the bottom?

Everybody at school is stressed, sad and tired. People want to stand out.” Patrick, freshman

“It’s pretty comical to compete on how bad we can do in a place that’s pretty achievement-oriented. The humor helps people push through a bad day.” Katina, junior

People always want some kind of sympathy, so they get that by complaining about stress and trying to out-complain everyone else.” Ava, sophomore

People associate stress and sleep deprivation with hard work and rigor, so people exaggerate to make it seem like their academic load is harder.” Pierce, junior

People at St. John’s will compete over literally anything – like, there’s something in the water. I think people are trying to one-up each other in an ‘I put more effort into school than you’ type of thing.” Gabby, senior

We feel like we have to prove ourselves to everyone else – to show people that we’re smart. Then it becomes an idea of fitting in, how you have to be struggling in order to be like everyone else, who seem like they’re working with too little sleep and still doing extremely well.” William, senior

It’s so easy to feel lonely and isolated in this world, and no one wants to feel alone when it comes to struggles in school. If you see that others are struggling too, it makes you feel better because you’re not the only one.” Luke, senior

Izzy Andrews (’20) and Ella West (’22) are students at St. John’s High School in Houston, TX. This blog post is adapted from an article they wrote for their school magazine, The Review, in November 2019. See the full article on pages 10-11 here.