It’s Not You, It’s the System; Or How Competition Brings Us Down

(Sort of a rant today – I tried to edit it, but in the end I decided to leave it as it is)


When I was about fourteen, us girls were separated from boys during PE classes since my school only had one proper outdoor field. Our male classmates had biology while we played football outside. After an hour we switched. I’m not entirely aware of all the planning behind it, but one day this separation inspired our biology teacher to conduct a funny experiment.

‘I’m dividing you into groups,’ she said. ‘You need to prepare questions for the other groups, based on the chapters you had to read for today, and your answers will be graded.’

When the teacher left us alone for a moment, we quickly agreed to make the questions as easy as possible without turning the whole thing into a farce. Predictably, all groups answered correctly and got the highest possible grade.

‘Okay, now tell me,’ said the teacher at the end of the class, ‘did you make the questions so easy on purpose?’ We nodded nervously. ‘No, your grades are valid, you didn’t break any rules. It’s just interesting, because each of the boys’ groups assumed they had to be better than other groups. They prepared difficult questions and most of them got low grades.’

That, apparently, was the famous male competitiveness. We were more or less aware of it; at least I was grateful for being female during PE classes, since while sucking at almost all sports was embarrassing for a girl, it could lead to serious bullying and a low social status for a boy. Fortunately, we were entering the age when most of the girls “forgot their sport clothes” or claimed to suffer from 3-weeks-long periods just to avoid physical activity. We also regularly escaped from the swimming pool trips. Many of us were lazy or just not very enthusiastic about the prospect of cold chlorinated water during the freezing Warsaw winters. Some, however, were ashamed of how they looked in a swimming suit: they thought they were fat. Even though, logically, exercise can help with losing weight, the shame outweighted that logic.

Most of the theory I consciously support now is just explaining stuff I experienced semi-consciously in my life. Thus when many years later I read some radical feminist piece about beauty standards acting as a sort of “divide and rule” tool applied by men on women, I didn’t need much convincing. Of course, there’s no secret conspiracy involving all male people; but the feeling of inferiority most women experience looking at their objectively healthy bodies remains very real. Often it’s not a man who makes a woman feel like shit, but another woman – I know a girl who, after hearing someone complimenting another woman’s looks, will inevitably reply with something like “Oh, but she must be very stupid.” We might not be socialised to compete in class or on the field as much as men, but we are not free from always wanting to be better than others according to arbitrary criteria we rarely question.

I was shocked when a friend told me, with a disillusioned tone implying she’d heard too many secrets, that half of the girls in my high school year had bulimia. I was shocked when one after one of my friends told me they felt stupid, that they were never good enough, that they were depressed because of many reasons, many of them relating to their academic performance, precarious careers, failures of their love lives. But the biggest shock came when I realised I was constantly comparing myself to others – and I was doing stuff I hated, applying for jobs I didn’t want and considering partners I couldn’t connect to just because I didn’t want to be worse than them, in this or another frankly absurd way. I was stressed, sleep deprived and irritated, hating the products of my frantic work and ashamed to celebrate any success, be it learning a new language or graduation, because I didn’t see these successes as successful enough: there were always people speaking the language more fluently or graduating with a higher GPA.

As much as I want to get rid of it, I’m still too competitive and ambitious, which invariably leads to harmful perfectionism and procrastination. Many of my problems stem from the fact that while I consider myself an interesting person according to my own criteria, I have this nagging feeling that I’m boring compared to others, in other people’s eyes. I’m not even sure when, where and why I began being anxious about it. Most importantly, I don’t get why that scale of being interesting, or the scales of being beautiful or successful are ingrained so deeply in my head. Surely I should be able to say ‘I’m done’ when I’m actually done, and start a new life on a sustainable goat squat-farm writing poetry. But I can’t, and my ‘drive’, instead of motivating me to write amazing poetry here and now, just brings this anxiety of not doing well enough which I, and probably many of you, try to silence using the drug of trashy culture as well as actual drugs.

Maybe the pervasiveness of toxic competition can be explained by our individualistic economy and its cultural manifestations. There can’t be one national healthcare system when multiple companies will do better, hundreds of people within these companies taking extra hours to get promoted. At the same time, the popular superhero movies (a trashy cultural distraction I often enjoy) rehash the fantasies about a group of special individuals who can save the world. Despite these illusions, it’s precisely the people with most power standing in the way of world-saving: people who will rather keep their bonuses high than stop polluting the earth or feeding the weapon industry. At least you can make yourself feel better by spending a percentage of these ridiculous sums on charity. But the power will stay in your hands, if you succeed. Whether it’s the power to buy a private jet or afford health insurance doesn’t matter that much, since the same rules apply: you need to perform better than others in order to obtain but a tiniest fracture of power.

Young girls know very well that they’re judged on their appearance, and most of us assume that without certain – what? – qualifications an uncertain future of ‘flexible’ jobs and overpriced necessities awaits us. Of course, many mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but our environment and activities trigger difficult episodes. Even though our brains have remained largely unchanged for centuries, in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60%. Looking around me, I see many people being happy despite rather than because of their studies or work – the main focus of their lives. That biology class was the only time I remember when I was rewarded not for my individual knowledge or achievements, but rather for collaborating with others for the gain of all. Later, I encountered more and more difficult questions and challenges I had to answer alone, knowing very well that if I can’t face them, the next ones will only become more daunting due to the previous failures.

I’m not surprised that I’m happiest doing voluntary work, be it advising people on plant care or political activism. I know people failing their studies who amass a lot of extra (thus, ’useless’) knowledge in their free time, as well as those who anonymously contribute to impressive online projects. A lot of motivation appears once someone isn’t forced to perform in a certain way, and other people are there as collaborators rather than competitors. But these situations are rare exceptions, cool class projects rather than stressful exams. Without changing the way our work and livelihood are determined, we can’t free ourselves from the stress and anxieties of modern life.


Delusions of grandeur

“this part of campus has been filmed

many times acting as Harvard, actually

it has been filmed more times as Harvard

than Harvard has been filmed as Harvard”


Realising (realizing) that I have less than 3 months left in the US, suddenly I don’t want to leave. It seems like in order to really know this country’s customs, just being there isn’t enough.

Of course, that’s partially my fault, as from the first day I spent here I have been looking for pieces of Europe everywhere around me and cultivating this alternative non-American culture in the middle of LA, going to see British bands, reading Celine, writing to my EU friends all the time, all this stuff.

The only form in which I became really engaged in local culture is attending local feminist meetings, which do prove that American tradition of the civil rights movement and their theory on this stuff is something I’ll be missing in Europe, which for all its respect for human rights can be still quite racist (mostly because there aren’t many POCs, but that’s not an excuse).

I’ll try to write shorter posts now, but more often. I do still try to be active, not merely surviving as a European but discovering local culture (not only Marvel movies and sundaes) – and finally have good grades as well. A trip to NYC, which may happen, should help.

11th day at UCLA

“Bittersweet Symphony” – The Verve

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life
Try to make ends meet
You’re a slave to money then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places
where all the veins meet yeah…


Did you ever arrive in one of the biggest cities of the leading economy just to realise that, for the first time in your life, you feel like you’re living in a village?

Westwood Village, specifically. With its prettiest buildings being cinemas – sorry, movie theaters – showing only one film – movie – at time in only one vintage interior. With most of its cafés being just a tiny part of huge enterprises. With, supposedly, Hollywood stars using baskets to shop like normal people. A girl from my Dutch university met me for a coffee after I arrived and before she left (back to Europe, back in the lands of proper winter, where “frozen” is more than a title on posters). She thought she saw Ryan Gosling once, but then she wasn’t sure – if that was her star-spotting score after almost four months, what can I expect, if I’m staying here for six? A glimpse of Jennifer Aniston buying kale smoothie at Whole Foods? With my luck, I could go to the famous ice cream-sandwiches place (Digsy’s?… whatever) and have a polite small talk with some sexist white comedian, not aware he is supposed to be a celebrity. Westwood Village. All other parts of Los Angeles can only be reached by bus and I don’t like buses. You never know which road they may take.

I take off my headphones, just to hear a siren noise outside. Is there a fire, or a fucking earthquake? I’m afraid of earthquakes. I’m afraid of unemployment, poverty, death, illness (if I think only about me, not my family or friends or politics or whatever will happen with all the diverse languages people speak around the world if we all start communicating in English or Chinese); just in this order, because unemployment seems so close and unavoidable for my generation and education and economic background (middle class sociology/politics student with a vague dream of pursuing an academic career, but honestly, too lazy for this). Then, I believe I could die every day, so death as a result of illness seems almost too logical – I could, for example, get hit by a car, a collapsing building (the earthquakes), shot by a person casually playing with their lawfully possessed gun, or just stand up right now and jump out of this window. It’s blocked, but I’m thin enough to fit in the narrow space. I wouldn’t really do something like this, but everyone has these stupid thoughts, and after all I’m listening to The Holy Bible by the Manics and I felt alone for the last three hours, which is simply tragic. Damned time zone differences prevent me from spamming all my friends I left far, far away, and I do believe they are happy about this situation.

Just as I finished writing the last paragraph describing my entertaining life (I’m not joking), I received a message, which reminded me I’m probably going to some parties in frat houses tomorrow. Woohoo. Am I excited? Well, I’m tired. Am I happy? Oh yes, I’m 20. And there will be alcohol. You need to be 21 here so they let you in the lousiest bar. Or to a concert featuring Drenge, a young British band promoted by NME. (Forget Drenge, I think. But if Eagulls happen to tour California and their concert is 21+, I know I’ll break the law. Update: they did play in LA in a 21+ club. I didn’t break the law. I saw them later in Utrecht and they were okay.)

Last Thursday I went to a Maoist meeting (sponsored by UCLA, apparently, so leave my visa alone, thank you) and it showed the dominance of capitalism in this country better than anything else. They had a proper marketing strategy. Little questionnaires (how did you hear about this meeting?, etc.). I left angry, but it wasn’t the productive anger I usually feel after political discussions. I see no direction I could follow in modern politics. This sounds melodramatic and funny, but I’m fed up with apolitical, intelligent young people. Being apolitical means you don’t really care about people who aren’t close to you. I’m in great danger of becoming apolitical, because it’s easy, and my life, so far, is very nice, very easy, wonderful. Of course, poor youth will be always accused of having radical views just because they are too lazy or stupid to “achieve something”; rich youth will be just called stupid, because they care. You can call me stupid, I don’t care (about your derogatory opinion; I do care about working conditions in Bangladesh). They told me I’m very good at writing, but I write in Polish, and I’m too lazy to struggle and publish something; that’s why I’m writing this blog. I expect it to die somewhere on the deserts of internet. It’s a great illusion, becoming famous via internet, unless you are Arctic Monkeys or equally good – they would be famous anyway, just through more traditional media. And if I’m discovering new bands today, it’s via the very traditional NME – although in an illegally downloaded pdf version; I would pay for it if it was in my Californian kiosk, seriously. Love or hate NME (I’m usually mildly annoyed/amused by it), at least they do write about new bands that have just few thousand plays on Spotify. I bought Rolling Stone just after I arrived here: not only is it published biweekly – half of it are irrelevant news about film and pop culture, the other half was about Beyonce. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, there was a long article about Arcade Fire. And the Beatles. But they are hardly the emerging stars of 2014.)

This thing is already too long, and it has no structure, although if you read it very carefully, you may notice there are subtle leitmotivs of British rock and my comfortable life making me lazy and apathetic – are these two connected? Maybe. Definitely. Notice I started with a quote from the most popular song by the Verve. The point is, the Verve doesn’t profit from its popularity – who does?

 “Although the song’s lyrics were written by Verve vocalist Richard Ashcroft, it has been credited to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger after charges by the original copyright owners that the song was plagiarized from the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of The Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “The Last Time”.

Originally, The Verve had negotiated a licence to use a sample from the Oldham recording, but it was successfully argued that the Verve had used “too much” of the sample. Despite having original lyrics, the music of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” contains bongo drums sampled from the Oldham track,[clarification needed] which led to a lawsuit with ABKCO Records, Allen Klein’s company that owns the rights to the Rolling Stones material of the 1960s. The matter was eventually settled, with copyright of the song reverting to Abkco. Songwriting credits were changed to Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft, with 100% of royalties going to the Rolling Stones.

“We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split, and then they saw how well the record was doing,” says band member Simon Jones. “They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don’t have much choice.”

After losing the composer credits to the song, Richard Ashcroft commented, “This is the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years”, noting it was their biggest UK hit since “Brown Sugar”.

On Ashcroft’s return to touring, the song traditionally ended the set list. Ashcroft also reworked the single for VH2 Live for the music channel VH1, stripping the song of its strings. Ashcroft is quoted as saying during the show: “Despite all the legal angles and the bullshit, strip down to the chords and the lyrics and the melody and you realise there is such a good song there.”

In a Cash for Questions interview with Q magazine published in January 1999, Keith Richards was asked (by John Johnson of Enfield) if he thought it was harsh taking all The Verve’s royalties from “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” to which he replied, “I’m out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money.”

So now you see. The Rolling Stones. One would think they are already satisfied with all their hits and riches. But, apparently, no matter if God gave you everything you wanted, you still want more.