8 Things Competitive Debate Taught Me That College Didn’t


1. Engagement matters.

Apathy is fatal, in more ways than one. It kills your mind, because you cease to think, question, and explore; it kills compromise, because you refuse to understand others, much less listen to them; it kills others and causes them to suffer, because you fail to act decisively on urgent issues. Debate has shown me how little engagement actually happens when it matters most—politics, social issues, economic policy—and it has both empowered and inspired me to constantly seek engagement.

2. There is a world outside of campus.

Academics aren’t everything, and there exist billions of people outside of your school. Don’t waste four years living in a bubble. Meet people, talk to people, befriend people who are different than you. Ask insightful questions to people who aren’t professors. Know the world beyond your classroom windows. Campus is the place you live for four or six years; out there is where you will live until you die.

3. There will always be someone better than you.

I can trace my debate career in arcs: for a time, I perform well, collecting shiny tokens of success. Then, one weekend, my success collapses in on itself. Maybe I hit a team so extraordinarily good, they make me feel like a fresh-faced novice again. Maybe I get a motion I know shamefully little about, like labour relations. Maybe I’m burned out and hungover, and my brain rebels. Whatever the cause, I fail miserably. I am profoundly humbled: by my lack of knowledge; by others’ skill; by the fickleness of luck. More than anything, debate has taught me humility. You are most likely to fail in the moments you feel invincible, so check yourself before you wreck yourself.

4. Find something that enthralls you, and then seek excellence.

I love the way speaking makes me feel. I love knowing exactly how to answer an opponent’s question. I love the exhaustion that comes after debating five rounds in one day. I love watching new debaters progress and improve. And so I spend three nights a week practicing. I give up my weekends to attend tournaments. I grab coffee with novices when I ought to be studying, and I volunteer my services as a judge for free. Debate consumes my life, because I love it, and loving it drives me to pursue excellence. If you want to be good at something, you need to fall in love with it first.

5. But winning isn’t everything.

Competition is good only insofar as it enhances pedagogy. If debate were competitive but not instructive, my success would mean nothing; if the lessons I learn in rounds didn’t carry over to real life, debate wouldn’t be worthwhile. And if my success came at the expense or exclusion of others, trophies would be a badge of shame. Debate is a game, but the end goal isn’t winning; it’s being better, more informed, more engaged, and more connected. The organic conversations I have with debaters outside of rounds matter much more than the contrived interactions we have during rounds; it’s there that my ability and willingness to engage shine through.

6. Your ability to listen matters more than your ability to speak.

As a novice debater, you’ll often hear your debate rounds described as “ships passing in the night.” This phrase means that there was no actual collision of arguments; there was no “clash,” as debate vernacular would put it. These sorts of debates are awful and awfully boring, and usually, they happen because someone failed to listen. You can give a great speech and still lose, because you didn’t interact with your opponent’s argument. Perhaps you misunderstood what they were saying; perhaps you understood, but didn’t want to engage with it—the rhetorical equivalent of plugging your ears and singing “la-la-la-la-la.” In the end, you not only look silly but small and cowardly. Your success, both in debate and in life, depends on your ability to listen actively to others.

7. Be charitable towards your opponents.

Debate forces you into uncomfortable situations; it asks you to purposefully disagree with others in significant ways. It’s tempting to be unflattering towards the other speakers, or perhaps even disingenuous; you’ll want to sputter furiously at them, to dodge their best arguments, to erect a giant straw man and set it ablaze with fiery rhetoric. But these tactics won’t win you the round, and they certainly won’t win people to your side in real life. You must learn to woo people—judges and opponents; bosses and friends—and the best method is to treat them like the intelligent, rational, well-meaning people they are.

8. It doesn’t matter what school you went to.

I attend a small, private liberal arts college. It’s not particularly well-known, and it’s definitely not particularly prestigious. Sometimes, I’ve second-guessed my choice of school; after I graduate, how can I possibly compete against students who can hang degrees from Oxford, Harvard, and LSE on their office walls? But then I realize that I already do compete with them–and, more than occasionally, I win. Debate is, more than anything else, an equalizer. It gives you a platform, a voice, a sense of success. Persuasion is power, and it matters far more than branding. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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