Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The honorableness of being mentioned

You're unlikely to read the Internet for more than a few minutes without running into some crack at "participation trophies." It's become an extremely viral catch-all for why people suck today (so much so, in fact, that which generation they're even talking about tends to be murky).

Blaming participation trophies always seemed so random to me. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. And it's what makes sense about it that should make it stop.

I have three participation trophies, three participation plaques and an uncountable ream of certificates acknowledging that I did things. What I don't have are any accomplishment trophies, and the amount of genuine awards I've won for any reason are slim to none. I don't think the participation baubles spoiled me, nor did they lead to my being too lazy and/or complacent to win anything real.

The mistake is to assume that, when I received the participation trophy, I thought of it as the championship cup. Even when I was six and seven years old, getting trophies for showing up for T-ball, I didn't think any differently of those than I did about my jersey and the team picture. It was just another cool, colorful piece of evidence that I'd been part of that team. 

In eighth grade, I received a participation trophy for running track. It was the only one they'd issued in my three years on the team, but I wasn't bitter that the 7th-graders were getting them too. I was just happy to have a token of all the work I put in. The same was true of the plaques I got from high school football and college track. They were never the reason I pursued anything, but they were pretty cool to hang on the wall. I could always say I was part of this and that team. I didn't mistake them for competitive awards, and would have been embarrassed to come off as doing so. (The one genuine championship I have to my name — a 2004 Sun Belt Conference title ring for cross country — I still got just for helping out the team behind the scenes.) More than anything else, these were testaments to my ability to see something all the way through the end.

In a sense, my college degrees are also participation trophies. I can't think of anything I won in college, and didn't graduate with high honors. But I showed up every day and worked my way through it. Does the fact that thousands of other people received the same degree the same day as me diminish my accomplishment? I don't think it does, any more than making the winning play in a title game or graduating magna cum laude would make me tangibly better than anyone else.

The truth is, most things in life don't lend themselves to awards and trophies. In fact, most of the most important stuff doesn't. And even among those things that do, well ... let's just say I don't think any less of myself for not winning any writing awards, nor do I automatically elevate another writer just because they have.

It's what a recognition means to you (and what you derive from it) that matters. In that respect, having real trophies can be every bit as entitling. Many people who grow up high on merit trophies and awards fall hardest when they realize that not every accomplishment in life merits one. They struggle when that motivation is gone. Some them miss that competition (and winning it) and thus try to make a sport of everything in life. That's one reason we have such miserable public policy regarding taxes, schools, health care and a host of other issues that pit citizens against one another. The goal isn't to participate in society, but to win it. How is that any less entitled than the alleged participation-trophy attitude? The influence of the competitive-trophy attitude is more apparent in society, for sure.

Ultimately, trophies don't matter one way or another. At best, they are satisfying reminders of a job well done. At worst, they spoil people into inflating their self-worth and dismissing the value of those around them. That's a function of the person, not the place. Instead of dwelling on trophies, perhaps we should mold healthy minds to begin with.

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