Participation Trophies

”Don’t make me come back there!” screamed my Dad at my brother and me during a long and tedious car trip when we were kids. Of course, seven and eleven-year-old boys can’t sit still for 6 hours in the back seat of a Ford Galaxie 500 making a trek across south Louisiana and Texas. That was the third time Dad had hurled that threat our way. We in the backseat kept getting after each other and so did his threats. We knew he wasn’t going to pull over and do anything anyway — he never did.

I was part of the Board of Directors of a non-profit years ago that began a girls softball league for our town. There was much enthusiasm and great support. We had about sixteen teams in the first year.

The year was very successful. At the season’s conclusion, we were picked to host a playoff tournament. At its conclusion, there was a ceremony honoring the season accomplishments of teams and players. One coach was infuriated to discover that the only trophies awarded were for first, second, and third-place team trophies, the league’s most valuable player and an all-star team. His issue? “Every girl worked hard this season. Only one team could win the Championship and only one girl win the MVP. But every player should receive a reward just for trying.”

These two stories are examples of something that has contributed in a great way to what has resulted in the vitriolic social atmosphere in which we live today in the U.S.

It’s Ugly Out There

Let’s face facts: life for most people is really tough. But there are 5 Billion or so people who today are breathing, doing the best they can to survive whatever cards life has dealt them. You and I number among those 5 Billion. Should we be rewarded for just breathing? I don’t think my breathing warrants any special consideration. But there are many who do. And their feeling justified for that opinion results directly from a spirit of entitlement: “Someone owes me something.”

That feeling is not the same one gets at work when extra work is voluntarily given to complete a special task for the boss or a client. The feeling I reference is that one feels just from waking up this morning. Using that basis for life means every single human on Earth should receive an award just for being alive. And there are plenty of folks who feel that is justified.

Here’s the problem with that thought process: who determines the rules? Parents determine that we get life. But after our birth, who knows what expectations of us should be? Which are real and which are justified? Who determines the level of “living” one must achieve for life to “owe” us something? And is what is owed zip code related? After all, it’s tougher to live in a poor neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks. Shouldn’t a person who grows up there receive more recognition than the person who is born into a rich family and lives a life of wealth and privilege?

For every person who feels these examples are just, there is a person that lives in one of those situations that wishes they lived elsewhere and that their circumstances are unfair.

It’s all about perception. Perception is just an opinion. And opinion is nothing more than just another rear end: everyone has at least one.

“My Life Sucks!”

Don’t you know there are millions of people in the World who feel that way everyday. Many of those millions today look wistfully across their village, their town or city each morning and think, “Man, if only I had what they have……”

”What they have….” is about as subjective as determining which is the best song ever written. For me, that would be “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney. For you it may be the “Happy Birthday” song. Which opinion is correct? Which is “fair?”

But in each case, the person asking the question is the only person that can truthfully answer their own question.

It’s terribly unfair for me to answer the question that you ask and expect my answer to be more accurate or fairer than yours and that yours is wrong.

Is it fair that a guy who lives across town from you, goes to a different school, a different church, whose Dad works at a different place than does your Dad, and that they vacation on the beach each Summer while your family goes to your cousin’s house out in the country? That guy ends up getting a full scholarship to an Ivy League school while you are forced to apply for financial aid at a community college. Are any of these circumstances fair?

Whose perspective of fairness is correct and whose is wrong?

Let’s get to the answers for these.

Self Actualization

Self-actualization is a term that has been used in various psychology theories, often in different ways. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential: “the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive … the drive of self-actualization.”

Let’s just cut to the chase in this conversation: whether or not any of us is really “good,” “bad,” average, below or above average is not about other people, it’s about one person — you. No one else has a right to determine your value. You determine yours’ — I determine mine.

I don’t know about you, but my self-actualization has been a life-long quest for me to find my value to myself and to others. I am personally responsible for my goals and my purpose. To let someone else do that is abdicating self-actualization — my responsibility. If we do that, what we are really doing is giving someone or some “others” the right to determine our success or failure. And that is based totally on what they think.

If that is a mindset you choose to adopt, then you too can probably personally reconcile the anger that girls softball coach felt so many years ago. It was the sole purpose of the coach, his players’ parents and friends to set a value on the abilities and accomplishments of each player. To not demean any person or any player,  the thought is to just give all a reward for trying, no matter the results. The feeling is that trying is good enough. Here’s the problem with that:

Life doesn’t work that way! Rarely do universities open their enrollment to everyone who wants to attend. There are particular academic thresholds used to determine those best qualified to attend. Simply trying certainly is not all that is necessary. Have you ever worked at a company in which every employee made the same salary, held the same title and same company authority as did every other employee? I seriously doubt you did.

But what is common is that there are high school students who have adopted a self mindset that pushed them to the front of their classes, to better grades, better college exam results, higher ACT and SAT scores, that resulted in more demonstrative positions in freshmen class admittance at more colleges than did their high school classmates who were content with just participation trophies.

There are employees at every company that take personal ownership of their company’s work processes, set loftier goals for themselves, work harder and smarter at their particular jobs, and find themselves moving into management, getting raises and internal advancement while others do not. Often they are picked-off by other companies who discovered them and their capabilities and offered them better positions and compensation just because of their actualization.

Average Doesn’t Work Anymore

In the 60s and 70s, there were many of my classmates that were fine with just rolling along: scoring C’s with occasional A’s and B’s. I never accepted that thought process. I wanted to be best. To that end, I looked deep into my heart, determined what I wanted out of school and where I wanted to go. I identified all those things I would need to do myself to achieve all those things I wanted — a price necessary to be paid. I paid the price.

In my profession it was no different. I worked hard within company systems, worked well with others, help find new ways to do the same things that cut costs, made processes easier, and saved time. Management noticed. And I was rewarded.

In doing all that, I had to turn my head away from “Average is OK.” For me it wasn’t. In rejecting average I became a better person. And I did not need for someone else to give me recognition. I achieved my advancements because of my efforts — not because someone else felt a sense of obligation to “reward” me.


”Nobody owes me anything.” What I have are the direct results of what I did. That includes material things, relational things, and emotional and psychological objectives. From those I receive my sense of fulfillment, value, and worth. And none of that requires any other person to determine for me my worth, value of my accomplishments, or how good or bad are my results. That’s self actualization.

On a really small scale, many years ago my Dad lost the meaning of all this on me. If on those long car trips his purpose in threatening my brother and me was to scare us into doing the right thing, he failed. He would have been more successful to have painted the scenario with options and consequences for option choices and then held us each accountable for our choices. As it happened, none of that was done and very little was achieved (if anything) in that car.

I’m certain we’ve lost an entire generation who do not know how to self actualize and that live their lives based on the considerations of others. But, I think we Baby Boomers have identified the danger zones in this generation’s actualization plans and have made enough noise to awaken most in the nation to those dangers.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many who are still looking for participation trophies instead of self actualization objectives. Those will not change overnight. In fact, it may take a generation or two to fulfill that objective. There always have been people who prefer to be pulled along in life rather than be the ones who pull.

I suggest we not try to “fix” everyone else. We can repair this process over time, but it needs to start in our lives and in the lives of those who live in the same homes as we do: our family members. This is especially critical for our children who are still pre-adults. They’re far more impressionable and far less set in their ways at their ages than are we.

There’s certainly a stiff price to pay to get this ship righted. I’m willing to pay that price as are most my age. After all, when you cross that age 60 threshold, you begin to think more generationally. And that’s where we can best leave our mark — our legacy.

And, after all, don’t we want their nation to be a better one than our parents handed to us?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.