When I was around 7, I competed in ski races with about 20 other kids for one of ten ribbons. It took me until I was 10 to finally win one. When I was 10, I moved into a more competitive group of about 100 kids, and didn’t even have a top 20 result until I was 14. I only got that result because I was sick of being fat, I was sick of losing, and I decided to bust my butt to do something about it.
I was not the rule; I was the exception. Most kids who graduate into any higher level of skiing have been happily receiving their ribbons from a young age and are a bit shocked when they move up. All but two of my original little buddies have quit since then.
The reason I dislike participation trophies is that they reward participation, not trying or accomplishment. They reward existence, as if your parents’ decision to bring you to life guarantees your spot at the table along with seven billion other people.
All of a sudden, when the table becomes smaller, or when there is only one position to fill and the employer chooses the other candidate, there’s outrage. Where is my participation job? I came to the interview, too; I want the position, and I “tried.”
The truth is, you didn’t try hard enough. Showing up is not trying. Trying means doing everything within your ability: It means studying for that extra hour, working out early in the morning, staying late or coming early. It means doing everything you can to give yourself the edge over your competitors.
Really trying means sacrifice, and it means putting in the work for weeks and months and years before you show up and “participate.” Really trying should always be rewarded, and though we don’t live in a perfect world, I do think hard work actually pays off.
Participation trophies foster a sense of entitlement. I do not deserve a medal for singing. I am an awful singer, I always have been, but I’ve also never really worked to become better. Despite my lack of talent, I do have two of these trophies in my room somewhere. I do know people of similar singing talent to me who cling to those prizes with pride, basking in the sense of distinction (along with hundreds of other people who got the same medals).
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging everyone to play, or to compete, or to keep up a general atmosphere of inclusion when we’re young. But the rest of life is hard. If you want to find a seat at the table, good. Earn it. If you think showing up means you deserve a seat, you have another thing coming.