Sunday, February 23, 2014

You don't deserve a trophy for showing up

by: Joelle Charbonneau


There is this weird trend that I don’t understand – giving kids trophies for just showing up to their sporting event or whatever other activity they’re in.  They show up.  They get a trophy.  For….showing up.  Which really means the parent probably deserves the trophy because they’re the one who brought the kid to the event.

When I was a kid (back in the days of big eighties hair and New Kids On The Block), you didn’t get a trophy for getting dressed in the morning and being dragged to your activity.  You had to earn it.  Oh – don’t get me wrong…at the end of whatever sporting season you would get a certificate signed by your coach saying you were a part of the team, but you didn’t get a trophy.  Trophies were a big deal.  Trophies were earned not because you simply showed up – you practiced hard, you improved and you put that effort into play and won.  The trophy rewarded those efforts and getting that trophy meant something.  Not simply that you had won – because – duh – winning is kind of a huge reward in itself.  NO…the trophy was a reward for all the things that went into the victory.  The practice.  The frustration.  The striving to be better.  The failures (because as we improve there are always failures).   And the ability to pick oneself up after disappointment and get back to work.  

I guess I’m thinking about this participation trophy thing a lot because of the Olympics.  I love the Olympics.  I love the celebration of hard work and dedication and the striving for one’s best even though the odds are stacked against you to win anything.  Showing up – being part of the Olympics is its own reward.  That’s the trophy and for the majority of the athletes that go to the Olympics, the experience and memory of that experience is the only reward they will take away from the Olympic village.  They know that going in.  They know winning a medal only happens for a small number of the athlete’s there.  But that doesn’t stop them.  And when they win a medal – the Olympic version of a trophy – it means more because they had to do more than just show up to receive it.  They had to be their very best.

So, I guess my point is – not everyone deserves a trophy. 

Sorry!  I don’t think it helps build self-esteem.  Kids understand that they won it for doing nothing.  What it does is build an expectation that they simply have to show up in order to be rewarded.  No other effort is required. 

Um...NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!   I’m sorry, but effort is required in life and sometimes the effort isn’t rewarded by a big shiny trophy.  Sometimes the effort and the learning and the accomplishment needs to serve as its own reward.  Because it IS a reward.

This “win a trophy for showing up” attitude isn’t just seen in kids’ sports.  I see it everywhere.  Parents who believe their kids shouldn’t be penalized for not doing their homework on time…after all…they showed up to class.  College kids who complain that they aren’t getting the education they want, but don’t bother to talk to their advisors or to do more than the bare minimum to pass the classes they don’t like.  And writers who feel as if just because they wrote a book they deserve to make a million dollars.

Yeah – you had to know that this was going to swing back around to writing.

When I started writing, I didn’t go into it with the idea that I would be published or that it would become a career.  I wanted to write a story.  So I did.  It was bad, but it was written.  Did I know it was bad when I wrote it?  Of course not!  I was proud of that book.  When people said I should try to have it published I thought, “Yes!  I should.”  And I have the rejections to prove that I tried. 

That book was bad.  I showed up.  I did some work.  But I didn’t deserve the proverbial trophy.  So, I had a choice.  To keep writing or to walk away.   There wasn’t any question in my mind what to do.  I sat down, opened a new book and got to work.  For years, I went to conferences and writer meetings.  I wrote hundreds of thousands of words.  I entered contests and won none of them.  I queried more books and got rejected.  There were no trophies for me.  No positive public acknowledgment of my work.  Not a single one.  But still I showed up.  Because I wanted to be better.  I wanted to push myself to be the best writer I could.  To me…being a writer was a lot like being at the Olympic Games.  I was in the door.  I was competing – not with other writers, but with myself.  And it was that competition – that striving to become better – that was the ultimate goal.

With the rise of self-publishing (and I am in favor of self-publishing so this isn’t about whether or not you should self-publish…those kinds of posts have been written by others way better informed and articulate than I on the subject), the attitude of “I showed up so I should win a trophy” seems to have infiltrated the writing community.  I’ve met dozens of writers who believe that just because they wrote a book they deserve to be published.  They deserve the trophy.   They showed up.  They wrote words.  They want to be published and have hundreds and thousands of readers and they want it now.

This attitude isn’t indicative of all writers.  Not even close.  But, I have seen the “I deserve a trophy” attitude become more and more prevalent in online discussions and in my face to face conversations with other writers.  In those moments, I see people who are so concerned with how fast they can get the trophy that they discount the journey to get it.

The journey is important not just the destination.  It is in the journey that we learn.  We grow.  We become better.  As a writer that journey is about learning the craft and the business and understanding your voice.  The journey is filled with triumphs big and small, terrible failures and low moments where you feel incredibly alone and without skill, and quiet moments of success when you least expect it.    It is that journey not the trophy at the finish line that turns aspiring writers into authors.  The trophy is meaningless without the journey.  But, I would argue the journey has value above measure even when the writer never holds the trophy aloft.   

When I wrote my first novel, I was proud of showing up at my keyboard every day because there was nothing to make me.  There was no reward other than the desire to push myself.  There wasn’t a trophy that I could hold aloft and show to the world.  There was just me and the blank page and the desire to see what I was capable of. 

Are there trophies now?   Well, I guess so because there are books.  Shiny, wonderful books that I am incredibly proud of.  Books that I love and that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  But there’s something they don’t tell you about trophies.  Trophies are acknowledgements of achievements that are in the past.   They are shiny and fun to look at, but those moments are done.  The real question is – what are you going to do in the future?

Admire your trophies or sit down and get to work on a new journey where there is no guarantee of a trophy just for showing up and only the promise of learning during a new adventure?

I’m sitting down to work.  How about you?

6 comments:

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

Right on.

Gerald So said...

I think the problem arises when, instead of deeper self-improvement, trophies are someone's motivation/goal. It's hard to say how someone can be taught/learn to value self-improvement over awards. In my case, I received a high school award for four years of excellence in English. I didn't know I would receive the award, but I did know I wanted to be a writer by then, and did work to write well.

Then, as a college freshman, I received Bs and Cs on my first composition assignments. My teacher convinced me that C was satisfactory; anything above that had to be extraordinary. I never received higher than a B in the class, but that teacher's standards have helped me ever since.

With the arrival of self-publishing, I can't say that anyone doesn't deserve to be published; if you learn what you need to do and pay to be published, you deserve to be published. Whether your published work should sell or be read is another question, one only readers can answer.

Liam Sweeny said...

Love this. A book you write can be a trophy. So can a royalties check. But I'll keep one copy of the first trophy on my bookcase. I never keep those second trophies.

Mary Jo Burke said...

A girl in my daughter's class played every sport. She didn't put much effort in her studies or social etiquette. At the senior awards night, she got the best female athlete award. Very little applause because two months earlier, she was suspended from school for drinking. She also should have been kicked off the team, but cried to the school board about her college scholarship offers. They allowed her to stay. The rules applied to every one but her. She got her trophy, but at what price?

Laura Bradford said...

Wow, Joelle. I couldn't agree more. And to take it a step further, so much of the get first, prove later mentality is out of control in homes now, too. And since it is, why should anyone strive to achieve anything when they simply get whatever they want at the start?
I'm linking to this on my page, today.

Ben Freeman said...

I think my generation was one of the first to start getting participation trophies. I'm 28 and remember playing soccer in 3rd and 4th grade and everyone got a trophy. I knew at 8 years old that it was bullshit. I was terrible at soccer and knew it back then. Bad allergies and being overweight don't make for a good soccer player.

On the other hand when I played little league and we all got trophy, the coach made up with an award for each kid. "Most Improved" "Best Hustle" "Fastest Base Runner" whatever they were. He came up with something for each of us to be proud of instead of just something for showing up. So I think if everyone has to get a trophy "for self-esteem" make it personal enough to actually help them.