In Defense of Participation

Thanks to a discussion I had on a friend’s Facebook page today, I’m in the mood to pontificate on competition, what it means to be successful, and what I feel is this toxic belief that only the winners of the world should get to celebrate or receive recognition.

Many of you will probably disagree with me. You may even come armed with anecdotes, witticisms, statistics, and other things designed to dissuade me of my namby pamby mentality on this, but in this case, I’m not so sure I care. Because my argument is purely emotional here. And sometimes, (maybe not every time), I feel like the emotional argument is the right one to make.
I’m going to start by showing you this meme I’ve seen floating around Facebook this week:
That’s James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’m sure he’s a good guy. I’m sure he loves his kids and wants them to succeed every bit as much as I love my kids and want them to succeed. I recognize that there is no one recipe for success in this crazy world of ours, and that the definition of the word isn’t even the same across multiple parties. We all have a path to walk and a destination we’d like to reach, and we usually start off in the shoes that were handed to us. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to wear a lot of different shoes along the way, hopefully better ones, but some people aren’t so lucky.
I’m digressing, but my point is, I really fucking hate what Harrison said. 
I hate how it breeds a pathological brand of perfectionism. And I really just hate how mean it sounds, and how people are sharing this with such primal grunts as, “Yeah! Teach them kids how to be MEN!”
Like there is only one way to be a man.
I also hate how it puts the focus merely on winning, and not on the courage and effort and sacrifice it takes to even try. In a football player’s case, to suit up in pads and other gear and beat your body completely to shit for the entertainment of others. Never mind that whether you win the game or lose the game, the fact that you’re even on the team in the first place is a pretty fucking great achievement. Some people don’t even bother trying out for anything. They dream of the glory and satisfaction and money success often brings, but they don’t go out for the team or audition for the play or apply for a particular job or submit their stories to the publishers…they don’t put themselves out there period, because they’re so afraid they’ll fail.
And why are they so afraid of failure? Because they’ve been taught to. They’ve been fed reams of bullshit by the James Harrisons of the world, but they’ve never been taught the VALUE of simply trying, especially when the odds are not in their favor. They haven’t been taught how to turn losing moments into learning ones. They only see the promised land winning and dismal shame bucket of failure.
Maybe you didn’t win, but you gained new knowledge to carry with you to your next effort. Maybe you tried your best, but someone else won anyway. Because that happens. The world is full of people with myriad abilities, and some of them will climb that mountain faster. Some of them will have a helicopter to take them up. Someone of them were fucking BORN up there. We’re all traveling at different speeds. Loss at various points along the way is inevitable, but we should want to keep trying not only because of the potential to win, but also because the journey itself is worthy and it’s worth taking for everything else it offers us.
If your kid is on the losing team, why not still them a goddamn ribbon for showing up? Why is this so harmful? Are we in such a hurry to emotionally beat up children for not being top dog because we so keenly remember our own pain at that age? That gnawing inadequacy that grew up with us and still haunts our every decision and accomplishment? That makes it impossible to accept compliments or to look a loss in the face without seeing every single glaring flaw in our character staring back at us?
Is that even healthy? I don’t know for sure, but I can say it certainly isn’t pleasant, and I can also say that it’s been damaging to me. How much further might I have stretched myself in life if I hadn’t been so terrified of failure? 
Oh, but the world will shit on them as adults, so we need to prepare them early by making sure they’re shat upon, right?
Give me a damn break. Yeah, the world shits on everyone from time to time. It’s inevitable. But how about preparing them to weather it better by teaching them how to be kinder and more optimistic and more compassionate people? Maybe the world would produce LESS shit in the first place if it were run by those who didn’t see losing or being the runner-up as a character flaw, by those who thanked people for playing, for giving it a go when others didn’t. 
Because there is SO MUCH value in “Hey, at least you tried.” I wish we saw more people who acknowledged that, who didn’t see it as a throwaway phrase. I wish more people fostered the enjoyment of a complete journey and not just in the destination.
And then there is my favorite: “When you give every kid a trophy, the trophy becomes meaningless.”
Maybe the trophy itself is part of the problem. Maybe exceptionalism hasn’t done us a whole lot of good, after all. I think about this a lot. I look at the world I’m living in now, and I wonder if we’ve been doing it right, if we should shift our thinking in a new direction. While the promise of a gold medal and fame drives a lot of people to succeed, I think what gets lost in the shuffle are SO MANY MORE people who see that game for the losing proposition it is and then don’t even bother trying at all. Those are the people I’d like to reach. That is the potential I’d like to unlock. There is a greater power to be tapped there, and it could transform the landscape of this world.
Besides, if your achievements in life only mean something when you can boast about them or wag them in the face of people whom you deem failures or losers, then maybe you need to reevaluate.
Because from where I’m sitting, admittedly in the nosebleed seats of life, all the power and influence resting in the hands of a few elites is what’s turned this world into a place where it feels harder every single day just to stay afloat.
I guess I’d like to see a world with a little less of the above, and a little more of this:
In other words, if you’re out there doing your thing, if you’re TRYING, if you’re giving it everything you have, even if you’re not in first place, you deserve props. Win or lose, you matter. You’re doing something. You’re a part of this world in your own unique way. Give the kids a goddamn ribbon instead of a rebuke, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll avoid the resentment, shame, and fear that shackles so many of us well into our adult lives, and they’ll keep going.

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