Scarcity and Participation Trophies

Three years ago, I wrote about jealousy, a topic that fascinates me. I shared my belief that accepting our feelings of envy and exploring them can be surprisingly freeing and insightful.

Last November, I was scrolling on Instagram and discovered a beautiful post by the amazing artist and writer Sophie Lucido Johnson. She linked jealousy with the concept of scarcity, which got my brain percolating.

Three months ago I decided to write about the 2012 frenzy in professional basketball known as “Linsanity.” Despite being a little late to the party on that one, I felt there was something to be learned from Jeremy Lin’s brief period of transcendence.

I think these topics are connected, that they have similar lessons to convey, and my mind has been slowly putting the pieces together over the years. Then, a random story I heard served as the missing piece that started to fill in the picture.

The story involves a girl who threw away her participation trophy and told her soccer teammates that they should do the same because the trophies were meaningless. Stories like this are meant to elicit cheers of “right on!”—but this one just made me sad.

Our culture has a complicated relationship with participation trophies in kids’ sports. Lots of people think these trophies diminish and deter achievement, while other folks believe they endorse and encourage effort.

When I was a kid, I was tiny and couldn’t throw or catch a ball to save my life, so I hated the team sports we were forced to play in gym class. As an adult, I haven’t had to deal with this issue much due to my lack of experience as a sports parent. When my stepson was young, he briefly played baseball and basketball, so I did attend a few games, where I had the opportunity to ponder the advantages of competitive athletics from a new perspective.

I now believe that, if handled properly (which is clearly a big ask), kids’ sports can have tons of benefits. Research on girls who play sports bears this out.

First, we have to recognize that the vast majority of kids who play team sports are not going to win “real” trophies, medals, or championships. They are not going to go on to play team sports in college or get drafted into the big leagues or compete at the Olympics.

Visions of elusive medals can help bring out the best in some contenders, but do we truly believe that athletics exist only to reward those who triumph?

The reason sports are tightly woven into education and communities is not to help funnel the top performers into future careers or to channel the energy of competitive kids and parents (though these objectives certainly play a part). We offer team sports to children because they are a hands-on tool for teaching collaboration, responsibility, dedication, and resilience.

If a child is putting in the time and supporting their teammates, a participation trophy can be a concrete way to acknowledge their undertaking. While kids are still developing both physically and mentally, taking a hard line on how there can only be one winner seems counter-productive.

And what if we carry this notion of scarcity outside the sports arena? We may find that school and work and even hobbies become far more stressful than need be.

A belief in scarcity can cause us to put off or give up entirely on a project because we fear that we will never be the best. Scarcity can make us jealous of the success of others, even our friends, because it seems as if there is only so much good fortune to go around.

We can and should pat ourselves on the back when we get a promotion, earn a degree, or find new ways to stretch and grow. But I would like to see every one of us embrace the spirit behind the participation trophy and give ourselves frequent accolades for all the myriad things we do to get through each day. Because maybe, just maybe, life itself is found in moments of pure participation.   

The Road Trip of Your Life

Suppose you have two road trips planned (for once this pandemic is behind us, of course). The first trip will take you only four hours away from home. You haven’t been to this city in forever, and you can’t wait to see some old friends who live there. On the second trip, you will drive for several days to reach your destination. You’ll be setting foot in this state for the first time, and you’re super excited to go.

Would you ever tell yourself that the second trip won’t be worth it because it takes too long to get there? That the first trip will be much more fun because you’re going to arrive sooner? I’m guessing your answer is No.

This is the kind of analogy I create to guide myself through self-doubt and disappointment. I have several big life goals I haven’t yet achieved—goals my younger self thought for sure I would have realized by now. Perhaps it’s just taking me longer to get there, which in no way invalidates the journey or the destination.

Travel as a metaphor appeals to me so much, I’m going to elaborate on it…

Imagine you’ve always dreamed of going to Paris. You thought for sure you would go there in your early 20s, but years have passed and you still haven’t seen Paris.

If you do make it there one day, will Paris be any less spectacular because you’re not in your 20s anymore? The experience might be different because you won’t be the same person you were when you were younger, but what’s wrong with that?

In the meantime, you’ve spent time in lots of great cities in the U.S.—like Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, plus you’ve been to Mexico a couple times. For years, you’ve been discovering places your younger self didn’t even think to put on the to-see list.

What if you never make it to Paris? Is that ok? Can you find other locales to satisfy your sense of adventure?  

You see, I was “supposed” to be a published author by now. I hoped a big publishing house would print my first book while I was still in my 20s, with more to follow. If I am completely honest, I guess I thought I would win a few awards and settle down in middle-age to teach creative writing at a university. These dreams were my Paris.

But none of that happened. What did happen is, I worked at several interesting and fulfilling jobs where I acquired multiple degrees worth of knowledge and met many hilarious, kind, and inspiring people. I am a changed person from the girl who thought she needed to publish her first novel before she hit 25. Those positions I held, the skills and confidence I developed, and the friends I made are like visits to Boston and San Francisco.

I may never be a published author. I am working on a book, and possibly the writing process will be sufficient reward all on its own. Or maybe I will self-publish. Whatever I decide to do, it won’t be any less gratifying because it took longer than planned.

Reevaluating old goals is acceptable, even healthy. You may learn that other goals suit you better now. Whatever you do, be patient with yourself—you may be on a winding road trip that is worth every precious second.