Friday, February 17, 2017

How Participation Awards Sabotaged My Accomplishments

I know I’ve mentioned it here before, but I have a hard time recognizing actual real life accomplishments. I suffer from “they’re just being nice” syndrome with a side helping of “everyone gets that.”

As a kid, I played soccer, and at the end of the season we all got trophies. When we got to the end of fifth grade, we all went on to sixth. When enough of us passed the Golden State Exam with REALLY HIGH MARKS, we all got a pizza party. We all graduated from High School. We all got the diplomas. I graduated from college in a really large group of people, and all my friends in the same grade graduated at the same time. With my masters, I got to the end of the study, jumped through the hoops and, tadah! I have a Master of Science degree.

Some of those don’t really look like accomplishments, but my inability to decipher what was, in my eyes, a participation award and what was real accomplishment became blurred. I feel like the pizza party was probably where it started.

I was one of the high marks that got us the party. At the time they didn’t tell us who had passed (to be fair, I might have been out of class that day for a swim meet or a soccer game, or even a band trip; it’s a miracle I managed to pass highschool with all my extracuriculars!). I didn’t know I’d done well on that particular exam until I saw my transcripts later—teachers tend to assume that if you’re doing really well in a class, you know what your grade was on the exams. I got high honors and no one told me. I think they didn’t tell me because they figured I knew. Maybe they didn’t tell me because they didn’t want me to have one more thing to lord over my classmates as I already had the high grade in the class, but even that didn’t feel like an accomplishment. Besides, the guy who sat next to me did okay, at least he told me so, but I had no way of knowing how I’d done. And everyone got to have pizza because it would be cruel not to let the rest of the class have some pizza.

I know it seems like something silly to bring up now, decades later, but people have been saying a lot of mean things about participation award recipients lately, and I wanted to put my thoughts out there. Participation awards when I was 5 were really important to me, but they are important to every five year old. By the time I was eight, I knew that everyone was getting them and they were basically meaningless, but if everyone else was getting one, I certainly didn’t want to be left out. By the time I was ten, they didn’t mean anything to me except to mark my years of playing soccer.

Somewhere between everyone gets one, and I completed a Master’s degree, I began equating more than one person getting an award as making the award meaningless. As in, I graduated with a large group of scientists to get my bachelor’s of science, but since there was a large group, it didn’t mean anything. We’d all made the same accomplishment, so it was no accomplishment at all.

To be fair, when I graduated from college, my family came and made a fuss over me. They gave me all kinds of gifts and what not, but I treated it like a neat birthday party, something that was expected and just part of the game, not a celebration of the fact that I’d done something that’s actually kind of hard. I was unable to accept it as an achievement (bleepbloop).

This inability to decipher participation awards from real achievement went right up through my first book contract. I treated it like a participation award. Which is a big trap, because people don’t understand that when everything is viewed as a participation award, it means that if you don’t make the curve, how bad were you at it to not even make the participation award level??

When I started to fail at things, it felt like being the only kid at the soccer team party who didn’t get a trophy, and not because they didn’t have enough, but because they singled me out to deny me one. I know this is largely the fault of depression (Yeah, I’ve got some of that), but it was also because the expectation had been set.

What I’m upset with is that the people calling young people weak and needing a participation award don’t realize is they’ve twisted expectations in the generation younger than they are because of these awards. There’s a whole generation of people who have a hard time sorting out real accomplishment from participation awards. Mine found my depression and went on a destructive tear through my psyche.

So what’s your take on participation awards? Do you also suffer from a lack of achievement? 



  1. I always thought our little league had the right balance. T-ball there was no scores kept and everyone won. The next league up, coach pitch, they kept score, but everyone got a trophy. Kid pitch and up, scores were kept and there were tournaments at the end and only the winners got the trophies.

    Encouraging the very young is important and just finishing a season is an accomplishment. Beyond those years, it's time to learn that hard work gets a reward.

    1. I think that's a really good way to do it. It's a hard balance for sure, and the more I list to other people's stories in this, the more I start to wonder if maybe the inability to feel real achievement is something else. (though to be clear, I feel like everyone should get a party at the end of the season for some well deserved pizza and some closure).

  2. I was not entirely of the participation award generation. We definitely got more treats and rewards than my parents did, but I don't remember everyone getting a trophy kinds of things...
    I still don't value my own accomplishments as highly as the accomplishments of others. I often consider something that I can do as something that couldn't possibly be too difficult.
    I really don't know where that comes from, definitely not from being over rewarded as a small kid, but I very much relate to the difficulty in recognizing your own achievements.
    Perhaps because people who are driven to challenge themselves always have that drive. We don't realize until we get there that it wasn't about succeeding, or reaching the goal, or winning the race, etc, it was about taking on a difficult task in the first place. Maybe?

    1. I like the idea that we are driven to challenge ourselves and so we don't recognize our own achievements. I wonder if maybe it's because we challenge oursleves, we are constantly moving the finish line for accomplishment, so we never quite get there?

  3. I hear you on some of this. I too got a participation soccer trophy (a pretty impressive one considering our team never won a single game), but only for my first year of soccer. But I can relate because I'm way, way too hard on myself, and treat any accomplishments I do have like they're nothing, like they're something anyone could do. My therapist and I are working on this because it's part of my larger issues. >_<

    The only thing I can think of for this is, when something comes up, think about what *you* did, not what everyone else did. *You* got two higher education degrees. *You* wrote a book that was deemed worthy of publication (and a sequel!). Others might have done similar things, but that wasn't *you* doing it. And I think *you* have accomplished a lot.


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