Participation Trophies

Written by on September 3, 2018

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In our third generation since any real widespread adversity in our country, we find ourselves in a very comfortable spot.  Not only are we comfortable, but we strive to make our kids and grandkids just as comfortable. So much so that many have come to see competition as unnecessary at best and destructive at worst.  Why compete in the facade of abundance? Why risk feeling bad for losing? We’ll be damned if we let our kids experience the pain of 18th place. So we either shelter them from that pain or we just give them a damn trophy anyways.  The challenge is when we become adults and we come to find out there’s no 18th place trophy in life.


The Dirt:  Competitiveness is mean. Everyone should win.


Isn’t nature built on competition? .Didn’t we at our earliest stage of life compete to get into the egg?  Consider that we are the only species in nature that can choose to live below its potential. All in nature will try to max out its genetics.  Big trees will always grow as big as possible and fruit trees will produce as much fruit or seed as possible. The rabbit’s goal is to make more rabbits.  Not once has it thought about how many rabbits there are in the world and whether or not it would be wise to keep reproducing. Nope, it just keeps going and going (forgive the pun).  It will compete for food, shelter, and other resources in the drive to fulfill its mission.

Yet somehow we manage to excuse ourselves for not doing our best.  We tell ourselves that just being good is enough. It’s not natural to be okay or average.  That’s not how our creator made us and it’s certainly not a long-term successful strategy in nature.  It’s an excuse we tell ourselves so that we can make it through another stressful day. And if that were sustainable, I’d say God bless.  But how long do you think it will take before reality hits us hard enough to make us question our plan?

Competition drives performance, growth, and innovation.  It gets us out of bed, pushes us to be better than we believe we can be, and it uncovers new methods and abilities that were previously unknown. Lack of competition leaves us lost, allows us to remain stagnant, and leads ultimately to depression.

Performance is what happens when we have a reason to get out of bed.  This goes beyond simply getting up to go to work so that we can earn money in order to one day not work.  Though even at that low level of performance, we’re still competing to keep our job just long enough to retire – a challenge in itself.  Rather, when we have a huge goal we wish to tackle, when we’re competing to do something big, we suddenly find ourselves getting up a little earlier, moving a little faster, and pushing a little harder.  In fact, competition requires performance as much as performance requires competition. Without something significant to chase, we will default to a low enough level of activity to just get by.

Competition also fuels our growth.  It does so in a way that raises the tide for all ships.  In other words, it doesn’t just fuel our growth, but those with whom we’re competing.  Roger Bannister was the first person to run a 4-minute mile. Did he do it by accident or was he driven to beat what most thought was unbeatable?  He competed against the belief that it couldn’t be done, he did it, and it was only a few months later that others began to run it as well. He made everyone else “better”, not just himself.  Once the bar is set, it’s competition that drives us to improve in every way possible.

Innovation occurs when the drive to solve a problem is so great that we are forced into new methods of thinking and getting creative in our approach.  It is said that the size of your life will be determined by the size of the problems you solve. If you are the first to solve a problem, you are typically entitled to the rewards.  Competing for a solution to a major problem brings a level of innovation and creativity that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Thousands of businesses are created each year by entrepreneurs in search of the prize of success.  While most will never make it, a few do and those are the ones that change the world.


So what happens when we stifle competition?  What happens when we put competition in a bad connotation?  Without competition, we lose our focus. We are left unsure of what to do and become wandering generalities.  The edge we would have had while competing is dulled to a blur and we can’t see our way clearly to the finish line.  That’s right. Without competition, there is no finish line.  And with no finish line, we’re back to wondering why we should get out of bed.

Taking it a step further, left wondering why we’re not motivated to get out of bed, we begin to question our purpose.  We figure that this is how life works. That life is designed for us to survive and so we go about our day working, yet not getting what we want or desire in return.  How is that some people, with the same 24 hours we have, are beyond wealthy and we are left struggling? When the day comes that we realize we haven’t even come close to tapping our own potential, the dissonance created between who we are and who we were capable of becoming manifests in despair, regret, and oftentimes depression.  

This disdain for competition has trickled down to our kids as well.  Kids are born competitive and persistent. Have you ever seen them manipulate us to buy them something they don’t need?  When we don’t understand the value of competition, we go into protection mode and worry more about how they feel than how they performed.  But helping them to feel good about a bad performance is not just a white lie like the (spoiler alert) Tooth Fairy. It associates losing with winning.  As we prepare them for life, how will you feel when your kid, now an adult, finds out the truth that results matter more than feelings? How will they feel when they figure out that they could have used losing as a tool for improvement so that they could win at something, and that the feeling of winning far outweighs the false praise of losing?


Am I being a bit over dramatic about the effects of not competing?  Perhaps. Consider though that we’re talking about LIFE and possibly the one and only life that you have.  This isn’t an apocalyptic message about eating Tide pods (another effect of lack of purpose?). This is about everything in life and whether or not we will maximize it.  It’s about whether we are willing to fight for a better life and bring people with us along the way. It’s not a competition against others, it’s with others.

Is competition hard?  Yes. It’s greuling, difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating at times.  It often tears us down before we can build ourselves back up. It makes us prove we want it bad enough else it just laughs in our face.  Do you know what else is hard? Not competing and losing by default. It’s greuling, difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating all of the time.  It often tears us down and laughs in our face. So if we’re going to live, why not compete for the best?

The good news is that we can still rekindle our competitive spirit.  It’s not about being the best right away, just being better than we were yesterday.  And if we continue to compete every day, getting better every day, how can we not eventually win?  It’s not just our purpose, it’s our responsibility to others, kids included, to set a bar and lead by example.  


“A trophy carries dust.  Memories last forever.”

Mary Lou Retton



I challenge you to share this with three people that have lost their competitive spirit.  It just might save their lives. As always, I appreciate all of you. Race you to the top, ‘cause the bottom’s way too crowded.


Josh Zepess


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