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Participation trophies

[Scene opens: a middle-aged coach paces slowly in front of gathered children, shout-talking in General Patton style.]

OK, children! Listen up! I understand that most of you are here not because you want to be, but because your parents or teachers told you you had to be. But regardless, you're here, and we are having a race: a competition. This is where 7-year-old strives against 7-year-old, and abilities are tested. This is where heroes are born.

Each one of you is unique. Each of you has your own strengths and weaknesses: Some are better at art, some are great readers, some are gifted in math, or languages, or science, or writing. Some are excellent swimmers, some are great climbers, some are great runners. But, except for the last one, none of that matters right now, because we're having a race. It's vitally important for your self-esteem that you try to be good at running and not think about that other stuff you are so good at and enjoy. But fear not: if you're good at art, your turn to shine will come next week when the children here have an art competition… Oh, sorry, we have no art competition, so you're out of luck: just try to be good at running.

There are 25 kids in this race, and you should all try to be number one. While it's true that, logically, only one of you can actually be number one, we're all going to act like you have an equal chance of winning. One of you will win, 24 of you will not, and the winner will probably be either that kid with the long legs or the kid with the trainer-dad, but we must pretend it could be any of you. We must also pretend that the main determinant of winning is your desire to win and how hard you work. Because even if you all work hard, and practice every day, there is still going to be just one winner. This is all about competition: you should all want to be the best at everything, even if it serves no purpose, and even if it is mathematically impossible for everyone to be the best at one thing, much less everything.

It is true that if you work hard, exercise, and practice your technique, you may improve your absolute and objective measures such as speed, race times, and stamina, but if you merely go from 23rd place to 15th place, it is all useless, because you are not in the top 50%, much less top 3. And if you all were to work to improve, your positions would not change much anyway: you'd just finish in 23rd place a bit faster. You must remember the important part about races is how you compare relative to the other racers in this group today; your personal goals and path of self-improvement are not important.

So, you see, if we gave you a medal for "effort", you might accidentally get the message that trying to improve yourself is important even if the improvement is minor. If we gave you a trophy for "finishing the race", it might inadvertently make you think completing something difficult is a worthwhile goal despite not being the best at it. And finally, if you received a token for "participating" in an event you never wanted to be in in the first place and realistically had no hope of winning, it… well… let's just say I don't want to live in that kind of world.

And now, in accordance with my solemn duty as arbiter of this sacred test-of-speed, I say to you… Children! READY, SET, GO!

2012-08-19

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