The Real Participation Trophy Complex

A month or two ago I could not escape this video on social media, so I’m guessing you’ve already seen it. It’s the one where Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why and motivational speaker, lets everybody know just what’s wrong with Millennials (‘those born 1984 and after’).

We’ve all heard some iteration of his complaint, but Sinek’s is, perhaps, the most eloquent.  He boils it down to . . .

  1. Parenting – Their parents constantly praised them for no reason and made sure that they got opportunities and merits regardless of whether or not they deserved those opportunities.
  2. Technology – They are addicted to, and base their personal value on, their social media profiles.
  3. Impatience – Social Media and dating apps have negated the need for social skills and have stunted their capacity for patience in general.
  4. Environment – The corporate trends of focusing on short term gains and neglecting employee development exacerbate these issues.

I have my little gripes with 2, 3, and 4 (anyone curious about whether or not you still need social skills for a Tinder date should go ahead and ask absolutely anyone who’s ever used Tinder whether social skills still matter while on that date), but I’m not so sure he’s entirely off base on those points.  The real meat is in #1, that grandest of grand old chestnuts: Today’s youths are worthless because they were all taught they did not have to work or try for anything.  They’ve been destroyed by ‘participation trophies’.

Upon hearing this wisdom we all nod our heads.  Maybe we’re Millenials, maybe we’re the parents of Millenials, but it doesn’t matter: “Yes, that’s right, that generation/our generation is just terrible. Something something don’t know how to work hard. Something something don’t know the real value of things.  Something something never learned how to cope with failure.” We hear his story and we agree.

The only problem is, the participation trophy problem isn’t real.  And, not only is it not real, but Sinek expresses it in a way that should make it obvious that it’s not real. So why do we (think we) believe it? And what are we really saying when we criticize Millenials or their parents? Sinek, without meaning to, lays it out perfectly:

“[T]hey were told that they were special all the time.”

If I asked you about your own childhood, you’d report that, while your parents may have made it clear you were special to them, they never gave you the impression that you were so objectively special that you should be entitled to treatment not otherwise given to most people.  If you’re a parent, you’d report something similar from the giving end: “I taught my kids that there are no free lunches in life.”

So, you aren’t agreeing that it was you who was told they were special, or you who did the telling. You’re just agreeing that the phenomenon happens, but to other people, right? Maybe you’re tempted to self-deprecate a little and include yourself among the afflicted, but that’s not what you feel at your core. At your core, you consider yourself to be someone who’s aware of their own value. And that’s the first unspoken element to uncover. We don’t mean that this happens to us, we just mean that it happens.

Ok, fair enough. Certainly, someone, somewhere, overdid the praising of their children. But Sinek continues. . .

“They were told that they could have anything they want in life just because they want it.”

This is the statement that starts to tell the real story. He’s not saying that parents are or were too soft in some general way, he’s being specific. He’s setting up an entirely new system of values. They are telling their children that ‘they could have anything they want in life just because they want it.‘ And, again, you can’t be agreeing on behalf of yourself, because, as a child, you were never told this or anything like it. Likewise, as a parent, you’ve never expressed it. The statement describes others, not ourselves.

But the accusation is so specific that it should raise a little suspicion. That people should believe they or their children can have anything they want just for wanting it certainly flies in the face of your values. Why believe that it wouldn’t fly in the face of someone else’s? Have you actually seen it happen? How many people have reported having or expressing this belief? It’s a widespread phenomenon, so you should have witnessed it with your own eyes at least once, right?

You may have had your suspicions, but you’ve never seen it and nobody’s ever confessed to it.

“Some of them got into honors classes not because they deserved it, but because their parents complained.  Some of them got As not because they earned them, but because teachers didn’t want to deal with the parents.”

Here, the problem gets bigger. It’s not just that people don’t have an accurate sense of their own value, it’s that this inflated sense of value results in something being taken from us.  Maybe we could have gotten into that honors class if it were reserved for the worthy. Our A would have counted for more if they weren’t handed out like candy to others. We define ourselves by defining ‘them’. ‘They’ got things they didn’t deserve, which means we only got things we worked for.

But, again, you’re stuck with the problem of complete unverifiability. While I’m sure you have your suspicions about which of your peers or your children’s peers received recognition without merit, I doubt very much that you’d tapped anyone’s phone. Sinek’s shared story is just a guess, based on how we feel about our accomplishments compared to others. And if that’s the case, I have a few leading questions for you: Are all the accolades earned by your peers (or anyone else who isn’t you) unearned? Have we ever been legitimately outperformed? Never? Only sometimes?

If you feel like the tables have turned, that only points out that you thought there were unturned tables.

It might be tempting to back out at this point and recast the problem as general to avoid making it about you: “I can’t name anyone, I just mean in general . . .” But Sinek was very specific about the problem, and we were very enthusiastic about our agreement. No way to back out now. By agreeing with him about ‘other people,’ we’ve said quite a bit about ourselves. We must believe, to some degree, that while we deserve all we enjoy, those around us do not. And we believe it without having ever observed the phenomenon directly.

“Some kids got participation medals. They got a medal for coming in last. Which, the science we know is pretty clear, which is it devalues the medal and the reward for those that work hard. . .”

“And that actually makes the person who comes in last feel embarrassed because they know they didn’t deserve it, so it actually makes them feel worse.”

Inevitably, he finishes his argument by mentioning participation trophies. When you heard this bit at the very end, did it seem out of place?  It should have, because if participation trophies, as a rule, embarrass those who receive them then his entire argument goes right out the window. But, we accept this patently contradictory without question, because we know, intuitively, that he’s talking about the other side of the experience. When he talks about how embarrassed participation trophies make people feel it does not negate anything, because we know we’re talking ourselves. We recognize he’s just referring to the unspoken truth: that the participation trophy problem pre-supposes a group of people immune to the hypnotic power of false accolades, and that we and Sinek are members of that group.

Rather than explaining any real problem, the participation trophy trope is just a story everyone tells themselves in exactly the same way: ‘Others feel inappropriately entitled because their values have been warped by failed parenting strategies and participation trophies. I, and my community, on the other hand, don’t make that mistake.’

The alternative is to admit that, on the whole, people around us have expectations proportional to what they’ve put in. But this isn’t very gratifying to the self. Unable to immediately dismiss grievances as expressions of entitlement, we’d be left with the messy work of discovering why people want what they want.

The next time you run into someone you think is entitled, go ahead and ask that person how many participation trophies sit on their mantlepiece. They’ll all tell you the same thing: They don’t value such trophies and never did. Whatever entitlement exists comes from somewhere else, quite possibly from ourselves, given that we’re so sure that everyone but us has been coddled in some way, and probably doesn’t deserve what they’re asking for.