Lately I’ve been thinking about the participation trophy almost as much as the coronavirus.
I think it’s possible that I was among the last people never to receive a participation trophy and my little brother was among the first to always receive one. I emerged from childhood with one sports trophy, and it was for being on a championship Little League team in a small town.
The recreation director brought the trophies to us as soon as the game was over and passed them out to an exuberant bunch of boys. I remember that a light rain started falling, and I tucked my trophy into the pocket of a windbreaker for protection. My little brother came onto the field to see it. I let him look, but not touch. It was precious to me.
By the time he was playing rec sports, trophies were handed out like mints at the end of every season. And in those early days, they were of the same quality as the championship trophy.
I didn’t like it one bit.
As the years went on, the quality of the trophies cheapened. At some point they became medals, the quality of which can often be surpassed by dropping two quarters into a bubblegum machine.
In business, we often rebuke the participation trophy for its perceived role in causing some of our troubles.
The participation trophy (or medal) is usually maligned and often blamed for larger societal ills. It is blamed for generations of younger people not being as good at life as an older generation believes itself to be. Participation trophies are chided for — or at the very least deemed to be a symptom of — any given age group’s lack of initiative, or lack of toughness, or lack of creativity. The participation trophy is saddled with responsibility for a sense of entitlement — for making us think answers should be easy, solutions handed to us in a neat package. It’s a sentiment that seems nearly universal … except that someone keeps awarding them to participants.
I’ve changed my mind.
Truth be told, my Little League baseball trophy was something of a participation trophy, based on my contributions to the championship. Or to the whole season, for that matter. A little younger than the other boys and a lot less coordinated, I was what the other team called a sure out, an easy out. But I’ll tell you this: only a fellow Sure Out knows how much muster it took to step up to the plate and face certain failure with everyone watching.
My evolving opinion of the participation trophy emerged as I watched boys become men — not just my own sons, but also their friends. I became an adult leader in Cub Scouts and later Boy Scouts. All of us who were leaders got there because no one else would do it. Really, that’s key to my whole point. A lot of stuff that needs doing gets done by people who are willing, not so much by people who are good at it.
The boys in my pack, and later in my troop, were good guys. They were smart, but they did their share of stupid things. They enjoyed activity, but honestly, they could have been more dedicated to fitness. They could have been more committed to their academic pursuits. By and large, they did what was asked of them, and what was expected of them, without much complaint. There were pockets of excellence, but for the most part, they seemed to be mostly participating.
If you stick with it, and most of them did, Boy Scouts lasts longer than any sports season. Those boys kept showing up. Week after week, year after year — some of them for 12 years and an Eagle rank — they kept coming to meetings and activities with thick books that slowly filled with signatures and checkmarks.
They didn’t always excel at what they were doing, but they participated and emerged as men.
They’re still young, just taking those early steps of adulthood: moving out, going to college, going to work — taking on those jobs that, for now, often place a higher premium on reliability than skill. I see three of them often.
One is stocking shelves at Walmart. He isn’t sure what he wants to do next, but he’s thinking maybe college. Another is not going to college. He thinks he’s found his career in management at a grocery store. Another is a firefighter and may be paramedic later. It’s a long road, however, and while he’s finally landed paid positions with two departments, they’re both very part time. So he’s getting the bills paid by delivering pizza, mostly to college students with a poor record for tipping.
As our world forked off on an unanticipated path for this pandemic, it occurred to me that those three boys, who once donned little blue uniforms to sell fundraising popcorn, have found their way to the critical front lines of a battle. While I work safely from home, my role in curbing COVID-19 is to stay put. Their role is to get out there: to stock the shelves, to manage the groceries, to take pizza to people like me and, some days, to wrestle into firefighter gear and ride to the rescue.
Almost anyone would have guessed that doctors and nurses would be the heroes of a pandemic. But I think almost everyone was surprised when the rest of the hero pool turned out to be grocers and truck drivers and hardware clerks, fast food workers, convenience store cashiers and all of the others who keep the rest of us safer and healthier simply by showing up. By participating.
There are millions out there, but three of them I know well. Three boys — now men — making everything better by participating. A lot of people don’t, you know. So maybe it’s worth a trophy.
This story originally appeared in the May 18, 2020, print edition of the GSA Business Report.