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The ruin of “being good” and the virtue of the participation trophy

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Graphic by Hannah Anderson/The Olaf Messenger


Must we be good at the things we do in order to enjoy them? Asking the question reveals the problem itself. Of course being good at something should be encouraged; this is how discipline cultivates the level of ability that has the potential to amaze and inspire.


But self-fulfillment — and even fun in general — ends when validation is reached only through arbitrary means of success. This is an imposing context, the source of doubt and dread among those subjected to it, willingly or not. Why run, after all, when you’re last in the race? Why make art or music when what you make is ugly? Why play a video game when you lose every match? The only reward of “failure” in this framework is the negative instance of future success, while the victors reap the actual spoils.


It’s no wonder why so many get caught in the woe of not being good, and why many more find “not being good at anything” as grounds for an identity crisis. The society that readily advises that hard work and dedication are key to success so easily forgets the equal factors of encouragement and acknowledgement of individual pace. It doesn’t help that talent and prodigy are often considered in vacuums absent of the context of their development, often free of expectation in young development: I can testify that the primary reason I was good at the piano from a young age was that the noise of my developmental playing was not only tolerated but encouraged.


It may seem cliché to offer the metaphor of the participation trophy, the famous object of ridicule for those who suggest that praise for nothing results in more nothing. The idea of anyone determined being a winner in their own right carries much more of an inspiration, though, than being equated with Pavlov’s dog. The prioritization of “being good” isn’t far off from further dehumanization: the same sort of people who impose strict standards of what’s “good” are often the same who prefer machine-generated results that conform to their expectations, blind to the beauty of the human element.


As individual of a solution as this may seem, spaces for doing things for their own sake are possible. Games are more fun without the overwhelming salt of competition; art is better without problematic definitions of beauty; and the marathon can be as glorious for running as it is to win.


Zach Zelinski is from Frederic, Wis. His major is English. 

Zach Zelinski
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