I won? Really? Just for showing up? I’d like to thank the judges for this participation award…oh, your faces tell me that you actually want me to present something? Alright, I suppose I can do that…
Good afternoon Madam Chairperson, honorable judges, ladies and gentlemen, fellow 4-H members, family, friends, and guests.
What is a participation trophy? Well, it is a trophy that is awarded simply for doing what is expected. It’s based on the idea that rewarding someone for doing what is expected will boost their self-confidence and somehow make them better adults. While this theory may seem like a good idea, it is my view that this has backfired because the end result is that children are protected from learning the value of failure.
Not ALL participation trophies are bad. A great example is the Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for those with cognitive disabilities. These are people who, in the regular Olympics, would most likely not place. Even in Special Olympics, there’s a lot who aren’t going to place. This is where participation trophies are a good thing. It helps foster friendship and a sense of community amongst vulnerable individuals who need more of both, and this is a good thing.
For myself, these are some of the speaking medals I’ve picked up over my years in 4H. Sadly, a few of these are participation trophies. Not that 4H meant to do that, but it’s hard to compete when I don’t have competitors. This year I was guaranteed a reward up until regionals because no one wanted to compete. Really, I was rewarded for showing up.
Participation trophies have become a symptom of a bigger problem. Our younger generations are becoming afraid to fail, and therefore afraid to try. Since the start of this millennium, more and more young adults do not view failure as a learning opportunity and lack the necessary skills to effectively recover from failure. Even worse, today’s parents sabotage their children by shielding them from any sort of failure be it at sports or academically at school. People must learn that failure is actually building resilience and that actively seeking failure allows people to think, create, and thrive.
Resiliency is the ability to bounce back after a setback; like an elastic band returns to its original shape after being stretched. The ability to do this as a learner means that failure becomes a teaching tool, rather than an end result. If failure is a tool, then it does not need a trophy! The 2007 film Meet the Robinsons addresses this change in thinking quite succinctly. The main character, a young boy named Lewis, is an aspiring scientist who constantly worries about failure. His mindset changes after one particular scene in which his very quirky family celebrates his failure with fanfare, confetti, and song. The most notable quote from this scene comes from Aunt Billie, “From failure you learn; from success … not so much.”
People learn the most from mistakes, and when children do not learn how to fail and build resiliency, problems are created including anxiety, the constant reliance on others, and the inability to problem-solve. In our technologically advanced world, we need those who can take risks and create new solutions. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have worked to maximize our efforts and efficiencies thereby reducing the number of manual labour opportunities in favour of creative and leisure opportunities. None of these advancements could have occurred if our thinkers and inventors had feared failure.
There are numerous companies that support this “failure is okay” mindset. This includes Google which has a branch company called X. Within X there is a department called the Moonshot Factory. Their goal is to launch “moonshot” technologies with the hope that someday, it could make the world a radically better place. In order to do this, they purposely try to fail. They go out of their way to sink their projects and are lauded when they fail. Rather than trying to avoid failing, they run all the hardest parts of the problem first. The reward is when it doesn’t fail, and they can keep moving forward. But, even if they do fail, it’s okay.
One of their sunken projects was automated vertical farming. This is some of the lettuce they grew. Their idea was to help the people in the world who suffer from undernourishment. Vertical farming used 10 times less water and almost 100 times less land than conventional farming. And, because you can grow the food close to where it’s consumed, you don’t have to deal with transporting it long distances. They did make progress in areas like automated harvesting, and efficient lighting. But, they had a problem with the type of plants they were growing. They couldn’t get staple crops like grains and rice to grow properly. So, they killed the project.
Not all projects were failures. Project Loon was, and still is, a success. Project Loon is a network of balloons that float through the sky, and are designed to provide internet connectivity to people in remote and rural areas, more rural than us. First they had to try and get an internet connection from a balloon up in the stratosphere down to a little antenna on the ground. Their biggest challenge was to get a balloon the size of a house to stay in the air for more than 100 days, while costing less than 5% of what traditional, long-life balloons cost to make. In the end, they did it. But, they had to try a lot of different methods to get there. They made round, silvery balloons. They made giant, pillow-like balloons. They even made a balloon that was the size of a whale. They made, and scrapped, a lot of balloons.
In the end, they settled for this one. A balloon that contained two compartments, helium, and regular air. It could pump air to make itself heavier, or let out air to make it lighter. This helped to let it float along the wind, and not sink down to the ground.
Astro Teller, one of the team leaders, once said in his 2016 TED Talk, “being audacious and working on big, risky projects makes people inherently uncomfortable.” Studies have proven that being outside of our comfort zone is where great ideas are formed. We have to be courageous enough to thrive.
Thriving is learning to excel after one’s mistake; trying until success is reached. It requires us to be productive, and reach long-term goals despite whatever setbacks have been encountered. Thriving requires a change of perspective about failure. This is best exemplified by Thomas Edison’s response to a reporter when asked how he felt failing 1,000 times when inventing the light bulb. Edison responded with “I did not fail 1,000 times. The light-bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
I too have failed and thrived. For years I have battled exam anxiety. A head injury last fall exacerbated my old nemesis. Since what used to work now did not, I had to get creative in overcoming this problem. Through some trial and error, and much support from family and teachers, I modified my study habits and changed my organizational techniques. I am pretty sure that the local Dollar Store is out of coloured index cards and highlighters, as I ‘brightened’ up my review techniques. Along with the change in study habits, I also had a change of attitude about exams. Rather than seeing them as an obstacle, I saw them as an opportunity to grow. I did not just throw up my hands and use my concussion as an excuse for failure. I instead I used it as a ladder to success, ending my semester by getting my highest exam mark on the final test. I did not expect my teacher to award me marks just for sitting the exam.
Participation trophies only award us for showing up, not for doing. My 4-H club recognizes merit, rather than participation. Do all members get prizes for just showing their heifers? No. The prizes only go to those who raised the best heifers. As with the 4-H motto, learn to do by doing, sometimes in the doing, we fail, but we still learn. Google X has the right philosophy: recognizing failure as a critical stepping stone to success. Who should the award go to? Not to the person who just showed up, but the one who challenged failure and excelled, just like we teach in 4H.