The Participation Trophy: An Existential Defense

In recent years, the notion of participation trophies has become a common subject for criticism and even ridicule, many times in service of a more general accusation against contemporary education and youth-culture.

For those less acquainted with those criticisms, the main idea is that the prevailing norm of handing out badges and other symbolic trophies for mere participation is a problematic trend, that fails in teaching children the importance of excellence and creating a flawed perception of the world and of competition. “The real world doesn’t reward participation,” remark the contender, “It rewards excellence and hard work translated into success.” In other words, the objection is that by rewarding all participants of a competition, society fails to ground in those participants the values of being the best, and therefore builds a skewed world view that is not viable in “the real world” which is claimed to not do the same.

I would like to put forward a defense of the participation trophy based on an existential point of view. Plainly speaking, “the world” rewards no one, and nothing. The only rewards are those we give ourselves in the form of pride and satisfaction, or happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed for the successful and excellent, nor is it impossible to achieve for the unsuccessful and mediocre.

The harsh truth is, that no matter how passionate, driven, or even talented, one is – they very well may fail in achieving results. Furthermore, they are almost certain to fail in the grand scale of “being the best”: as the joke goes, no matter how good you are or what you do, some twelve year old girl in India is almost certainly better at it than you, and has already achieved more than you ever will. Excellence is a fantastic thing, well deserving of being pursued and admired, but is excellence truly meaningful in its comparative, so-called objective, definition?

Take Vincent Van-Gogh, for example. During his lifetime, he was not “excellent” in any of the so-called “objective” meanings described. This shows that the comparative sense of excellence cannot truly be used in the perspective ascribed to it: Van-Gogh, today, is excellent in the same socially comparative sense that would have dismissed his insistence to pursue art, if applied to him at his own lifetime. But this is not a full answer, but a pragmatic one – I may have shown that the argument cannot be applied in short perspective, but I consider it invalid in a deeper sense still.

As mentioned earlier, true happiness is not something that “the world” gives us. The existentialist theory holds that humanity is faced with a constant conflict between the human desire for purpose and the cosmic indifference – “Existence precedes essence”. One must ask, then, on which side of this equation does excellence factor? I seem to think, and I imagine most readers will agree, that excellence as a virtue belongs in the second part – it is a matter of essence. The Absurd, however, is the conflict between objective notions and said essence. No true meaning can be achieved on the basis of strictly objective reality. Excellence, therefore, cannot truly be considered an objective concept.

This still leaves societal norms. Existentialism, unlike Nihilism, does not promote nor endorse a fully Self-oriented subjective view. Sartre argued that it is in fact the opposite, that through the internal processing of the Absurd and the Self’s search of meaningful existence, our links to humanity are stronger, our duties towards those around us are more important and purer – because they serve no alien cosmic conscience and have no true objective impact – they are our own.

So maybe excellence is still a concept that should be promoted in a social sense? That may be so, but I argue that so should mediocrity. The “real world” rewards mediocrity much more than it rewards excellence – since we are responsible for our own sense of satisfaction, a singular strive for competitive-based achievement is impossible to ever reach satisfaction. Not only will most of us never be the best in the world in any field, even those who are have no guarantee that this greatness shall remain greatness in the future: today’s great artist may very well be the 25th century’s footnote of primitive historical aesthetic notions. Van-Gogh’s current vindication may very well turn at some point and doom him back to oblivion. Society itself is no more trustworthy or dependable than the uncaring cosmos.

Therefore, it seems that true satisfaction, the kind promoted by existentialism, is in many ways the epitome of participation trophies: we can only be happy if we decide we want to be happy in spite of the Absurd, embrace it. We must forsake any notion of metaphysical excellence to truly achieve anything worthwhile. In that sense, participation trophies are the best lesson for life – we must celebrate the action of taking part of the universe, of life, because otherwise we will not celebrate at all.

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