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Everyone Gets A Trophy?

by | Process

Is our over-emphasis on self-esteem detrimental to creativity, risk and innovation?

A few years ago my children started playing organized sports. It’s a kind of unsettling awakening, especially with the first child. You suddenly become aware of the gaps in your parental instruction. (Wait! My kid doesn’t know to put his glove in the air when the other kid throws the…ooh…bloody nose. Yikes.)

One of the other surprises came with the first game. Much to our son’s dismay, the authorities-that-be weren’t keeping score. (Funny how the kids always do, even when the grown-ups don’t. He knew that his team was 5-5 that year.) I’m not arguing that beginner sports leagues should be keeping score, it’s just one data point for me in a larger dynamic that’s I’ve noticed over the past few decades.

Beginning in the 1960’s, there was a concerted social effort to increase the level of self-esteem in children. Our kids, it was believed, would perform much better if they only felt better about themselves. The grading system was re-considered, with some classrooms getting rid of failing grades. Children (like me!) were told things like “you can be anything you want to be”, and “if you just believe in yourself, you can move mountains.” In sports, everyone got a trophy just for showing up. Even for mostly showing up.

Here’s the problem with much of this: it’s not true. It doesn’t reflect reality. Truth is, I can’t be anything I want to be, and neither can you. We all have limitations – yes, flexible ones, but limitations nonetheless. We have specific strengths and specific weaknesses. We have things we are innately great at, and things we’d be better off shying away from. Even running away from.

I believe that, contrary to its intent, this self-esteem push can be significantly detrimental to creativity. (NOTE: this is not scientific, just observational. For a more detailed analysis of the studies related to optimism, self-esteem and depression read [amazon_link id=”0618918094″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Optimistic Child[/amazon_link] by Martin Seligman.)

Here are a few thoughts:

It has de-emphasized the value of contribution and has emphasized the importance of recognition. If I can be anything I want to be, then I’m going to gravitate toward the things that will make me famous, no? Rather than zeroing in on the activities and contributions that might allow me to offer something of value to society, I’m going to focus more on how I can get what I feel is owed to me by right of existence. I need regular feedback in order to know where I “stand”. Social media is important because it allows near immediate feedback regarding whatever feeds this need.

Truth is, I can’t be anything I want to be, and neither can you. We all have limitations – yes, flexible ones, but limitations nonetheless.

It has cultivated a fear of failure. Contrary to the thought that a belief that I’m “special” will encourage fearlessness, this notion that I’m truly capable of anything might make me less likely to do something that will violate this self-perception. I will take calculated risks that allow me to prove what I believe I already know. I sell out my true giftedness for the sake of re-affirming my belief that I’m “special”.

It sets unrealistic expectations about life, and what it takes to succeed. Life is unfair. Some people are born with opportunities and privileges that others aren’t. Creating is very hard, and failure is inevitable. Some people toil away at brilliant work for a lifetime and receive little recognition, while others back into opportunities and are widely acclaimed. Recognition and feeling good about yourself are fine, but I believe it should be sourced in doing the work rather than in the recognition of others. Recent studies have shown a hockey-stick-like elevation in the rates of reported depressive episodes since the 1960’s. Some are attributing this to the incongruity between our expectations of what life should be and the reality of what life is. Hmm.

It’s something to consider. In our attempts to encourage risk-taking and adventure, are we actually accomplishing the opposite?

have you seen any of these dynamics, and…
…have they affected you or your peers, and…
…if so, what do you do about it?

Comment here.

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Lucas Cole

    a belief that the utopian concept of our world exists in the absence of the notion of right or wrong, winners or losers, absolute truth, or anything that could possibly exclude someone, is a pattern of thought that, although sounding quite noble, leads to the inevitable destruction of any and all things right, victorious and true.  

  2. Rbwestendorf

    You’ve articulated exactly what I’ve been experiencing at work of late in regards to internal design awards. We’ve gone through a laborious process of setting tough criteria and are now questioning (some of us) “how do we reward the work that has different criteria?” ex. Big strategic branding programs without shiny visible results at the end. Without your substantiation at the close it’s just an opinion. With them you make a solid argument for the damage that can be done for rewarding mediocrity and boldly suggest that we all face the reality that “life is unfair”.

  3. Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm

    A few things I really find annoying about modern parenting and the effects are definitely evident in their now reaching adulthood children, and this is one of them. Parents really need to stop creating alternative realities for their kids to live in.

  4. Wes Roberts

    Mr. Henry:  This is one of your finest posts to date.  Thank you!  May I have your permission to use it with some major mentoring training I will be doing this year?  I would like to print it off, as well as reference it in some blogging and other writing I will be doing.  Of course…you and this blog will be well referenced.

    For this olde man (fast chasing 70yo), your blog…your words and those of Matt and others you’ve brought on board…is consistently shots of encouragement to my soul as I further live out the purposes of life granted me each day.  Something shows up from y’all…I read first.  :-)

    Stunned, am I, at the opportunities opening up, literally around the globe, as people learn of the mentoring model I share…no accidents…but wholly new and creative on the topic.  Currently I’m personally mentoring developing leaders from 13-63 years of age…amazing to be sure…over the three 3rds of life (1-30/30-60/60 to whenever…).  The gift of Accidental Creative, your book, this blog, etc., has been truly a gift…shared weekly with others…who are also impacting others in at least 31 countries…last count.

    Todd, again, thank you.  And know that my vibrant and discerning wife enjoyed the brief phone chat with you a few days back…your swift attention there…impressive.  Now…go play with your kids………..they will be your age before you know it.

  5. FJR

    Best practice in teaching gifted children is to de-emphasize praise for giftedness but rather to emphasize the rewards of hard work, of taking risks, of undertaking things that are difficult, and of failing sometimes. This is not the same as not acknowledging special talents- just not treating them as a sort of easy ticket to high achievement in that area.
    A sense of self-efficacy comes from trying things that are a stretch and with perseverence making progress I don’t see any problem in rewarding both effort and progress. Trophies for every effort are a bit much, but don’t kids quickly discount their meaning when everyone gets the trophy? Even when a trophy is well-earned, it’s probably a good idea for a parent not to make a huge fuss over it, Life isn’t necessarily about the trophy.

  6. Tom Kubilius

    Love this post.  

    Failure is necessary for us to find our way in the world.  You make a great point in that it is important to try many things and fail at some to get some clue as to where we might be excellent–where we might be able to change the world.

    It is also healthy to feel the sting of failure when you haven’t really put your best effort in and someone else does better than you.  That, “I could have done better if I’d put the work in” feeling is a motivator to actually put the work into it next time.

    Finally, success doesn’t feel nearly as good if we haven’t failed along the way.  It’s the bad stuff in life that makes us appreciate the really good stuff.

  7. Rlewisg35

    Couldn’t agree more!

  8. Derango

    i feel your pain, bro

  9. Britney Hutter

    Todd, I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (your my light into the darkest tunnel,) P.S. your my role model.

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