Ah, that common refrain.
You shouldn’t just get a trophy for participating.
When everyone gets a trophy, nobody wins.
If everybody is special, nobody is special.
Second place is last place.
And on and on.
It’s a criticism pointed at millennials. Or, wait — Gen Y. No! Wait. Gen X.
SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY SOMEONE DECIDED THAT YOU ONLY DESERVED A REWARD IF YOU ACHIEVED TRUE APOTHEOSIS. YOU ONLY GET THE GOLDEN CUP IF YOU SLAUGHTER THE OTHER TEAM AND WEAR THEIR SKIN AS A CAPE AND TRANSFORM INTO THE GREAT BEAST WHO WILL DESTROY THE WORLD. THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE CHAMPION, HIGHLANDER. EAT YOUR WEAKER FOES. REMAIN STANDING ATOP A HILL OF INFINITE CARCASSES.
Except, that’s kinda horseshitty, isn’t it?
When did we become so cynical about participation?
So sour-faced about people who are doing stuff?
This is usually aimed at children — or the environment around children (meaning, parents, schools and other institutions), and it is aimed very squarely as a criticism, but let me tell you something as the parent of a five-year-old: getting a child to participate in something can feel like a Herculean task. Just getting your kid to sit down and DO THE THING THAT IS PRESENTLY BEING DONE can feel like the completion of an epic quest. You’d have an easier time stimulating the prostate of a galloping bison. Getting children to do the thing is difficult for an unholy host of reasons. Maybe they’re scared of the other participants. Or scared of failing. (Or scared of what you’ll think of them when they fail.) Maybe they’re bored. Could be that they don’t understand what’s being asked of them, or instead that they’re obstinate and would much rather do the OTHER THING instead of THIS THING. This only gets worse as a kid gets older because kids gather a lot of baggage about doing things, and sometimes that baggage is weighted with the (arguably capitalist) rhetoric of success and failure: you either WIN or you LOSE, it’s either PASS or FAIL, you’re the CHAMPION or you’re a SUCK-FACED SHITBABY. And teenagers kinda figure out that game, and they check right the fuck out. They stop participating, in part because it’s not cool, and in part because I think teenagers are actually surprisingly good at smell-testing bullshit. They can detect these cultural shenanigans, and so they cynically give the middle-finger to the entire process and they piss off somewhere to get drunk and grope each other.
But doing stuff? It’s how the world works. It’s what makes the world happen. Participation is pretty much everything. Winning is a narrow selection without much meaning. Most of life is just showing up and doing the work — whether that’s work with family, or school, or friendships, or a proper job. Show up. Do the work. Do the best. Be the best you. And if you do that? That’s amazing. Because most people don’t actually do that.
When I was a kid, I did soccer afterschool. I hated it. Fuck soccer. Fuck everything about soccer. Fuck practice and the drills and the coach and any of the kids who liked soccer. I was young — this was elementary school — and even then the focus was on leagues and getting better not to get better but getting better to win. It was a competition.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with competing. At a certain level, that’s what you’re in to do, and why you get involved. But at that level, at the elementary school level, the purpose is — or should be — different. The purpose is, hey, here’s how you work on a team. Here’s how you follow instructions. Here’s how you exist as a physical being who moves his body around in the world instead of sitting in front of a television. Here is how you participate.
But that’s not how they treated it.
I didn’t get an award for participating even though that’s the whole point of me being there. Everyone should’ve been hopping up and down because HEY HOLY CRAP YOU’RE HERE ON THE FIELD AND YOU’RE SCARED AND YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND THAT’S EXCITING AND DAMNIT IF IT’S NOT A VICTORY JUST FOR SHOWING UP AND PUTTING IN THE TIME. Doing a new thing! Being present! Partaking in the task at hand! I wanted to feel good for that, not for enduring an onerous afterschool program driving me to be an elementary school soccer champion and by the way did I mention I fucking hate soccer. I would’ve been happy with a participation trophy — and no, I wouldn’t have gotten confused thinking that somehow it was equal to actually being the winner, because winning still feels like winning. Kids aren’t confused by participation trophies. They’re not idiots. Yet we disdain participation because it is expected.
The disdain of participation is tied in with our disgust surrounding failure. Participation is barely above loserdom, and many associate the two (remember: second place is last place). But that’s not how the world works. Or, more importantly, it’s not how the world needs to work.
As a writer, I meet lots of aspiring writers who want to write but are, for various reasons, afraid to do so. They’re afraid they’ll get it wrong. They look so far ahead they see a world where they won’t be able to accomplish the thing, so why bother? They have the desire to do the thing but are somehow afraid to participate for fear of failing and not winning.
Except, there is no winning.
There exists a sliding scale of various milestones, sure — cascading victory conditions that open up, but this is less like WIN THE GAME AND GET THE GOLDEN TROPHY and more like PLAY YOUR CHARACTER IN THE RPG SO YOU SECURE MORE EXPERIENCE POINTS TO BUY COOL UPGRADES TO YOUR LIFE. Writing doesn’t come with a golden cup. It’s not like once a year one writer gets to shed her carapace and emerge as J.K. Rowling to become the temporary headmaster of Hogwarts’ School of Storytelling Magic. Further, failure is an essential part of what we do. I wrote five books before I got the sixth one published. I wrote countless unfinished books in and around those first five. Life is constant failure. I’m sure I fucked up the first sentence I ever tried to write. I’m sure I shitted up the first paragraph. I have one of the first stories I ever wrote in elementary school, and newsflash: it is about as entertaining as watching a turtle fuck a hot jockstrap. (Actually, that might be pretty entertaining.) Failure is a critical state. My son does things all the time, and most of those things he does poorly — then he does them better, and better still, until he succeeds. And you might say, THERE, TA-DA, HE WON, and that’s true.
But I didn’t chide him for trying all the while until he got there.
Every time he tried and failed to write his alphabet, I didn’t play a fart sound buzzer and boo him from the bleachers. I did not merely champion him upon success, I cheered him for trying. For doing. For participating. Because that’s how you get there. And it’s the hardest part!
My writing career has been all about participating. Participating when it was hard. Participating when I did not know what the floppy fuck I was doing. Participating when other people told me not to bother because I was going to fail, because it was an impossible career, because I would make better money if I just dug ditches instead. Why try when you might fail? Doesn’t participation just lead to failure anyway? Why bother at all?
Participation has been my everything. And rejection has been vital to that. Rejection is a battle scar. It’s proof I’m in the arena. It’s some Viking-level shit. It’s two gladiators showing off their injuries: “I GOT THIS ONE WHEN I FAILED TO UNSEAT THROMGAR THE INCONTINENT FROM HIS WYVERNOUS TIGERWOLF. I LOST THE FIGHT THAT DAY, BUT I HAVE THIS COOL-ASS SCAR TO SHOW FOR IT. AND I LIVE TO FIGHT AGAIN.” Rejection is a sign of doing the thing and surviving. You know who doesn’t ever get rejections? People who don’t participate. Most people write a novel once every never, and if you’re writing a novel — or doing whatever the thing is that you wanna goddamn do — then that is a victory worth celebrating.
Here’s the thing: we say, we shouldn’t reward people for the bare minimum, and when we say that, we mean participation. But participation is not the bare minimum. Observing? That’s the minimum. Watching instead of doing is about as low as you go. The kids on the field kicking the ball? They’re doing shit, man. That’s awesome. Good for them. The parents in the stands decrying the trophies those kids will get for participating? They’re fucking spectators. They’re only bystanders, not doing a good goddamn thing except placing their own proxy hopes and dreams on their little genetic champions.
I cheer my kid when he tries a new food. I cheer him when he draws, or reads, or does something he’s afraid to do. I cheer his participation in life, because that’s what matters. That’s all we have. Winning is hollow. Getting to the end of the road only happens by walking it. Participation is its own special victory, and fuck anybody who says different. Double-fuck you if you hate on your own kids for not coming home with the win. Huzzah to adults for participating, too. You vote? Good for you. You participate in a charity? Fuck yes. You DO THE THING THAT MUST BE DONE? Have a lollipop, you wonderful person, you.
Get shut of the illusion that winning is everything, participation is nothing, failure is the end.
Perfection is the enemy. Failure is more important to us than victory. You will fail a lot more than you win, and you learn a lot more when you lose — you don’t improve through victory. Victory is a plateau. You improve by capitalizing on your loss.
No, it isn’t the only victory. Yes, it’s only a small one.
But it’s a victory just the same.
We all die. Nobody wins that contest. Life is not The Hunger Games, man.
But we are all here. We can all chip in. We can all do the thing.
Participate, and don’t be made to feel small for doing so.
GO DO THE THING. And celebrate doing it.