The World Needs Losers

Do you remember that first time you realized you weren't the only person to win something, that there were others on the same winners' blocks with you? There were others too who received the same certificate or the same medal? You didn't feel so special any more did you? Me either. I can remember back to specific instances. One was the baseball banquet at the end of the season sometime in middle school. I'm pretty sure as all of my teammates were winning awards for "best pitcher" or "fastest runner" I received one for "best athletic supporter." What does that even mean? I'll tell you what it means -- it means I sucked that season. It also meant that my teammates called me "Jockstrap" for the next several seasons (as athletic supporter is the scientific name for the colloquial Jockstrap).

Another more recent memory of deflation after an award came a few years ago when I was recognized by "Who's Who" as one of America's top educators. I had just figured they looked up my record and some other varying criteria and had approached me to recognize me as someone who is contributing to the future's greatest thinkers. Instead what I found was that this company targets a number of people and then tries to get us to buy their plaques and books as "resume builders." Needless to say I didn't feel like much of a winner anymore...and why -- because everyone had received an award -- not just me.

Fast forward to a few months ago in the honors business communication course that I teach -- we were talking about recognition in the workplace; how to communicate recognition with immediacy and purpose, with endearment and so on. Eventually the discussion landed on "trophy kids" and "soccer parents" and the continued conversation about young people today all expecting to get a trophy simply for participating and not for actually winning something. Several of my students expressed a ghastly "oh lord" -- and then went on to explain that...the world needs losers!

"What" I asked shocked to hear the news that students actually do not want everyone to win. This was where the conversation turned to value. The students thought that if everyone wins something then no one actually sticks out. In fact they told me that students are smart -- young kids are smart, they know when they're getting a consolation prize. Moreover, everyone knows who the best mid-fielder is, everyone knows who the most popular kid really was in school and everyone knows who the best athletic supporter was or wasn't. I had Jockstrap nightmares that night.

My honors students also talked about the ridiculousness of not keeping score at pee-wee games or having everyone play multiple positions even when they don't want to or are not good at those positions. I was dumbfounded. So I asked the pertinent questions during the discussion -- so whose fault is this? "Our parents" clamored my students. "They have created this problem of trophy kids." I was stumped. So I asked, "you mean the same people who at work complain that your generation all wants recognition -- are the same people who gave you all that recognition?" The answer was a resounding YES! I thought deeply about this for a while.

When you think about it, recognizing everyone for "superior" achievement negates the word superior. It even goes against the very fabric of American society. For example, could you imagine if there was no Super Bowl winner? What if we didn't keep score at Major League Baseball games? Those 100's of season games would be pointless, right? If everyone wins, why don't we just get rid of college GPA all together (that's a whole other discussion)? America loves her losers too, doesn't she? All the news media show us today is court case convictions, bad divorces, awful role models in music and TV and so on. We love to watch other people fail -- it makes us feel better about our lot, doesn't it? So why, then, did the trophy kid syndrome appear with the Millennial generation and today's young people? I actually have no idea when we shifted to this soft, winner-less, loser-less, cookies and ice cream and ponies and kittens society in arenas where things are supposed to be competitive. What we do know is this: places where a score is kept -- a real score, have produced real winners and improved growth. Think of world class Olympians -- one tenth-of-a-point may mean the difference between gold and silver. Think of schools like Harvard and Brown and Yale and Stanford. Not everybody is getting in and what has that done -- increased the quality of the product. Sure, there may be a discussion about grade inflation and the depression associated with highly competitive pressure, but isn't there some equal syndrome associated with always receiving the consolation prize? Surely there's a Katherine Heigl movie about this.

So, what's the purpose in writing this article? I thought about that for a while. I think it may be to start the discussion that -- the kids have "caught on." Perhaps that rewarding everyone is rewarding no one? Or that this practice of no one losing is totally counter to the American culture where we spend hundreds of dollars to see world class athletes win; and hundreds of TV hours to see politicians and reality TV stars lose. So, if we go back to the original classroom conversation about dolling out recognition we can take some things from the discussion and head on into life: 1) if you compliment everyone eventually those compliments don't mean anything, 2) people are smart -- regardless of age they can see through flimsy gestures and 3) everyone typically knows who is the best anyway. So, with those tips my students went back to discussing the best way to let someone know they're a loser -- no one wanted to have that discussion. I suggested simply giving them the "Athletic Supporter" award.