Yesterday I saw this cartoon on Facebook, and I thought about it for a really long time. I think the point it’s trying to make is that we’ve gotten to a place in many aspects of our society where mediocrity is rewarded as much as true greatness, and that ultimately is damaging to our overall success and our collective psyche. For example, I’ve heard and read so many stories of parents arguing with teachers (and even college professors) any time their student gets a less than stellar grade, because they believe their children can do no wrong and they’re all inherently special, by which they don’t actually mean “special,” but “not ever deserving of criticism.” I very much agree with the sentiment that continually rewarding mediocrity ends up being detrimental. If humans aren’t given the opportunity to try and fail, to humble themselves and correct their mistakes, to set and reach their own goals (without someone holding their hand every step of the way), then we never even have the chance to become truly great, let alone actually achieve greatness. But this cartoon is actually saying more than all that, and that’s what bothers me about it.
We don’t know what the little boy in the cartoon received his trophy for, but I’m just going to posit that he was in a soapbox derby race, because that’s a common competition for kids, it usually has a clear winner, and it requires a lot of hard work to be successful. So this kid (let’s call him Johnny) presumably worked really hard at building a great car and hopefully learned a lot about physics and mechanics during the process. He drove his car well enough that he didn’t crash, and in fact he finished first. Everyone saw him finish first, and when the official results are listed in the paper or posted in the window of the local rec center or whatever, everyone will see his name at the top of the list. If anyone took video of the race, they’ll be able to see his win over and over again for years to come. But clearly that’s not enough for Johnny. He didn’t want to just learn a lot and be the best, he also wanted a bigger, grander trophy than anyone else received. That seems just a little selfish to me.
Now, lots of kids are selfish. (Lots of adults are too, for that matter.) We’re all guilty of selfishness from time to time, but hopefully we’re able to step back, look at the situation again, and realign our priorities. Hopefully Johnny’s dad will seize this teachable moment in the next panel (yeah, it’s a one-panel cartoon, but I’m extrapolating here) and encourage him to look around at all the other kids who also competed and think about their circumstances. There’s little Hector, who has problems with his muscles and knew he would have a hard time steering his car, but he really wanted to participate in the race anyways. He actually did great until the very end of the course, when he ended up in a minor crash. There’s Ashley, who asked her parents for help building her car, but they totally ignored her like they usually do, so she ended up building the whole thing herself and was honestly excited she managed to finish the whole race without her car falling apart. There’s Charlie, who stayed up soooooo late with his dad the night before to finish his car. There wasn’t much time to work on the car before because Charlie’s single dad has to work all the time just to get by, and they can’t afford power tools, so they did the whole thing by hand. Charlie came in seventh, and his dad was so proud, he cried.
I don’t care how much Johnny whines, he will not convince me that those other kids don’t also deserve trophies they can put on a shelf in their room or bring in to school for show and tell. They know they didn’t win, but winning might not even have been on their list of goals. While Johnny’s over there complaining that he didn’t get enough recognition for coming in first, Hector, Ashley, and Charlie are celebrating the progress they made on their own goals, and they have nice little trophies to show for their effort.
All the kids I knew growing up and all the kids I’ve worked with as an adult had a pretty solid sense of the things they were good at and the things they were bad at, and they also had a pretty solid sense of how they stacked up against their peers. I’ve always been pretty bad at sports. I played soccer for one year and softball for six years as a kid, and I was mostly terrible, even though I really wanted to be good at them. At the end of every season, every kid on the team got a trophy, regardless of how well they did individually or how well the team did overall, and I was never under any illusions about where I landed on the totem pole of athletic achievement, but the recognition was always nice. I appreciated the fact that my hard work was being recognized even though I wasn’t a stand-out softball player, and once I hit middle school, I came to terms with my lack of athletic prowess and I voluntarily gave up sports to focus on other pursuits that I was actually good at. And because my parents always let me set my own goals and make my own mistakes, I think I turned out pretty well-adjusted, despite receiving several plastic sports trophies that I may or may not actually have “deserved.”
So back to Johnny and his little cartoon: If he only entered the soapbox race and put in all that work to build and drive a car for a huge trophy, he shouldn’t have entered at all. If he’s still playing the same tune tomorrow, he and his parents are going to have a lot of work ahead of them on values and gratefulness. Over-rewarding greatness is just another side of the same coin that constantly rewards mediocrity, and I guess that’s really the heart of what bothers me about the message this cartoon is sending.