Today, in the “Everyone Gets a Trophy” society that is often condescendingly critiqued, I get nervous about falling victim to the entitlement mentality. “Doesn’t this teach kids that they don’t have to try that hard?” we say. “This is why young people these days don’t know how to work hard!” “Won’t they feel entitled to disproportionate success despite having put in less effort than their peers?” Uh… I don’t know. I’m not really trying to take a stab at answering those major psychological questions. But they’re good questions worth asking.
I, who barely qualify as a Millenial on the cusp of having been a Gen-X-er, don’t see myself as “one of those kids.” But in reality, I was the original one of those kids. During my first round of swim lessons, the lifeguard coerced me into trying the diving board with the promise of a big fancy swim-meet race ribbon that she pulled from some stash somewhere, and it did the trick. I jumped off a small diving board and received in exchange a first place ribbon. “I am a winner!” My first softball team was quite literally the worst team in the league – a pack of uncoordinated, unfocused, disinterested 8 and 9 year old girls who lost pretty much every game. And we ended the season with a big shiny trophy for each kid. “We’re winners!” (We were not winners, if you use the conventional definition.) So did I fall for it? Did this cause me to lose my potential edge and feel that my every pitiful mediocre accomplishment deserved praise, recognition and accolades?
Fast-forward to present day. I have completed many races that reward each finisher a race medal at the end. Everyone gets one. All you have to do is cross the line. (Hell, sometimes you don’t even have to do that, as evidenced by this character who decided to take an extra medal after finishing the Boston Marathon – for his wife, because she “deserved it” for supporting him in his training. Sigh.) It would be easy to see this as a symptom of the same problem. But I thought about it. And each finisher’s medal has meant something different to me. So it stands to reason that each one might mean something unique to each person or at different times in our lives.
For example, my first marathon was a pretty meaningful experience for me. I had been recovering (for a long time) from a knee surgery, had never covered such a long distance, and I idolized any person who had completed such a fantastic feat. When I received a finisher’s medal at the end of that race, it symbolized validation and actually built on the feelings of self-confidence that I was developing as a young adult. In contrast, I have since run many half marathons. I always know that I’ll finish, and I won’t be pushing the limits of my own capabilities. If my marathon finisher’s medal felt like a badge of self-worth, each half marathon medal felt, comparatively, like a solid high five.
There have been other rewards over the years. Every once in a while, I’m clever enough to enter a very VERY small race where I can win an age-group award. (This is the key to success, my friends. Swim in a small pond.) When I walk away with a second place medal, a coffee mug, or a plaque, I do beam on the inside a little bit. I know it doesn’t make me world-class, but it makes me feel good to think that, at least on this day, I’ve ranked well amongst my peers.
I chose a picture of my dog wearing my race medal for this post because my recent race experience is what got me thinking about this topic. (He did not run the race. *I did not take an extra medal for him.) As I wrote about in my last post, I had an awesome race (for me). I ran my best time EVER for a half marathon, and I had a blast while I was doing it. It was a really meaningful experience for me, but might completely lack meaning for anyone else. When I cross the finish line in the middle of the pack while welling up with emotion over my own accomplishment, I realize that I shouldn’t expect anyone else to be excited. So is it fair for me to be so excited? Is it ridiculous for me to be so emotional over a 1:50 half marathon? Am I over-dramatizing the situation? Giving myself too much credit for the “many miles” I ran in preparation, and “all the hard work” I did to get there. Afterall, I’m sure the person who won the race put in more miles and did more hard work.
And to clarify, I don’t use my race medals as signs of my accomplishments. I know that I could get one no matter when I crossed the finish line. My race times are my signs of what I’ve accomplished. Even still, why do I like getting medals so much? Well… they’re pretty. My medals, much like the race t-shirts, are my souvenirs to remind me of cool places I’ve visited, friends I’ve run with, and miles I’ve covered. If nothing else, they’re souvenirs. And I would guess that most people would tell you the same.
I assume that the race medals mean something different to each person. Maybe there’s someone who never thought they’d have the courage to make a major lifestyle change, but they got off the couch, and they did. And they finish their first 5k. And maybe there’s someone who is recovering from a bad injury, and they never expected to return to their former fitness level, yet they do. Or someone who finally hits the PR they’ve been working for.
Who am I to decide whether a race medal is a meaningful way to commemorate the covering of some arbitrary distance? Or to decide what constitutes a meaningful achievement. Our accomplishments may be “mediocre” compared to world-class athletes, but as long as we don’t expect the rest of the world to celebrate our relative ordinariness, I think it’s ok if we celebrate for ourselves. Afterall, everyone is ordinary at something, and every accomplishment is extraordinary to someone. And what fun would life be if we never celebrated that?