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In which John Green tells a story about a participation trophy, discussed Participation Trophy Culture, and thinks about what the point of competition is. COME SEE HANK AND I ON TOUR NEXT WEEK: http://hankgreen.com




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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

I really liked your video on Friday about sibling rivalry and competition, and it made me think about participation trophies.

Like, today's young people are sometimes called a "participation trophy generation" who expect to be lavished with praise for even the smallest accomplishments and rewarded for failure.

That kind of pseudo-cultural analysis always oversimplifies, of course, but I feel like I might have some insight into participation trophy culture because I had a profound and literal experience with it decades before it was a thing.

The year: 1984. I'm seven years old, and I am a baseball player. Specifically, I am the oldest player on my Little League t-ball team. In t-ball the ball was not pitched, instead it's placed on a tee to make it easier to hit.

Most kids my age had moved on from t-ball – but not me. The thing about my childhood sporting adventures is that even though I was a terrible athlete, I loved sports. Like, I was so passionate... and also so hopeless.

Like, I went on to play for my middle school soccer team, and I remember in one game I came off the bench like midway through the first half, and I was feeling really good about myself because usually I didn't get in until we were up or down by at least five goals. And then at halftime the coach said, "You know why I put Green on? Because at least he cares." I was like a motivational tool.

Anyway, back to t-ball. I had a pretty good season that year, owing to the fact that I was one to three years older than all of my fellow competitors. And then came the end-of-season awards banquet. Like all the other kids, I got a small participation award – but then they started handing out the real trophies: the ones that you got if you were selected for the t-ball all-star team... which I was not.

But then the coach said, "and this year's alternates for the all-star team are: some kid's name, and John Green." I was an all-ternate star – an almost star – should an all-star get injured or otherwise be indisposed, I would become an all-star. And if we won the all-star game, I would get a trophy.

There was only one problem: our family was scheduled to be out of town during the all-star game visiting my grandparents. Which clearly needed to be rescheduled, because I was an alternate for the all-star team! They were counting on me! What if, I argued to my parents, one of the all-stars contracts chicken pox? Is the all-star game gonna get called off because the alternate is unavailable, or is the alternate going to go into the all-star game, hit the winning a home run, and get a trophy?

Eventually my parents settled on a solution: we would still go visit my grandparents, and I would miss the all-star game, but I would get a trophy.

To be precise, my parents went to the trophy store and had a trophy made for me that said "John Green 1984: all-star in our hearts." I mean, it's the ultimate participation trophy: not only did I not earn it, my parents paid for it so I would feel like a winner, even though I was not a winner. 

So how did this experience affect me? I don't know! I think I turned out mostly okay. My parents always praised my effort much more than my achievements, like even now when something nice happens to one of my books, my mom is much more likely to say, "I know you worked really hard on that story," than "congratulations on winning that award."

I think the "all-star in our hearts" trophy was an extension of that. And for a while I was really proud of it. I mean, I had almost been an all-star. And then it became a funny story to tell.

Hank, as you talked about on Friday, people ask us all the time if we're competitive as brothers, and we are, in the sense that when we play sports or board games I definitely want to win.

But as somebody pointed out in comments, the word compete comes from the Latin words petere, meaning "to seek or to strive", and com-, meaning "together." I don't see your success as my failure because it isn't my failure. We are striving together.

To be honest, I'm not sure the social order ought to reinforce the idea that you winning means someone else losing, because life is not a zero-sum game. Nor do I think we should teach kids that winning and high achievement are the only praiseworthy outcomes. I think we need to raise teammates who know how to collaborate and how to strive together. In short, I think we all need to learn how to participate.

Hank, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing comes out one week from today, and I am so proud of you, because I know how hard you worked on it. I'll see you on Friday.