The Rewards of Earning a Participation Ribbon

We miss learning experiences when we focus on winning

Whether it’s middle school, high school, or college, June is the season of graduations. I recently attended our daughter’s 8th grade promotion ceremony. At these ceremonies, the main event is announcing the awards. Achieving something is what matters. The emphasis is on the winners.

The message: It’s not enough to participate — winning is what counts.

I’m wondering if this is true.

Let me ask you. If you received awards in school, do you still have them? If so, do you know where you keep the awards now? For me, they’re in a cardboard box labeled “Memories” that I only open when we pack to move (about every five years). I doubt I’ll be opening the box for next two decades, at least.

How many times do we avoid an activity or learn a new skill because we tell ourselves, “Oh, I’m not going to be good at it, so I’m not even going to sign up.”

“Not going to try.”

“If I’m not going to excel, why play at all?”

If we feel pressure to be good at something before we participate, then I think we limit our experiences in four big ways:

You’ll Miss the Satisfaction of Finishing

Deep down, you feel satisfaction when you finish something, even if your performance was mediocre. I didn’t receive a round of applause, but when I finished my first blog post here, for example, I felt good. Even if the only people reading the words were my husband and my best friend!

A well-known athletic company taps into the good will of participation. Nike’s marketing campaigns seem to spread the word with the slogan “Just Do It.” Maybe it’s why their messages often appeal to me.

Nike TV spot showing woman as the last place finisher in a marathon.
“Last” commercial: W+K Portland launched a spot for Nike celebrating the last place finisher in a marathon. October 2011. Source:

Nike released a commercial in 2011 called “Last,” cleverly commemorating the essence of earning a participation ribbon. The subject is the last marathon runner to cross the finish line. Everyone else has gone home. You see the stands empty, the surroundings look abandoned, and only the trash remains from the long-ago departed spectators.

Doesn’t she earn a little respect just participating and finishing?

Don’t you think, if she can do it, I can do it – whatever your “it” may be? She inspires me to start and finish something.

You’ll Miss the Joy of Doing

Sometimes, we want to try something new, but we think we need to be excellent the first time we try. We can even be a little hard on ourselves and strive to be perfect at everything we do. This high standard paralyzes us with fear.

So what happens? Well, nothing happens. We procrastinate. We find we never start. Days and months go by, and we come up with excuses to delay.

In the book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, psychiatrist and author, Dr. David Burns, states these thinking errors are signs of perfectionism. To overcome them, one needs to realize that perfection is an illusion. Nothing in the world is perfect if you examine the environment closely.

So why try to reach such an uncompromising measurement of perfection?

He suggests to “dare to be average for just one day.” You’ll discover it’s hard to be “average,” but the mindset will help you begin a new project. By trying this technique at work, at home, with hobbies, and in relationships, you’ll find by lowering your standards you’ll feel better about what you do and tend to do it more effectively.

You’ll Miss the Learning

Andy Molinsky, a professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School, wrote if you never get outside your comfort zone, you don’t learn anything new. Although we acknowledge the new activity will help us professionally or personally, and we’ve determined it’s worthwhile, we still avoid it due to the anxiety we feel.

He said do the activity you fear anyway.

“Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable,” Molinsky wrote.

In a Harvard Business Review podcast, he shared how to overcome reluctance to step outside your comfort zone. First, put mechanisms in place that will force you dive in.

For example, you may be afraid of public speaking, but it’s what you need to learn to gain more visibility in your job. So sign up for a class that requires public speaking. As you speak in front of others in class, you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

I feel my role as a parent is to sometimes initiate our daughters to do activities outside their comfort zones. I’m usually unpopular at the moment, but I know they’ll reflect on childhood and appreciate my strong encouragement.

Soon, we will be going to Europe for a family vacation, and there will be a plethora of opportunities for me to do something I fear. Yes, I imagine I’ll be feeling anxiety as I figure out how to pay for an item with Euros or speak a greeting to someone in my non-native tongue.

Molinsky also said to expect to stumble as part of your education and that it’s okay to do so. It’s the only way to learn, he said, and accept that missteps are essential components of the learning process.

If you already knew how to do it, what’s the challenge in that?

You’ll Harbor Unrealistic Expectations

The winning mentality reinforces that we only gain satisfaction when we excel at something. Our perspective is skewed when we also invest too much of our well-being in the results. It’s unrealistic to always win, and if we’re afraid to lose, we don’t risk anything.

What else may be driving you to think winning is the only thing? Do we just not set goals, and depend on the world to bring us what we want?

No. According to Christine Hassler, we can lessen the negative effect of disappointment on us.

Hassler, a life coach and speaker, has written books about dealing with disappointment in life. In Hassler’s best selling book, Expectation Hangover®, she suggests a concept to help work towards what we want without setting unrealistic expectations. In the chapter, “Managing Your Expectations,” she describes “the secret sauce for pursuing goals” without setting yourself up for a “expectation hangover.”

What’s an “expectation hangover?”

A stage when you’re stuck in the midst of unsatisfactory feelings and thoughts about your current reality. You don’t like what has happened in your life. You did not receive what you wanted or your life is not going according to your plan. I think Hassler describes this as a “hangover” because you feel life is almost impossible to move forward – you’re hanging on to your hurts and disappointments.

She suggests pursuing goals using the “high involvement and low attachment” formula. What sets people up to experience disappointment is not the goals they’re working towards, but their lofty attachment to their expectations.

Involvement means we act as if we are responsible for doing steps toward the goal. We do the work. Attachment means our self-worth, happiness, and general well-being are dependent on if we achieve the goal. With a high amount of expectation, we can have “expectation hangovers.”

Your version of success is not tied to whether or not the particular goal is reached. You are aware of life’s dirty little secret: the outcome is not completely up to you – you’re not in complete control.

By using the formula, “high involvement and low attachment,” we’re more likely to bounce back from a setback even when the results are not our preference. It may also help us to practice more often, which means we increase our chances of succeeding.

Everyone can participate, but not everyone does

Be a participant. Enjoy the experience. Growth will be your reward. And the spectators may secretly wish they had your courage.

Are you feeling encouraged to try something new this summer?

2 thoughts on “The Rewards of Earning a Participation Ribbon

  1. Thought-provoking post, thank you. I see new folk come to our Swing Dance classes every week: some of them give themselves a really hard time for not getting it straight away, & get all grumpy, then often don’t come back. Others laugh, try, fail, try again, giggle, and return… attitude seems to be everything!

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