It occurs to me that in this era of “self-esteem”-building, there are no winners and losers. No score is taken. Everyone plays and gets a trophy in the end. No one feels pain. No one is held accountable for their own lot in life. Everyone lives in a state of perpetual pleasure because all we want to be is "comfortable."
Kid: Look, Mom! I got a participation trophy for being on the team!
Mom: Oh, Johnny, that's wonderful. I'm so proud of you!
Kid: Yeah, and it didn't matter that we lost all our games. We still got trophies.
Mom: Well, dear, no one was keeping score so you didn't really lose. You're all winners and doesn't that feel good?!?!?!?!
I’m reminded of a pivotal moment in my life that happened nearly 20 years ago. The year was 1989 and I was a sophomore runt on the Wheeling Park High School football team, a team of more than 80 guys. We were a good football team and it was early in the season when we lost to a very bad Beaver Local squad. Realizing that we’d slacked off against a team we should have annihilated, our coach called an early-morning Saturday practice—to be held less than 10 hours after the game. I remember him saying to us as we huddled up in the locker room after the game, "If you have plans tomorrow morning, cancel them. We're going to pratice."
Well, at this practice we got pummeled. After hours of Oklahoma drills, wind sprints that had guys sucking wind and puking, and full-contact scrimmaging that left us bruised, bloodied and beaten-down, we all felt the pain of defeat and ashamed of how we’d played the night before.
But we also learned a valuable lesson that translated to success not only on the field, but also in life. We realized that losing sucks and winning felt good (so long as you won fair and square). We realized that it wasn’t OK to half-ass it in competition. It wasn’t OK to make excuses for a defeat, a half-effort and mediocrity. We went on to make the state semi-finals that year and in the next year, and got to the state championship game my senior year. In that 3-year span, our combined record was 30-8.
I'm not advocating winning at all costs--far from it. Winning counts only when it's fair and square. Anything less is tainted. And there is such as thing as losing honorably. Many have lost and still been champions at heart. But the true champions are those who win honorably and nobly.
Today, our society is averse to real winning because we want to avoid pain at all costs. A coach would probably never be allowed to call an emergency Saturday-morning practice with the express purpose of punishing his players, because it would be too harsh, "inconvenience" parents and damage the kids’ self-esteem, to say nothing of liability issues. Rather than instill accountability and responsibility in kids, we let them eat what they want, play in leagues that don’t keep score and give trophies to everyone, watch 6 hours of TV a day and play mindless games, and go to schools that worry more about their self-esteem than about teaching them reading, writing, math, science, history, civics, hysical education and other disciplines that are actually relevant to their future health, well-being and success.
It’s not the kids’ faults. It’s our fault as adults. We’re the real slackers, and our kids just follow our lead. We consume fast food, shovel pills into our mouths, don’t exercise, balloon up and then get our stomach stapled because exercising and eating responsibly are too hard. We’re depressed so we take a pill when physical activity might be the best treatment. We avoid pain at all costs because it hurts and we’d rather live in comfort. Hey doc, there’s a pill for that, right? Can I take it with my Starbucks?
In actuality, pain and suffering are central to success and happiness. Pain and suffering can be a good thing and should be embraced. Without knowing pain or suffering, how can you ever really know pleasure? Unless you've seen and experienced real darkness, how can you ever really appreciate light? In a marathon, if you run the 26.2 miles hard, you feel remarkable pain and discomfort especially during the last 10K, but then when you cross the finish line you experience the highest of highs. You’ve endured pain to achieve the pleasure of finishing. That is hard-earned, well-deserved pleasure. And it doesn't have to come through running. Any pleasure that comes from hard work and sacrifice is well-deserved.
Life isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. So long as we focus all our energies on avoiding pain at all costs, we’ll never achieve real happiness or success. Trophies aren’t for everyone. They’re only for those who won or at least gave their all, and they’re motivation for the losers to work harder in achieving victory.