On Trophies and Other External Rewards

There’s something about car rides that always prompts my kids to share freely what’s on their minds. Driving my youngest daughter to gymnastics one evening, I hear her utter the following words from the backseat:

“Mom, I want a trophy.”

I have an inkling why my daughter might be thinking about trophies at this particular moment. Over the weekend, her older sister participated in a martial arts tournament and came home with a couple of shiny new trophies.

“What makes trophies important to you?” I ask her.

She pauses. “They show that you’re good at something, and people will admire you.”

“Can you be good at something or be admired even if you don’t have a trophy?”

“No,” she replies.

“But what about being admired for being a good friend or teacher, for being a kind person or an awesome artist? Or even doing well on a spelling test?” I point out. “You don’t usually get trophies for that.”

Now she wavers. “I don’t know.”

We talk more about what it means to win an award, versus knowing innately that you’ve done something well or tried your best. I also remind her that plenty of kids who have trophies, medals and the like still doubt themselves more often than one might imagine.

“Honey, if you don’t believe you’re good, not even a million trophies are going to convince you,” I tell her. “You just have to know it in your heart.”

It’s sound advice, because it’s the truth. But as soon as the words escape my lips, I feel like a fraud.

Haven’t I, too, relied on external rewards as proof that I’m good at something? Until I got my first publication accepted, I didn’t consider myself a real writer. While my main motivations for writing have always been to express myself in words and to be part of a bigger conversation, I still crave those external cues – the glowing feedback, the virtual thumbs-ups, the placement in a prestigious publication. These are my versions of trophies and medals, the feathers in my cap that signal my words were worthy of attention, at least for a brief moment, in the vast ocean of others’ published pieces.

Can I really expect my kids to believe that trophies don’t matter at all?

Of course not. They feel motivated by those external rewards, just as I do.

And this is okay. We live in a competitive world. There are instances when those rewards can be genuinely helpful in giving us feedback on how we’re doing, or providing the extra spark to try harder.

But I’ve realized that when we only focus on the external results as proof that we’ve achieved something, we risk overlooking the progress that happens in a quieter, more under the radar fashion. Looking back, the months when I was growing the most as a writer were also when I collected a dozen rejections in a row.

Whether it comes with a trophy or not, improving upon yourself is worth celebrating. That’s something I can tell my kids with a clear conscience.

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