April 16

Reality Check: Why Rejections Can Be a Good Thing in Our Participation-Trophy Culture

With our everyone-is-special, participation-trophy culture and the fact that, in 2013, “selfie” was named word of the year, the time is ripe for a good dose of narcissism-removing reality check. Understanding the earth revolves around the sun and not around us is a lesson best learned sooner rather than later.

Pencil-sharpener Captain

One day, years ago, when I picked up my daughter from school, she was more excited than usual. Her teacher had just assigned everyone in class some jobs. The best part about these jobs? They came with fancy titles. My daughter was the designated pencil-sharpener captain (PSC). I am not making that up.

As the PSC, my daughter had to ensure the class had a good supply of sharpened pencils at all times. She also had to find a way to manage the disposal of all pencil shavings, so the classroom floor stayed clean. Bestowed upon other kids in the class were similar jobs with official-sounding titles—captain this or that. Fortunately, many took their jobs seriously and got to work.

For first graders, this was a big deal. These jobs and the associated titles taught them lessons about power, accountability, and responsibility—lessons worthy of teaching (and learning) at any age. At the end of the year, all the floor captains received certificates of accomplishments and a pizza party.

Making a six-year-old a captain (even if it’s only of pencil sharpeners) is great. It boosts the child’s confidence and teaches them some valuable life skills. Here’s the but…

We seem to have forgotten when to stop conferring such commendations. In other words, we miss handing out reality check lessons.

Confidence or Overconfidence

While we are good at positive reinforcement, we rarely temper the optimism of “you are amazing” with a dose of reality-inducing, “you’d do better if you tried harder.” Not to be stingy with the praise or ruin self-esteem, but to prevent overconfidence and equip people with the tools to cope when (not, if) rejection strikes.

Here is an apt quote about confidence. (Courtesy: Internet) 

Confidence is knowing you can kiss your girlfriend or boyfriend. 
Overconfidence is when you think you are the only one that can kiss your girlfriend/boyfriend.

Enough said.

This article is an attempt to answer two questions:

a) How to roll up our sleeves and get stuff done—kudos given or not.

b) How to prepare ourselves to handle criticism, not compliments, when we eventually fall short of expectations.

The sooner we get a reality check, i.e., know where we stand in life, the better it is for ourselves and those around us.

First, a personal anecdote.

Finding out I wasn’t God’s gift to humanity

While I can recount many instances of life reminding me of my not-too-special status, here’s a reality check that’s stayed with me and hopefully illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

Fair warning: This may seem like a not-so-humble-brag, but I assure you it’s anything but. As you’ll soon see...

Through my school years, I had no problem maintaining the equivalent of straight-A grades. Things seemed to come easy to me. Plus, I had no shortage of confidence boosters around me—teachers and family, using cringeworthy words like smart and intelligent to describe me. Consequently, I had no trouble with self-esteem, at least as far as academics were concerned.

Those good grades helped me get into a very competitive college. I soon realized I had joined a whole group of other super achievers from all over the country, each one a trailblazing star in their own way.

From pond to lake

It only took a few weeks to realized how misplaced my confidence was. I figured out quickly that my only true academic strength was in rote-memorization and regurgitation. My critical-thinking or learning skills were almost non-existent.

Unsurprisingly, I almost lost my mind when I saw Cs and even a D dotting my first-semester report card. My confidence wasn’t just beaten; it was bludgeoned.

It was a classic case of being a big fish in a small pond, getting decimated by other big fish when the pond turned into a lake. My only consolation? I wasn’t alone; a fair few were struggling too. Finding company, and hope, in misery, I started on my quest to right my grades—this time as a novice instead of an expert.

Thanks to some deeply instilled values about staying the course, some luck, and more importantly, my parents’ adoption of a hands-free you-sink-or-swim attitude, I managed to persevere and emerge a better, more balanced person by the end of my four years.

The takeaway was clear—I wasn’t as special as I thought. The silver lining? Knowing I could improve.

That experience left an indelible mark on me.

I’m now a firm believer that we all need to get such reality check dings in life—sooner, the better.

If you let your head get too big, it will break your neck – Elvis Presley

So, how get started with getting a reality check? By  beginning with that which tends to distort reality the most. Unequivocal Praise.

The trouble with praise

Here’s the truth: reality and comfort zones are two barely intersecting circles of a Venn diagram.

Reality Venn diagram

Of course, no one likes to be uncomfortable. So, we coddle away to stay within our comfort zones, so our feelings do not get trampled upon. We pretend our bubbles will keep us safe, knowing fully well everyone has to graduate through the school of hard knocks, aka Life!

One of the key ways we coddle is through well-intentioned but undeserved or incorrectly delivered praise. This is especially true in our interactions with kids.

Based on a research study conducted a few years ago, no matter which way you cut it, undeserved praise is bad.

a. For those with high self-esteem

For kids who have great self-esteem, it fosters narcissism. Yelling, “you’re a Rockstar,” at a soccer game when clearly there is a whole field separating the child’s foot and the ball, is counterproductive.

We don’t have to look far, especially in the age of social media, to see a rampant display of narcissistic behavior. The “look what I just did” culture has taken over our airwaves.

b. For those with poor self-esteem

On the other hand, for kids who have low to no self-esteem, undeserved praise erodes their confidence even further. They view the recognition as “undeserved,” coming from a place of pity and sympathy rather than appreciation.  Such praise makes them feel worse about themselves and further erodes their self-confidence.

A classic example of this is our participation-trophy culture.

Everyone who shows up wins

I’ll regale you with another story here.

Those who know me well know that I like collecting half and full-marathon running medals.

After one such marathon, as I proudly posed for a photo with my medal, my then five-year-old niece asked me, with a lot of hope in her eyes, “Did you win?”

I had just finished the San Diego Marathon, with over 16,000 people. Cringe. I laughed. I told her I finished about two hours after the winner did. The only way I had a chance of winning was if they started counting from the back instead of the front.

She then looked quizzically at the medal, asking how I managed to get myself one? I told her it was because I got across the finish line.

What I didn’t tell her was this: That some of us are needy like that. We need the bling to motivate us to run 26 miles. We like being told we are special. Yes, we are no different from the six-year-old first-grade captains.

Participation-trophy culture

There have been studies about whether simply handing out participant trophies to one and all leads to overconfidence in (sometimes non-existent) skills.

Given my background and apparent love for bling, I cannot fully condemn the culture of participation trophies—that would be pure hypocrisy.

I like to think most kids and adults are not stupid.

If a kid manages to get a trophy for tennis without ever being able to hit their ball over the net, then sooner or later, a light bulb will go off in their head about their (in)capabilities. And, just because I have a row of medals lining up my wall, I’m under no illusion about my athletic prowess. I don’t need to get a reality check because reality stares right at me when I wobble to a finish line deserted of spectators at my running events.

Most of us aren’t delusional about the pecking order of things and understand winners and losers intuitively. And, we are all in agreement that real merit should be recognized and awarded.

Merit has its place

If the situation ever arose, I would rather have a grumpy but capable cardiac surgeon operate on me than a jolly fellow who believes he was born to be a surgeon but who lacks the dexterity or hand-eye coordination required for such a delicate job.

Or, I’d take a flight commandeered by an expert pilot (who offers no inflight updates) rather than someone who keeps talking about his lifelong love of airplanes but hasn’t quite figured out how to work the controls.

I know not everyone needs to be a winner. But being told you are special when the facts are clearly pointing the other way creates cognitive dissonance. If left unchecked, it can result in the sense of entitlement or emotional trauma caused by an inability to handle rejections.

At the bottom of it all is this truth: people who are constantly told and believe they are special will not expend effort to refine or master a skill. 

Motivation done right

Carol Dweck, in her brilliant, ground-breaking book, Mindset, shows us the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. Dweck warns us about confusing identities and actions.

Praising someone’s ability fosters a fixed mindset and can create a culture of entitlement. Praising effort, however, helps create a growth mindset and the ability to shake off failures and move on.

Suppose someone does well on a test, and they are told, “you scored so well on the test, you must be smart.” The next time they flunk a test, they are going to start feeling not-that-smart after all.

Instead, when someone does well on a test, and if they are told “you did well, you must have worked hard,” they are likely to attribute any subsequent poor test results to inadequate preparation rather than insufficient intelligence. This fosters a growth mindset. It makes it easier to accept rejections and move on.

Praise works when it’s targeted towards the effort. However, if the praise is directed towards someone’s supposed inherent nature or talent, it can foster entitlement and an inability to handle rejection.

It is simple to prevent the culture of entitlement. All it takes is to acknowledge that there is or will be someone better than us. Always. After that, it’s a matter of simply staying the course and putting in the effort if we want to get near perfection.


A friend of mine, with a very successful and renowned day job, moonlights as a writer when she’s not busy saving the world. She once pitched a book (that she’s worked on for years) to a publisher. She got the following note back: “Thank you for your work. The theme is good, but I dislike your writing.” Ouch! To her credit, she went ahead and queried other publishers for feedback. That shows the strength of her character and that's something that can only come with a growth mindset.

The world does produce greats—Beethoven, Gandhi, Einstein, DaVinci, Lincoln, etc. Here’s the reality check. These people are the exceptions. The 1%. That’s the reason we even know and remember their names.

Harsh as it may sound, the rest of us, the 99%, simply orbit. We can still be star contributors to society in our own little ways and be happy, but it’s always a great idea to get a reality check and know where we stand. That requires we don't take ourselves too seriously. Some self-deprecating humor will help too.

No one is perfect; we are all in different stages of becoming. Some of us may never get past middling, let alone perfect because we couldn’t care less. And that’s okay, too.



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