Trying isn't the same as winning.
It baffles me that people are critical of James Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker who made headlines over the weekend for taking two "participation" trophies away from his sons.
Harrison went public with the move through a Facebook post and tweet, and what he wrote was powerful:
"I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy."
Harrison said all the right things. He made sure he stressed how proud he is of his children, and he vowed to continue to play a role in shaping them through their lives. This was about a desire to see them rewarded for their successes, not simply because they showed up. That's an especially powerful lesson, given that, particularly in sports, these boys might feel they are somehow better than their peers because their father has had a successful NFL career.
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But Harrison doesn't want his sons to feel any sense of entitlement. In a culture stained by entitlement, Harrison is putting his foot down and insisting that any honor be earned. That's refreshing.
Harrison is the perfect person to deliver that message. A look at his career suggests he worked for everything he got. He wasn't recruited by Kent State University, but rather played there as a walk-on. Then, he wasn't drafted by the NFL because he was considered too short (at "just" 6 feet, G-d help me). Instead, he was signed to the practice squad of the Steelers. He bounced around from the Steelers, to the Baltimore Ravens and the Rhein Fire of the NFL Europe. In all, he was cut four times by teams.
But his career took off after 2007. He earned two Super Bowl rings, five Pro Bowl appearances and, at 100 yards, has the record for the longest interception in Super Bowl history.
That isn't to say he's a choir boy. Worst among his transgressions was a domestic-assualt charge against him in 2008, during a fight with his girlfriend. But those charges were dropped after he agreed to attend anger-management classes. By all accounts, he hasn't been in trouble with the law since.
What Harrison knows better than most is that the thrill of success, whether on a football field, a forensics tournament or at a startup, comes only when you actually win. Success is the culmination of hard work. Despite some idiots who claim that preaching that hard work leads to success is somehow offensive, the truth is that the path to winning always comes from working hard, at practice and at game time, and raising the level of your performance each time.
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If you're starting a business, no one gives you a trophy for meeting a development deadline, or creating a neat office culture or having the best logo. Your trophy comes from sales. It comes when you need to scale up and triple your workforce. It comes when you put your competition out of business.
BlackBerry didn't get a trophy for trying hard against the iPhone. (Bad example: Blackberry didn't even try.) The executives at Lyft don't go around giving each other high-fives because they own second place in the ride-sharing market. No one is entitled to success. Hell, no one is entitled to anything. Everything worth having is earned.
Experiencing failure and losing are important for development. We learn valuable lessons along the way, provided we avoid the impulse to whine and lick our wounds, choosing instead to analyze our mistakes, put a new plan together and execute. You cannot lose — and therefore cannot learn from the loss — if someone hands you a laurel along the way simply because you showed up. You will always feel like a winner, which will make you a perpetual loser.
That's the other lesson about winning underlying James Harrison's post: Winners never settle. Success is fleeting. When you reach the top of your market, it is indeed grounds for a moment of celebration. Enjoy it. Revel in it. Soak it in. But then you need to get back to work and try to win again. Look at the aforementioned BlackBerry. It owned that market, and lost it all because other competitors, namely Apple and Samsung, worked harder, innovated and fought aggressively. In short, they wanted to win more than BlackBerry did. And they succeeded.
That's the thing about true winners, in sports, life and business: They never actually feel like they've won because there's always more to do. Win a championship, and you'll want to repeat that feat the next year. Get more than 50 percent market share for your product, you'll want to get to 90 percent. Success doesn't come with satisfaction because the truly successful can never be satisfied.
I realize these aren't themes for polite company nowadays. Labels like "winner" and "loser" are so declasse in today's culture. We're not supposed to clap anymore at kids' games, because it might make some children cry. Every worker now feels entitled to higher pay, regardless of job role. We celebrate those companies that pay everyone equally or make public rigid pay scales, saying that the old model of paying people based on their output and experience, both in an absolute and relative sense, is backward thinking. We are even being told that someone who has decided to make a career out of the "skill" of dumping a basket of French fries into hot oil deserves not only minimum wage, but a higher one at that.
Children hear this, and they learn terrible lessons from it. They hear that hard work doesn't matter, because the system is rigged against them. They hear that criticism of poor performance is inappropriate, because it might be hurtful. They hear that they don't have to work all that hard in school, because higher education will be almost guaranteed (and free, by the way), irrespective of their grades. And, to boot, they even get a crappy plastic trophy to put on their shelf to honor this slouch toward mediocrity.
James Harrison was right to point out the intellectual idiocy of this, knowing it's hurting the upcoming generations and dooming our future. The kids who will grow up to be our civic, community and business leaders will be the ones who never got a trophy for trying, or at least had parents who threw them in the bin, to make room for the ones for first place.
Winning feels good. Let's not deny people the chance to savor that success through some misguided sense of equality.
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