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“Whiplash” and Participation Trophies: Finding Your Own Path to Success

Originally posted on Medium. Click here to follow me on Medium.

As I sit and eat my breakfast this morning, I am joined by my 2 year old nephew, Archie as he plays with his toy drum set.

This particular toy plays a back track of music while a very enthusiastic voice cheers the player on to hit the different drums and cymbals.

As Archie “plays” the drums, the enthusiastic voice keeps saying things like, “Brilliant!” and “Genius!”, regardless of how Archie performs.

This struck me as a little overly encouraging. As the toy continued to congratulate Archie, even when his attention diverted to another toy and wasn’t even playing it any longer, I started thinking about a movie I watched recently, called Whiplash. JK Simmons won the Oscar for Best-Supporting Actor for his role in the film last night.

If you haven’t seen it (and I recommend you do), the movie is about a young college freshmen, attending a top music conservatory to study jazz percussion and his relationship with a severe, highly demanding music teacher. The plot of the film is made up of a series of escalating scenes where the teacher pushes the student much further than the audience is comfortable with in an attempt to produce a musical master.

As I think about Whiplash, I can’t help but reflect on the dichotomy between Archie’s toy drum set and the film. One tells you how brilliant you are even when you’re not playing, the other constantly tells you that no matter how hard you try, it will never be good enough.

I’m not interested in debating which approach is better. I’m only interested in dissecting both, and discovering how we can apply something useful to our own lives.

Let’s look at what the toy drum set is trying to communicate. I believe the intention behind those excited exclamations is to boost a child’s sense of self worth. Self worth is important, especially for a child, or people of any age attempting something new. Confidence is vital when we are pushing past our comfort zone. We need to know that we can handle whatever comes.

I believe the downside of this practice is that it makes a potentially dangerous connection between performance and self worth. When we are congratulated by another, or pat our own back for an accomplishment that isn’t really an accomplishment (e.g. Participation Trophies), we tend to assume that because we are congratulated, then we are good, or worthy.

Now, if this were to only happen once or twice it wouldn’t have much impact, but I would argue that in today’s world this happens much more than we may think. Over time this leads to entitlement.

Entitlement leads to dissatisfaction when our real world results don’t line up with our own image of ourselves.

Look in your own life for where this may be the case. Where did you set out to accomplish something, thinking it would be simple and straightforward, only to find that you failed completely and were shocked by that outcome?

Now let’s look at the “Whiplash” approach. This approach is the complete opposite of the false kudos proffered by the toy drumset. It says; “That wasn’t good enough, try harder.” In the movie, this method is taken to the extreme, where the teacher belittles the student and blames the student’s lack of performance on who he is, not his lack of practice or preparation.

The benefit of this approach is that it causes the student to stretch themselves further than they have ever known themselves capable of stretching. It actually expands the sense of accomplishment in conjunction with the real world expansion of skill and ability.

The downside of this approach is that it tends to leave the student with low self esteem and low confidence.

Look in your own life for a time when you had a teacher, mentor, or boss who demanded more of you than you thought you had to offer, but surprised yourself by providing. They may have employed a number of different tactics to push you far enough, hopefully nothing like what the boy in Whiplash went through!

So what’s the takeaway here?

In the spirit of the Buddha, find the middle road. I’ve crafted these 3 action steps you can take to achieve your goals.

  1. Value yourself without reason. You don’t need a reason or justification for why you’re awesome, you just are! If you base your sense of worth on reasons or justifications they will rest on shaky ground because those reasons or justifications can always shift. For example, if you base your self worth on the fact that you are a successful lawyer, but then you retire, or experience any kind of career setback, then you lose all of your mojo.
  2. Embrace your failure. Whether you’re learning to play a new instrument, starting a new job, or learning to cook, you can probably expect some failures early on as you learn. Remember that saying you heard back in elementary school, “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes?” Guess what, your teacher, old Mrs. Smith was right. Embrace your failures as learning opportunities and stop making it mean that you are dumb, talentless, unworthy, uncoordinated, or whatever other gobbledygook you come up with.
  3. Stretch yourself. Create a structure that pushes you to stretch beyond what you currently think yourself capable of. Choose a mentor or coach, or maybe you are one of those rare people who has the discipline to push yourself, either way, create a structure that works for you.

Now, take these 3 steps and go for your dreams. While you’re at it you can go find another use for all of those participation trophies you “earned” as a kid!

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