From Shame to Shine

How a Participation Trophy Motivated Me to Excel

While younger adults have grown up in a world where participation trophies always existed, along with the public opposition being just as common, adults in my age range came of age as those little trinkets were still being introduced into the general public.

I started studying Tae Kwon Do (TKD) in the summer of 1994. Just a few months into it, my amazing master (Newberry) talked me into stepping out of my comfort zone and take place in a regional tournament to test my skills against a bunch of strangers. I was 12 – that just-right age to be excited, but quite cynical. It kept me in the perfect balance so that when I didn’t win, I still had a great time and was not disappointed in any way. I didn’t come in last in anything, the others all had been practicing longer than I, so I was genuinely OK with my standing. Until…


I know that the theory behind giving every kid a trophy is to make the kid feel good, but I found it humiliating. I knew exactly what it was – appeasement. It was mean to soothe the kids who did not win…the losers. I went from the mental space that I was good, just not Top Three material (yet), to feeling like I lost…to feeling like a child that was being placated in the most condescending manner: “There, there, kid. Don’t cry. Here, take this and shut up.” It was a solid representation of my failure.

I never felt shame like i had on that day. I shoved that thing to the bottom of my bag and told nobody about it. However, I enjoyed TKD too much to just give that up, so I threw myself into it. I dedicated hours to every technique, every form. I even took on helping with younger classes, and lower ranks, just for the extra practice that meant for me. The result?

Never after that did I not place. I may not have hit number one on each competition, but I did get no lower than third/bronze in any tournament after that. The aversion to that placation trophy feeling started a pursuit of excellence in me that served me well. I did pepper 3rd and 2nd place trophies with some gold medals, and did go on to earn my black belt.

I got to spend the many, many years since pouring similar standards of excellence into my work. I have even received a Personal Excellence Award from my first command in the Navy. From there, I made the National Dean’s List while working on my degree, which I got with high honors. As a paralegal, I have held jobs that licensed attorneys attempted to get, and even supervised some when working in an analytics company.

There are many times in life where circumstances just punch you in the gut. It’s been my experience that there is always a fork that these situations will put in your path. Since I wanted to never feel that shame of losing in one of those tournaments again, I knew that i had to do whatever I could to avoid losing. My options were quit or get good. I didn’t choose quit, and that laid a foundation that I use to build my success upon.

Naturally, I apply that to my business. I keep this trophy on my desk to remind me. Hours and hours have gone into building my work to this point, and I’ve finally reached it – I’m a writer. I don’t have any awards for that just yet, but I have paying clients. That’s how you win as an artist.

Best Blessings!

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