I was helping my daughter box up things in her room as she prepared to move to an apartment near the university. Buried in her closet was an old backpack covered in stickers and stuffed with purple ribbons. I set it aside, certain she wanted to keep over a decade of memories from climbing competitions all over the country. She was an intense youth athlete. From the time she was about nine years old until she graduate high school, she spent most of her time training and climbing. She earned an invitation to compete at the national level almost every year and eventually gained coveted sponsorships from several national companies. Climbing was a big part of her youth, so I was certain that she wanted to save the memories tucked away in her old backpack.
I was wrong.
“Those? They’re “participant ribbons,” she said, the word rolling off her tongue like a bad word. “They’re worse than no ribbon at all.” The ones that mattered – from the competitions where she ranked at or near the top – those awards were carefully preserved elsewhere.
I’m not really sure exactly when participant ribbons actually became a thing, but somewhere between my generation and my daughter’s, the value of winning was diluted to include just showing up. It seems that today there are dueling mindsets prevalent in society when it comes to how we view winning and losing. On the one hand, we tend to protect feelings by telling everyone they’re a winner whether they are or not. But we also support this notion that to win we must embrace an attitude of winner-takes-all and be eager to crush anyone and everyone else in one’s way. I honestly believe that both extremes of this pendulum are rife with problems that actually prevent the desired result.
Looking back to my own childhood, I don’t think I ever earned a participant ribbon. I learned that there was absolutely nothing wrong with being competitive or playing to win. I also learned that it was simply not an option to accept defeat or celebrate victory with anything less than grace.
In her later years, my great-grandmother was confined to a chair in the room where she lived in my grandparent’s home, and I spent much of my time playing card games and dominos with her. I was little – maybe five or six years old, and I loved to listen to the stories of her life as we played. She homesteaded a ranch in the remote, windswept plains of northern New Mexico, chased off intruders with a shot gun and killed snakes in the chicken coop with a shovel. She was, by far, one of the toughest women I’ve had the privilege of knowing. She brooked absolutely no tears or bad behavior when we played games together – and she was certainly not one of those grandmothers who let her grandchildren win.
I clearly remember once when I started to cry after being soundly trounced at gin rummy. Grandma frowned down at me, and as she started to pack away the cards into their box, she scolded, “Dry it up. If you’re big enough to play, then play to win – and shape up your attitude when you lose. No one else is required to feel sorry for you, so feeling sorry for yourself is wasted energy. Everyone wants to win just as bad as you, so you better play because you love the game, not just to win. Now either dry your tears, or I’m putting up the game so you can go pout somewhere else where I don’t have to watch.”
Her words may sound harsh, but she’d lived a tough life. Her inner strength was something to be admired. She taught me that it was perfectly fine for a girl to be competitive, to want to win. She taught me to do something for the love of the journey, the excitement of the challenge, because sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but if you love the journey, it is worth it with either outcome.
Enjoying the heady thrill of a hard-earned win or tasting the bitterness of loss — and learning that neither experience is as important as who we become through either experience: how we treat others, what we do with our success or failure, whether we maintain our integrity and compassion — these truths are what shape us. Being protected from the pain of losing? That does nothing except make it harder to face the realities of life. And finding joy in the challenge of our own journey instead of focusing on our competition? That shapes the quality of a person like little else can.
Life is too short, too precious to simply coast. There are no participant ribbons in life. It is never too late to find your passion. Fire in the belly – the kind that creates enough drive to push through setbacks, gut-wrenching fear, stress, disappointments, and roller coaster successes and failures – that kind of fire doesn’t come from wanting to crush the competition. Passion like that only comes when we fall so in love with a problem that we cannot imagine doing anything else except jumping in with both feet to solve it. Don’t get distracted by others – their successes or failures. They’re not yours and in no way change what you need to have inside of yourself to find success. Don’t forget that. Instead of seeing others as the enemy, the competition, choose to learn from them. Build a network through your own generosity and good will that will expand your world far beyond yourself. And never, ever begin anything because you like winning. As a very wise woman told me, “Everyone wants to win just as bad as you, so you better play because you love the game.” Anything less will simply not be enough to carry you across the finish line.