Mankind is inextricably addicted to the ceremonious giving of awards.
When I was a Boy Scout, our troop had a pancake making contest. I took it seriously, thinking the intent was to make the finest-looking stack of pancakes possible. Some of the other boys brought in pancakes that were weird colors and decorated with all manner of doodads.
I chose to submit a single buckwheat pancake, one which covered the entire plate, and was perfection in its evenly distributed dark brownness and texture. I arrived optimistic about my chances for first place, for as a pancake my entry exemplified perfection.
When they announced the awards, mine was the first to be mentioned: It won the title “Heavyweight Champion.” I thought that was a might flippant for such a fine specimen of pancakehood, but I was initially gratified to receive the honor.
My delight was only momentary, however, as thereafter the scoutmaster began giving awards to the ones that looked like gangrenous organs, and those with flags attached. It didn’t take long to realize that every pancake-maker was getting an award, which meant that my challenge had not been a contest at all, but simply an exercise in pancake making. I should have felt gratified by the knowledge that I’d done a good job of nurturing a useful skill. Instead I was ticked off.
At the same time I learned a lesson: The more awards you give out, the more it becomes like giving awards to nobody.
Whereas it’s a fine thing to acknowledge another person’s worthy accomplishments, the act of award giving is prone to becoming a shallow act of feel-good psychology, something akin to giving a hug. The Oscars are a prime example of that truth. Another is giving deeper and deeper awards to increasingly narrow age groups at races, something seen frequently at amateur sports events.
Not long ago a New Yorker cartoon illustrated my point. A little boy in a sports uniform walks in carrying an elaborately fancy trophy as tall as he is, and announces to his bewildered father: “We lost.”
Since the best I’ve ever done in a race with more than 100 people in it is about the seventieth percentile of my age group, I’ve learned to live with this reality. I am unlikely ever to earn hardware, no matter how far down they go, until the day I manage to outlive all the other competition. But I would rather get an award that represents a significant accomplishment, something I earned, than one which seems more like an entitlement.