Participation Prize: How Childhood Praise Was Affecting My Career

by Patrice Bendig
Universal Pictures

Earlier this month, during one of my weekly mental personal training sessions (aka therapy with Dr. R), I was completely agitated and unable to self-soothe.

After taking on several new projects at work, I was frustrated and surprised by the feedback I was given. In the past three months, various new responsibilities were added to my position, and they forced me to adapt quickly in order to continue producing high-quality work.

But unlike the projects that I’m versed in producing (usually well before deadline with rave reviews), my execution wasn't as graceful straight of the bat. But that particular week, not only were people not enthusiastic about my projects, they also offered me some fairly harsh criticisms.

Granted, the revisions and feedback are productive as I try to refine new skills. But I found myself questioning why career growth is painful at times, as self-doubt and assumptions of inadequacy gnaw on my brain.

Relaying the situation to Dr. R, it was clear this had nothing to do with my happiness with my job, or relationships with my colleagues. It didn’t take long for me realize what was fueling this emotional tailspin.

I recalled articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post about the Participation Trophy Generation, which is another way of saying Millennials are constantly given praise just for participating in something. And their expectation is routine, detailed feedback.

By the end of my session, the clarity of what was bothering me perked up my mood, but I was left with the horrifying realization I was the one pouring gasoline over the lighter fluid. And it's all because I was born in the spring of 1989.

Growing up, the shelves lining my bedroom were filled with mini trophies from the slew of activities I did not excel in.

My basketball team hadn't won one game all season, I ran to third base instead of first base during t-ball and cheerleading lasted about three months due to lack of coordination.

The only area I excelled in at music camp was making the most creative excuses as to why I didn't practice my saxophone.

Yet because my parents footed the bill, I was celebrated. Granted, participation-based accolades were not the only ones I earned. But the line blurred between what had true merit and what was just used as a pacifying tool.

From a young age, praise and positive reinforcement came steadily, especially in the subjects I thrived in, such as reading and writing. But the routine celebration of all of my work as good work positioned me to constantly expect to be a noted as a top performer.

Instead of feeling proud when I scored an A, a whirlwind mixture of self-inflicted failure and disappointment would be experienced if I received anything less.

Being the teacher's favorite or receiving attention was the motivator in this behavior. The praise had become so habitual that when it didn’t happen, I took it as negative feedback.

My parents were the furthest things from tiger parents when it came to academics. Their only expectation for my schooling was that I tried my hardest and not to do anything to cause them to come in for parent-teacher conferences.

Ironically, there were multiple times my parents had to console me because of how upset I became after not getting the score I wanted, or if a project I presented went awry. There was no need for them to pressure me to hit the books because I was already harder on myself than they could have ever been.

This trend followed me throughout my college years. During my senior year practicum, the professor had the class select the top three creative executions of that week's assignment. My stomach dropped every time I was excluded from those rankings, despite the rarity of me not being in that top three.

The disappointment was there, even when I knew my work wasn't deserving of a top spot that week. On the flip side, this desire to be in that top ranking was the catalyst to push out my best work. As much as that motivation continued to push me in a positive professional direction, it was feeding into my insecurities.

Being out of the classroom and in the workplace for three and a half years, I still find myself subconsciously yearning for the figurative gold star on my assignments.

There have been plenty of instances when I have been applauded for my work throughout the years, but it's becoming clear the requirements to excel or even earn recognition have changed, as I develop as a more seasoned professional.

Recently, I’ve been working on absorbing the advice I’ve received from both my mentor and current manager, both women who have professional qualities I aspire to develop. Both have reminded me career advancement requires skills that are more strategic, complex and robust. I'm learning new skill sets that will take time and experience to execute without stumbling.

For someone who barely has the patience to wait eight minutes for an Uber (death of the Millennial attention span is a post for another day), this has been a challenge.

Logically, it makes perfect sense that my first, second or even third attempt at unfamiliar tasks wouldn't be initially successful. But emotionally, I can't help but feel inadequate.

And sometimes, even the best output of work is met with simple, silent acceptance. I am often forced to remind myself that meeting expectations and producing high-quality work is nothing to write home about. It is why I was hired, and the reason my generous paycheck gets deposited bi-weekly into my bank account.

My reputation of producing quality work without doubt should be my justification that my work is valued by my employer. Having colleagues respect your work ethic and performance is something that is earned, not just assumed.

Previously, I've scoffed at articles and books that discuss strategies on how to successfully manage Millennial employees. Lately, this has started to make more sense.

Managers of Millennials are now dealing with what appears to be a delicate balance of tapping into what motivates them professionally, while working to break the expectations of constant praise.

Trust me; the last thing I ever want to be portrayed as is entitled. It's not as if a successful career is being demanded without the necessary labor. The discord and discomfort comes from yearning of consistent feedback at every turn, and the fear of what it means when it is not given.

As an adult, I'd rather have a few larger trophies awarded for true merit, instead of having shelves full of plastic trophies handed to everyone just for paying their dues.

This means appreciating the increased value of well-earned accolades, instead of the bombardment of generalized kudos that turn into expected, worthless white noise over time.