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Sunday, October 11, 2009

A prize for just showing up is no good to the recipient... or to the society that condones such a ridiculous thing

My lovely wife is fond of telling a story about a hapless young man she once invited to her parents home for a holiday weekend during her university years (this was long before we met).  Apparently the weather over that particular holiday had been so terrible that Zahava and this young man had ended up trapped in the house playing an endless series of scrabble matches... which the young man just couldn't seem to win.

After suffering a particularly crushing defeat (and from personal experience I'm sure there was also some unseemly celebratory gesturing on Zahava's part) the young man turned to Zahava's mother, Gail (OB"M) and said, "You know Mrs. Pomeranz, where I come from we were taught that it isn't winning or losing that counts... it's how you play the game."   Without missing a beat, my future Mother In Law turned from what she was doing in the kitchen and responded, "Well if you don't win you must not play the game very well!".

I love this story for many reasons, not the least of which is that it reveals both the nature and provenance of my wife's competitive streak.  But I also love it because it resonates deeply with me as a member of the generation that abandoned the old ethos of playing fairly to win, for one of playing nicely in order to allow everyone to feel as though they have won.

There is a scene in the otherwise forgettable film 'Meet the Fockers' where Bernie Focker (played by Dustin Hoffman) and Jack Byrnes (played by Robert DeNiro) hold the following exchange:

Bernie Focker[showing off a display board with an assortment of his son's school awards and ribbons... mostly for dubious achievements such as 9th place finishes]: Isn't it nice to finally display all your accomplishments?


Jack Byrnes:Oh, I didn't know they made 9th place ribbons.

Bernie Focker:Oh Jack, they make them all the way to 10th place! ... It's not about winning or losing. It's about passion.  You know what I mean, Jack.

Jack Byrnes: Not really, Bernard. I think personal competitive drive is the essential key that makes America what it is today.

I grew up at the tail end of an era where kids were expected to excel at something.. anything.  If you went out for sports, you were expected to play fairly, but by G-d, you played hard to win.  If you were in the chess club or debating society, there too you either won or you went home trying to figure out how to do better next time.  Only one team had a noisy, boisterous ride home on the bus.

Heck, even in the music programs, school bands, orchestras and choirs went to 'adjudication festivals' where they were weighed dispassionately against ensembles from other schools... and the best performances were singled out for actual awards.  Yes, some - most, actually - of the competitors went home empty-handed to work harder... or to abandon a fun diversion for an area of potential excellence. 

That's how the world works.  Or worked, anyway.

Now, you can bemoan the fact that society may seem to place a higher value on a 1st pace football, baseball or wrestling trophy over 1st place awards for dance, debate or marching band.  But the fact remains that being the best at something - anything - used to count for something.

But somewhere along the line the rules started to change, and we began to accommodate, and even reward, mediocrity.  Rather than steering kids towards areas where they were naturally gifted, parents, schools and society at large began an organized indoctrination campaign of telling kids that 'playing nice' was the same as 'playing fair... and hard'.  And pardon my French, but that is just a load of crap! 

Clearly not everyone is given the raw talent, drive and ability to be an olympic athlete.  But then again, not everyone is given the requisite gifts to become a world renowned opera singer or an award-winning astro-physicist.  Even more importantly, if any of the parents of such outstanding individuals had tried to steer their offspring towards an unsuitable discipline, not only would the kid probably have failed.. and failed badly... but the world would be a poorer place for the achievements they would never have attained.

This trend towards trying to make everyone feel good, no matter how tentative, preliminary or meager their efforts, reached its apex this past weekend when President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

I don''t care who you are, how much you love Barack Obama, or what you think you may know about international relations.  You cannot hold up any achievement of his that would (as of this point in time) make him deserving of such an august award. 

For the sake of clarity, let me say that I would be saying the same thing if Benjamin Natanyahu or even my beloved wife were given the nod by this misguided bunch of Scandinavians (there, happy now?).  An honorary doctorate?  Sure.  A certificate of merit?  Why not?  The keys to the city?  Go for it! 

But a Nobel Prize?  Obama's Nobel is for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples".  Efforts?!  We're supposed to applaud the awarding of a Nobel Prize for efforts!?  What about all the gazillions of people who have been trying to create cold fusion... figure out if any odd perfect numbers exist... or cure cancer?  What of them... don't their efforts deserve a Nobel too?

I, for one, say no!  Because the moment we start handing out prizes, ribbons and awards for efforts rather than accomplishments, people will simply stop trying.

True, Obama has certainly charted a starkly different course than his political predecessors and he should be congratulated for having the courage to try new things in the face of such unprecedented criticism.  But awards are distributed at the finish line... not when the competitor still has the report of the starter's gun ringing in his ear and has yet to hit his stride.

By this standard of mediocrity, Neville Chamberlain should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when he returned from Berlin clutching a worthless paper and declaring to the world:

"This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.... We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again."

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain tried valiantly, not only to avoid war, but to advance the cause of peace.  But in a few short months his efforts were shown to have been just that; efforts... not accomplishments.  In truth, what he held in his hand that fateful day was a 9th place ribbon... a booby prize that said: 'Nice try, but no cigar'.

I may not be an Obama fan, but I am also not ready to close the book on him.  But things like Presidencies, Supreme Court Justice-ships and yes, Nobel Prizes, are supposed to be given with the same sense of gravity and singularity of occasion as 'lifetime achievement awards'... not handed out like so many door prizes for simply showing up.

Posted by David Bogner on October 11, 2009 | Permalink


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Trep, you said it exactly right. When I heard about the prize, I thought it was a joke. And the Focker movie scene, celebrating mediocracy (the only funny scene in that movie) came immediately to mind for me as well.

An "A for effort"? There hasn't even been enough time for that.


Posted by: Baila | Oct 11, 2009 5:23:52 PM

Please send this to as many newspapers as you can. NO ONE could argue with your reasoning. I totally agree with you.

Posted by: Noa | Oct 11, 2009 9:07:46 PM

The misguided bunch of Swedes are actually misguided Norse for this particular prize.
But somewhere along the line the rules started to change, and we began to accommodate, and even reward, mediocrity.
Why does this sound like my every day job?
All this said, I quite agree with you. Even Obama couldn't hide how surprise he was!

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Oct 11, 2009 9:29:10 PM

I understand your concern about this. But the award lost any honor or meaning when they gave it to Yassir Arafat. The Nobel Committee now plays politics with the Peace Prize; awarding it to Obama was intended to be a slap at George Bush.

Posted by: Karl Newman | Oct 11, 2009 11:11:26 PM

I don`t always agree with Tom Friedman,but I recommend his opinon piece in this Sun. NY Times on the Nobel award.

Posted by: Ed | Oct 12, 2009 4:39:26 AM

Actually it is even quite insulting to Obama - as if they are saying that they don't think he can succeed so they'll give him a prize for trying.
I for one am disappointed that he will not be able to earn the prize based on merit.

Posted by: Shimon | Oct 12, 2009 7:46:49 AM

The Rabbi at Keter Torah (Roemer) in Teaneck was giving a drasha on the second day of sukkot and he referenced Dr. Seuss's book "O the Places You will go" (http://www.teamhope.com/seuss.htm) specifically the part about not always winning and what one can learn from it - not to be handed a meaningless prize and this was before the Nobel Peace Prize fiasco.

I take some comfort from Miley Cyrus' song the mountain (yes - I have 3 girls between the ages of 6 and 11) that the journey itself has merit if you learn from it and not necessarily the end result, which may or may not happen.

Posted by: Aharon Fischman | Oct 12, 2009 3:03:59 PM

Of course, I agree with you about the silliness of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, but we should recognize two things:

1) The Nobel Peace Prize has been a joke for a long time now. It is awarded by a small cabal of retired Norwegian politicians, not by experts in the field of Peace (if there is such a thing).

2) Rumors of the death of the culture of actual accomplishment are a bit exaggerated. We need look no further than the other Nobel prizes, which are awarded by actual experts in their respective fields to people whose accomplishments have been proven worthwhile over decades.

Posted by: Isaac | Oct 12, 2009 4:17:44 PM

I have been saying that if he were truly humble, he would give the award back, telling the committee that while he appreciates their confidence in him, he hasn't actually done anything to merit this award yet, but hopes to in the future. But of course, that's the Hollywood ending. He will surely keep this prize he doesn't deserve and tell all who will hear that he hopes to continue doing whatever it is he does and prove their decision correct. What a joke.

Posted by: Joshua | Oct 12, 2009 4:52:11 PM

"When everyone is somebody, then no-one's anybody."

Posted by: Elisson | Oct 12, 2009 5:05:37 PM

When Henry Kissinger won the peace prize, Tom Lehrer said that satire had become obsolete.

In the same vein, an SCTV reference. Dave Thomas as Bob Hope "hosts" the Nobel Prize award ceremonies and says,"Its like the Oscars for brains!"

Posted by: lrg | Oct 12, 2009 8:13:23 PM

As the mutual friend who introduced your wife to the hapless young man, I have had the opportunity to hear your opening anecdote more than once. While that chestnut is classic Zahava-and-her-mother fare, I'm not sure it illustrates the point you want it to make. I believe my friend was referring to sportsmanship, the knack for winning - or losing - gracefully. While perhaps it would have been preferable for Obama to decline the Nobel prize altogether, and even better if the committe had selected someone more obviously worthy, he accepted it with grace and humility.

Posted by: Bonnie | Oct 13, 2009 2:28:34 AM

The Nobel committee used the same criteria in awarding the peace prize that I did in casting my vote in the last presidential election: he ain't Bush.
Everytime I think of Obama winning the peace prize, I keep shaking my head and muttering WTF.
I mean I like Obama. But he hasn't accomplished anything yet. Isn't there some longsuffering warm'nfuzzy old lady or third-world gangster out there who has done something truly significant?

Yeah, I truly appreciate them NOT giving it to Khaddafi (even though he has changed since his wild and foaming at the mouth young man stage), or Ahmedinejad (well, he hasn't bombed Israel yet ..... to many Europeans, that means he's a peacenik), or the fat face in North Korea (hasn't kidnapped Japanese citizens in years, journalists in months - hes a reformed man! Huzzah!).

But still. WTF? WTF? WTF?

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Oct 13, 2009 3:12:05 AM

This is the best post on this subject that I have seen.

Posted by: Erachet | Oct 14, 2009 12:45:12 PM

Surprised to hear you write about Obama "he should be congratulated for having the courage to try new things in the face of such unprecedented criticism"

Given the way everything he does is tainted by the "we serve Obama" slogan, rather than the "we serve America" slogan, I would not congratulate him for anything other than his success on his path towards demagoguery.

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Oct 19, 2009 5:40:33 PM

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