I am thinking about you today. You are floating a few feet off the ground after hearing some good news. You won the lottery. Yes. You did.
But wasn’t it just last week or the week before that you didn’t get the fancy head set and arduino kit at the county science fair awards ceremony? You were notified at the fair to come to the award ceremony. You beamed. No one knew what they’d get. Surely you’d won something. Maybe a ribbon, a blue, red or white ribbon, or a purple merit ribbon? You dressed up. You wondered if you’d be asked to say a few words. It was a school night. It was getting late. The headsets and arduinos were already given out, then a free tour at NASA, then certificates from several businesses who noted budding techies. Applause. Environmental awards. You waited. You were tired.
We had readied you. Hadn’t we? Told you that you had done fabulous work on your project. That mattered. You’d always see the creek differently. You’d received the accolades at school, then chatted with judges at the county fair, shared your passion. You felt proud, motivated. Then here we were. Prizes? Why? All of you waiting, hanging heads, some smiles. Maybe they should have done these in private or at the schools. Because you have always loved the water, considered the health of a stream, picked up litter, cared about fish and insects. You are still that person. “Does a “Project of Merit” mean I didn’t get first or second or third place?” I nodded. You already knew. Rewards can punish.
Competition can take the love out of a worthwhile project, diminish what you care about. Don’t lose interest because of the color of your ribbon. When we win, someone else loses. Is that anyway to feel about a friend? But when you get an unexpected win, like you did today, will you expect it again? You see, this win had nothing to do with your effort, this was luck, a lottery. A lottery to get into a good school, a charter school. Your number was chosen. Your friend Kai’s was not. You both are sad, you hoped to go to school together. These lessons are hard and take some sophisticated puzzling through to understand their impact.
All in all, we are not pets. We do not behave or perform better with rewards. Some would say we learn from failure, to accept it as part of life. Oh my goodness, I say, there are plenty of those type lessons without contests to set up our failures. I hope you find these interesting ideas to consider. Carrots, sticks, money, ribbons, and prizes are like lions tigers and bears. I hope you find the intrinsic rewards the best of all, most long-lasting.