You Rarely Get a Trophy in Life

Check Yoself, Fool!

“I used to play sports. Then I realized you can buy trophies. Now I am good at everything.”
–Demetri Martin

When I was a kid, I played in recreational league soccer. Some of the teams I played on were quite good, and some of them were hapless, the local YWCA version of the Bad News Bears. In some years, I was one of the best players on the field, and in some years, I was a confirmed benchwarmer.

Regardless of the season, the results, or my contribution – or lack thereof – to the wins and losses on the field, I got a trophy. There was a big end of season party, usually at the pizza joint with lots of video games to ensure that the actual trophy ceremony was wrapped up as quickly as possible so the kids could go back to slaying monsters while the parents breathed a sigh of relief at being able to actually have adult conversations for an hour. I lined up all of my trophies on my desk, and pretty soon, I looked like I’d actually achieved something.

Then, I played high school soccer, where I was definitely a benchwarmer. My two goals in a 10-0 rout of another team were my only contribution in my decidedly unvaunted high school playing career. Furthermore, there were no trophies. We came in second in our region, as we were knocked out by a team we expected to beat (hubris doesn’t work on a soccer field either).

Second place wasn’t good enough. Not even for a second-place trophy.

Maybe this was a lesson I’d have been better off learning a little earlier in life.

You rarely get a trophy for just showing up. You get a trophy for doing something exceptional.

This applies to many facets of life. You get a paycheck for showing up. You get a bonus for doing something out of this world. If you’re not markedly contributing to the bottom line of your employer (or whatever metrics you’re trying to improve if you work for a non-profit), then don’t expect a bonus. You don’t get a trophy for being a spouse. You get the reward of a great marriage if you continually work to make it better.

You get the point.

Where am I going with this?

I’ve seen, unfortunately, too many people who are saddled with debt who think that they somehow deserve the lifestyle that they’re living. It’s the same lifestyle which has saddled them with debt because they’re living beyond their means.

Somehow, there’s an inner dialogue between Monkey Brain and them telling them that they deserve something which they haven’t earned.


YOU: “You’re right! That clown is onto something!”

Thus begins the quick slide from “I want” to “I need” to a sense of entitlement that they’re supposed to have a cell phone, cable, gym membership, six vacations a year, a nice car, and so on.

It’s because somehow, somewhere along the way, these people have convinced themselves that they deserve something which they haven’t earned. A sense of entitlement has waylaid their independence and their plans, and while they’re living it large in the moment, the day of reckoning will come.

If you fall into that category, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means that you’ve veered off course some and need to get back to grips with your current situation. Here are some suggestions for how to rein in your lifestyle and match what you’ve earned with what you deserve:

  • Refocus on your priorities in life. If you perform a true evaluation of what is important to you in life, then you’ll probably find that you’re spending a lot of money on things (mainly) which don’t really reflect what you value. There will be a disconnect. The disconnect will lead to dissatisfaction in your life. Monkey Brain will jump all over that dissatisfaction and tell you that the only way to make yourself happy is to buy more stuff. Thus the cycle continues.
  • Earn more income. Go out and kick derriere at work. Get a side hustle. Justify more money in your life through your good work and good deeds so that you can spend more on the things which are important to you.
  • Constantly improve yourself. Being the same old you every day will be great for the status quo. However, it will be like watching television – it’s passive entertainment which doesn’t really create true happiness in your life. Continuing to improve yourself will mean that you can bring more and more to the table, and, in turn, you’ll get more out of life. You’ll learn to appreciate more aspects of your life, meaning that you won’t have to go on a shopping spree or to buy the 183” flat screen TV for your man cave to give yourself a (false and fleeting) sense of self-worth. Nobody, save for Imelda Marcos, is measured in life for the size of the shoe collection or the impressiveness of the man cave.
  • Be aware that the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglee. Sometimes, no matter how good your intent, how hard your work ethic, how much good you do in the world, life is going to deal you a blow. Ask the people who get diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or other debilitating long-term diseases. They did nothing wrong and yet they have an additional challenge to deal with that they were not anticipating. Sometimes life is not going to work out exactly according to plan (even according to the plan that your financial planner lays out for you!). It’s during these challenges when we determine our character. We can dig a hole in the ground, stick our heads in it, and admit that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, telling ourselves that we deserve a different outcome and living as if we had that outcome in life. Or, we can get stuck in and adjust to reality and go from there.

For many of you reading this article, I’ve loaded you with a bunch of “yeah, I knew that already, enlighten me with something new, Sherlock.” Call it adding to your confirmation bias! However, if there’s someone out there who might have read this and thought “um…(whistling)…that’s me,” then take some positive action and get yourself out of the hole.

Trophies. Good for kids? Good for adults? Discuss below!

Around a year ago, I wrote about setting aside money for a rainy day before the end of the month. If you haven’t read it, go check it out!

Published by

Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

8 thoughts on “You Rarely Get a Trophy in Life

  1. “You rarely get a trophy for just showing up. You get a trophy for doing something exceptional.” – Maybe not this generation – the generation of Participation Trophies! (Which makes this advice even harder to take – reality is tough, man).

    Thanks for using the Scots version of the To a Mouse quote!

    1. If the advice were easy to take, there’d be no industry for financial planners or personal finance bloggers. People would do what they needed to, carry on about their lives, and do well.

      I can make a claim to a family tartan (no matter how dubious the claim), so of course I’m going to try to quote the Ploughman Poet correctly.

      And thanks to you, as well, for sharing on Twitter!

  2. I love this post. My husband and I always say. . . why do they lead kids on with those trophies? It’s for their “self esteem”. All that magic wears off in the real world. LOL

    1. Hey, Karen!

      Glad you enjoyed the article. I’m sure there’s some benefit in building up self-esteem, but at some point, you have to transition into real life lessons; you don’t always win in life. I remember one coach never put anything but “sports are for fun” on our trophies to try to teach us that there were more important aspects of life.

  3. I think trophy’s teach kids the wrong idea. That everyone gets the same thing no matter effort.

    Though I may be looking to deep into this, kids need to learn that not everything ends in a trophy. plus, the trophy really didn’t do much but keep me “comfortable”. If I wanted that trophy that some other kid got, I would (and did in high school) work harder to obtain it.

    I’m not going to go out there and yell at my kid’s coach for giving them a trophy when my kid signs up for soccer in a couple years, but I will explain to him that life isn’t 1) all about trophy’s and 2) that you have to earn the trophy’s that do come into life.

    The Warrior

    1. Yeah, I’m with you. I’m sure my parents weren’t pleased with Coach Santana handing us trophies every season, but they also made sure that they drove home the point that it was work that differentiated performance (they didn’t use those big words back then) rather than just showing up on the field. Work is a magnet for money.

Leave a Reply