My son received an award the last week of his third grade school year for A/B honor roll.  At the risk of simply being labeled cynical, I quietly sat in my seat in the cafeteria and pondered the purpose of these awards at so early a stage in his schooling career.  Several of the boys and girls who won awards went up to the stage multiple times for multiple awards spanning academics, physical fitness, art, music, volunteering, and character.  Oh, and for perfect attendance.  Did the parents of these kids push them to excel in their class?  Did they emphasize awards as a stepping stone to middle school, then high school and college?  What effect do these awards have on the kids who do not receive them, either on that day or a later event?

Being in the military, I’ve been exposed to multiple perspectives of quarterly or annual awards, not only for officers, but for enlisted and civilians as well.  There is a careful balance between “taking turns” with nominating people for awards and only writing up those who are truly deserving of the acclaim.  There is also the utility of awards as bullet points on performance reports that bolster pushes for future assignments and promotions.  I’ve seen people turned down for awards, in lieu of more senior ranking individuals being put forward because they were very close to the next rank and needed the award in their record for added weight at promotion time.  So, awards can serve multiple purposes.

The crucial question to answer is: What is success?  If success is defined by a prestigious job title, a gross annual salary, or what car one can afford, then these awards could lead to those things.  If success is defined by creativity, lateral thinking, risk taking, contribution to others, leadership, or other hard to measure traits, then these common awards might be highlighting behaviors that give short term gains but may or may not truly lead to a “successful” life.

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