The Epidemic of Fairness
By Shane Trotter. Originally published on Breaking Muscle
Youth sports and academics across the country are experiencing an epidemic that is systematically lowering the bar of expected performance. Parents, teachers, and coaches have always been berated with lines like “that’s not fair, its too hard”, or “that isn’t fair, (enter name here) gets to do it.” All good leaders in the classroom and on the field put long-term benefits over a child’s immediate desires. They ignore the urge to “be cool” and instead opt to foster discipline and willpower.
Unfortunately, that is no longer the norm. An increasing number of school districts, sports organizations, and parents have forgotten their role to lead, and instead have focused their attention on making life as fair as humanly possible. The motivation behind this is noble enough: empathy for others, showing no favoritism and seeking to treat everyone equally.
But trying to eliminate every possible imbalance can do far more harm than good for the “emphathizee.” What’s concerning about this trend is the insidious effect of training a generation to search for inequality behind every function, group, or tradition. It leads youth to overestimate their disadvantages and underestimate their ability to influence and control their own life. Nothing is more debilitating to future success and happiness.
When Everybody's a Winner, Nobody Wins
We’ve all witnessed the new cultural staple, where every team in a league is awarded the same trophy at the end of the year. One adolescent-level basketball league gave every player an MVP award. Apparently they were all THE most valuable player. I’m sure the majority of these medals are in the trash, which is where they belong.
This trend towards fake equality only serves to instill a sense of entitlement. We brush off entitlement as if its fairly harmless, but nothing is further from the case. Repeated studies have shown that the greatest indicators of success and fulfillment are grit and the ability to delay gratification. These are trainable qualities that we have a duty to instill. Entitlement does just the opposite. It precludes consistent effort, while creating an expectation that life hands us what we want. That it hands us, now worthless, rewards. Rather than reinforcing the truth that the experience is the reward, and stimulating a desire to compete and work towards a bigger goal, treating everyone the same teaches the falsehood that hard work and growth don't matter.
And it's not just the little leagues. Today’s high school coaches can expect a handful of very upset emails and parent meetings every year over playing time. A lack of playing time for their kid just isn’t fair. The kids themselves are shocked to find that they don’t get to play in every game, or don’t have as large of a roll as they’d like. They’ll fume up and down the sideline. They just can't understand why they don't get as much time in the game as they did in 4th grade.
Apathy in the Classroom
Inside school walls, teachers are overwhelmed with the task of accommodating each student’s individual needs. Our factory, one-size-fits-all approach to education is bad enough, but it's made worse by students who are convinced that the content must be spoon-fed to them in just the right way.
A friend who teaches a couple cities away explained to me that their district has a policy prohibiting teachers from failing a student without first speaking to their parent. Teacher-parent communication is a great thing, but in this case, parents habitually cancelled phone lines and dodged teacher calls, creating a recipe for student apathy. Another local school no longer recognizes National Honor Society students at graduation. Apparently it was unfair to those unwilling or unable to achieve that level and work that many hours of community service.
Teachers enter their profession to make a difference, and most will go out of their way to make a connection. They’d be infinitely more successful if students came to them with an understanding that success or failure was ultimately up to each student; that obstacles exist for everyone, and they must take ownership of their own life, work, and future.
The Consequences of Manufactured Fairness
What is so wrong with this growing culture of “fair-seekers”? Fair fails to teach any of the life lessons dictated by the laws of nature, the biggest of which is that life is not fair. Trying to make everything fair leads to an expectation that the world will fix your problems for you. When everything is handed to you and the world goes out of its way to make your life fair, your wits will dim and you’ll become dependent on those forces to keep catching you when you fall. In the end, there is no way the world can continue to right all of life’s challenges for you.
What has happened is a systematic lowering of the bar, and that's bad for everybody. The bar is truly the greatest thing. Standards. Expectations. Accountability. All are necessary for any great team in sports or in life. And yet these are the first casualties of fair-seeking behavior. As the bar is lowered for the few, it will be lowered for all. The system becomes rigged for mediocrity, or worse. The concept of fairness has become perverted to excuse every misstep, lower standards, and discredit the efforts of the exceptional.
Do we want to challenge people and help them reach their greatest potential? Do we want to help others discover they are stronger than they ever knew; that they have the power to overcome any challenge? Or do we want to coddle them? Should we make everyone comfortable and allow our youth to believe life will persist in this manner forever?
Expecting fairness is a recipe for victimhood, self-pity, and the unhappiness that always follows. Youth get what they want at no cost and are left to wonder why life feels hollow.
This is not an attack on fairness as a concept, but on the deified status it has achieved amongst many policymakers. Legendary Texas high school football coach Steve Lineweaver told me about an old coach who was responding to a comment about how kids aren’t like they used to be. The coach responded, “Kids haven’t changed over the decades. We the supervising adults are the ones who have changed.” We need to restore the wisdom of old.
Challenges aren't Unfair, They're Opportunities
What's needed is a new default mindset. Ryan Holliday calls the mindset of seeing problems and challenges as opportunities, “a formula for optimism.” All youth institutions should unify behind this message of opportunism and strength in personal ownership.
History is littered with tales of lopsided odds and adversity creating the spark for the highest triumphs. Eisenhower used the feared German armor's aggressive push through the Ardennes against them to surround and suffocate the aggressors at the Battle of the Bulge. Edison’s response to a fire that burnt down his factory was an avalanche of creativity that created one of his most productive years. Drew Brees' response to a career-threatening shoulder injury was to learn how to rehab, eat, and train smarter than ever. That response allowed him to post record-breaking numbers along the way to becoming a Super Bowl MVP for the Saints, who were once the laughing stock of the NFL.
Give the gift of optimism and a strong belief in your youth’s ability to overcome challenges. Guide them in the right direction and empower him or her to overcome adversity, instead of shielding them from it.