Emphasize Experiences Over Accomplishments

When my husband was in college, he made an Olympic Trials swimming cut in the 200 meter backstroke. But he didn’t go. He decided to go back packing in New Zealand instead. To him the experience of working in a hostel with his best friend in another country was a more important life experience than swimming at Olympic Trials. He has no regrets about that choice, and I don’t think many would.

Like my husband, I grew up as a swimmer. We met on the pool deck and exchanged smiles as the frequent last two swimmers in the water at our college practices. Now our two sons swim and they are in the midst of an exciting summer season. Our ten-year-old has won every race in his summer league this season and has a slew of blue ribbons to show for it. But he doesn’t display them on his swim bag or seem to treasure them very much, and I’m happy for that.

As parents, we have been conscientiously emphasizing experiences over accomplishments. We know our boys will find greater fulfillment and happiness if they avoid the never-ending string of achievement-chasing that childhood can sometimes turn into.

Research shows that success does not create happiness, but happiness can create success. Research also shows that we make ourselves happier if we buy experiences, not things. But, young people aren’t trying to buy their way to happiness. They are trying to earn recognition from adults and their peers assuming that will get them happiness. It’s an easy trap to fall into when trophy cases and record boards are on display. Or when awards are given out. Or when grades are overemphasized.

By emphasizing experiences in life, we know that our sons’ accomplishments will follow, but accomplishments won’t be the goal.

Here are a few ways to focus on experiences over accomplishments in your family or classroom. Your children and students will be happier for it:

  1. Model paying attention to what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel throughout the day, especially on joyful days.
  2. Cultivate experiences together that you can reflect on and remember. Tell stories that start “I remember when…”
  3. Emphasize the joy of watching children as they strive to be their best selves. “I love to watch you swim” is my go-to phrase for the end of every meet. In the classroom I used language like: “It is fun to watch you choose your own books and read” and “You really worked hard to problem solve today.”
  4. Acknowledge that competition is natural and in many ways built into our DNA. But, avoid compare-despair mentality. Help children to cheer on and compliment teammates, friends, classmates, and siblings.

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