Doing What You Love vs Winning Awards For It

When I was about eight, I went to camp for the first time.

As a fairly introverted person who loved hanging out with my family, summer camp ended up being hard. Thirty-two-year-old me would know exactly why it would be hard for me and in what ways; eight-year-old me was bewildered, as the camp seemed literally designed to have a good time around every corner and yet I felt kind of dazed from home sicknesses and nervousness about how to be around the other kids.

The camp was a week long. There were times when you were expected to go with the group -- on swim lessons, or hikes, or at meals. Overall you were encouraged to try a lot of things and have a well-rounded experience, but much of the time was "free time" and you could choose to spend it how you wished. Many kids would sit on their beds in the cabins sharing Twizzlers, playing cards, and making trouble. Others took part in sports or competitions or skit-making or, well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what the other kids did.

I only know what I did -- which was that every time there was an option (even with time that was not explicitly "free" but during which there would be no consequences for my deviation) I went to the Arts and Crafts shed. There were set projects with all the materials for them and an example of how it could turn out. There were also materials for making whatever you wanted -- paints and wooden shapes, embroidery floss, and even plain dolls you could paint and make clothes for. There was also always a woman in there who would quietly work on something, but offer help with your project whenever you needed it. I made dozens of projects that week; among them a red-cheeked baby doll, a tangle of bracelets for everyone I knew, and a butter-yellow wreath adorned with a hand-painted wooden duck and a baby-blue satin ribbon.

I spent a lot of time in the Arts and Crafts shed.

At the end of the week there was a slightly dressed-up lunch and awards ceremony. Kid after kid received awards. There were awards for activities and contests I had never even heard of. Children were awarded for things like "excellence in sportsmanship" or "fastest time in the 5K", and they'd get trophies. It was nearing the end of the award ceremony and it seemed that almost every child had been awarded something. Except, obviously, me -- I hadn't participated in most of those activities, much less won them. All the awards had been given out.

There was a pause in the ceremony and a side discussion among a couple of the counselors. And suddenly the announcer said "And our last award goes to Emily Kerr, Bunk 9 -- the Arts and Crafts Award!" Everyone applauded. I collected my hand-painted, wooden plaque with the wooden teddy bear and tiny ribbon attached to it. The plaque had obviously been carefully made from all the materials in the Arts and Crafts shed -- not something normally given out.

And this is where I have two versions of the story. One version of the story is that I had such a good time and focused so intently in the Arts and Crafts shed that they were forced to recognize excellence in a category that they had never recognized before. I had somehow not only done amazingly well in a category, but had done amazingly well in a brand-new category. The other version of what happened -- and the obviously factually accurate one -- is that I was such an odd, introverted kid that I spent the entire week of summer camp in a dark little Arts and Crafts shed, and the kind counselors were forced to invent an award simply because they wanted everyone to get something and I hadn't participated in any of the regular stuff.

In other words, I was either so strong in something unique that I received a handmade award, or I was so abysmally weak and absent in the regular stuff that I received a handmade award for literally whatever they could think to award me for.

For a long time, when I would think of this story, I would feel a little hum of pleasure as I thought about the award and the Arts and Crafts shed. I loved the arts and crafts, I loved the plaque with its glued-on adornments, and I loved having done so much of the thing I loved to do that a plaque was made about it. But I would always also simultaneously know that the plaque was basically hilarious -- a hastily created stopgap for the one situation in which they had a camper who didn't do anything at the camp other than craft.

Recently, though, I've started to look at it differently. I've started to see how it doesn't really matter what the counselors’ intentions or private thoughts about me as a camper were. Because in grown-up life, there are no counselors and there is no award ceremony. There's only the choice of what to do each day -- swim or make skits or climb up a greased pole. Or, find the one place where you feel cozy and excited and a sense of I-can't-believe-they-let-me-do-this and spend as much time as possible in that shed. As an adult, you won't get a handmade plaque. And you still may be a little weird. But you'll get a hum of pleasure every time you think about it. And you'll not only have done well -- you'll have done well in a brand new category.

I guess my point is just to remind all of us that we don't have to do well at 101 things to be able to be proud of ourselves. And just because the people around us might be excelling in all the trophy categories, and there's no trophy for the thing we're doing, doesn't mean we aren't excelling too.

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