Reaching for the Brass Ring: a brief history on how to better motivate your team.

November 17, 2017

We have all heard the proverb of reaching for the brass ring at one time or another. With both sports teams and sales meetings; leaders are always looking for the next person who will go above and beyond the call and “reach for the brass ring.” The phrase has embedded itself in our culture so deeply that few people even know what it originally refers to. Where does the phrase come from and how do we embody that spirit?

The origin of the phrase has a very literal answer. Reaching for the brass ring comes from the early 20th century where carousels were more common place. Horses on the outside ring of a carousel more commonly stationary than those on the inside ring. Operators would suspend brass rings just outside of the boundaries of the carousel floor, either from hard to reach poles or dispensers, in order to encourage people to sit on the outside allowing more passengers per ride. With either system in order to reach for the brass ring you would have to lean very far away from the base of the horse to grab the ring. If you grabbed the ring you would turn it in in order to get a free ride the next time you rode.

Reaching for the brass ring referred to putting out the extra effort to do whatever it took to go grab that ring. The operators made it very difficult for riders to grab the rings because each success cost them money. Often riders would have to climb on top of the saddle and hold the pole to lean as far out as possible, risking falling out of the carousel entirely sometimes head first onto concrete. These safety concerns highlight why the ring disappeared over time.

This seems like a pretty open and shut case but this is where things got interesting at the height of this craze. Due to the fact that it was so hard to grab one of the rings they often were not turned back in. Frequently people who won these rings would just take them and run after they got off the ride. I learned of this personally as my uncle still has his brass ring he nabbed in the 1960s displayed in his house.

The first lesson from history is clear; if you want people to jump on board you have to give them something to reach for. Whether a tournament, sales contest or anything in-between having a clear prize sparks motivation and enjoyment for everyone.

The other lesson is less clear, having an item that lasts a lifetime can carry a story across generations. I would have never even thought about asking about a family trip that happened well before I was born. This ring on my uncle’s mantle helped bring back those memories and share a side of my family I would have not heard otherwise. The carousel that he got, well stole, his ring from has been gone for a long time and through the ring it lives on as well.

If you have any stories about physical items that have pushed you or your team further we would love to hear it. Send us a message on Instagram, twitter or email us at

Post by Stephan Hodges

« Back to Blog