I’ve got a lot of trophies, but I haven’t accomplished anything. Sure I participated in a handful of sports and competitions as a kid, and I was thrilled when I got the trophy with my name on it; but all that thrill died when I saw 23 others with that same trophy, most of which, in my opinion, hadn’t worked as hard as I had. There are only one or two accolades that I have received that I am actually proud of and when they come up or I have a moment of self-absorption and brag, people seem only mildly impressed. As their attention fades I try to shock them with how rare the accomplishment is or how hard it is to earn. Still their eyes glaze over as their brain searches for a way to bring the conversation back to be about them. I don’t blame them. I do the same.
Our society has reveled in the idea that everyone is a special flower and deserves endless praise for even the most mundane and mediocre accomplishments. Competing in a middle school spelling bee and getting 7th place; playing a game of football and getting a sack but letting the RB slip by easily 4 times; performing in your studio’s piano recital and playing with reasonable accuracy. These are certainly worth celebrating, and I think it is essential for us to try new things and strive to be successful and get better at our craft, whether it is spelling or tackling or playing piano, but they are attempts, not conquests. They should be looked at as a step in the right direction, but not the end goal.
It is easy to think of yourself as a success if you only look at the positives. Sure you spelled dichotomous and adjudicator correctly, but you missed acquiesce. And you made a nice play that one time after your hand got stepped on and you were fueled by rage, but you forgot to wrap up the tackle and cost the team several dozen yards. And you performed “Appalachian Spring” pretty well, but you missed the scale run in measure 23 that you practiced just enough to get right one time. These are pursuits of greatness, but they have not reached it yet. Parents should praise their kids and tell them they are proud of them; but most everyone else in their lives, especially their teachers/coaches/whatever should constantly expect and demand more. Praise, past a certain point, coddles and restricts ambition.
This does not just apply to children, though it is most evident and harmful at that age. When the only information on a task a person receives is positive they assume that the level they performed the task at is adequate or even above what is expected. I am all for positive reinforcement, and am not suggesting we only speak on weaknesses and areas of failure, but without a clear direction to improve and a sense that improvement is necessary, there will be none.
Praise is overrated and, for me personally, the less I get the more I improve. It makes the rare kernel of approval all the more potent.