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it's presence, not praise

Our confidence, skill and success are measured in proportion to the praise we receive. This is a fallacy that we must change, with counterintuitivity.

Despite ample evidence and countless case studies to the opposite, there persists a toxic cultural mythology that creative and intellectual excellence comes from a passive gift bestowed upon the fortunate few by the gods of genius. Creativity; you’re supposed to either have it or not. We lavish praise on those who deliver that creative intellect. We admire and mimic the behaviors and attitudes of these people, which we have identified as acts of self-confidence. We commonly believe praise, creativity, intellect, success and self-confidence rises and falls together. I would argue that this is a fallacy and that it needs to get rooted out of our collective mindset. To sooner the better, as this mistaken relationship with self-confidence and our addiction to praise is something we intuitively build in, from childhood onward. 

A now famous 1998 study by psychologist Carol Dweck saw 128 children ages 10 and 11 divided into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but only one group received praise for their intellect with an emphatic “You did really well, you’re so clever!” The other group received for their effort a moderate “You did really well, you must have tried really hard.” They then gave the kids more complex problems. Those previously praised for their hard work approached the problems with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of these new problems.

Praise for praise’s sake will stop progress. Praise may even cause us to under-perform. You see this from an early age on; often a child will react to praise by quitting. Why make a new drawing when you already made something that was ‘the best’? Or, the child will simply repeat the same work; why draw differently when the old way got the applause? I’ve seen this happening not just with my own son, but I witnessed this, unknowingly, across various teams and locations. No one offered more effort or appetite for something different. In fact, the different got labeled too difficult, or not needed. I have been a perpetrator of that same crime. Something that worked well, and got praise, surely is the key to success. If we do this again, or more of, then what reason would there be to not see success appear again?

Once seen it can not be unseen; the need for praise, and the collective dopamine hit we want from it, is modern life’s obsession. The creative industry prioritize their collection of trophies and awards to evidence their performance and cleverness. Some are blindly chasing the meaningless rat race of awards-for-awards sake, even when that means redoing work without their client’s knowledge as to increase their chances for something shiny at Cannes. Bands, musicians, artists, or writers iterate and water down their first success, up to a point where you get nothing new or meaningful from them. And what is our obsession with social media if not the (sometimes) desperate ask for praise?  

It is a vicious cycle; we crown achievement with praise, make it exemplary and deserving of admiration. It’s all rooted in the notion that ‘you get what you work for.’ But this reap what you sow condition is being misplaced by so many of us that soon, what we think we want is what we feel we deserve. We condition praise to the willingness to spend time and energy on something or someone. If there is no glory to gain, there are those among us who hold back, drag their feet and half-ass their contributions. All because their need for praise is determining their sense of achievement. Creating a sense of entitlement, and a prioritization on personal outcomes.

It is imperative we cultivate healthier relationships with achievement. Receiving admiration may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic people we are and what terrific creativity we have—but despite its initial comfort, it isn’t doing much for our sense of self. In trying so hard to differ from our peers, we’re actually prone to doing much of the same thing—doling out empty praise. Meaningless, often insincere, chatter we dress up as encouragement, but offer only to be seen as praise-worthy ourselves. Who else more deserving of praise than those willing to do so first, am I right? If we do it to avoid thinking more deeply about meaningful propositions that may change our world for the better, and about what our peers or others feel, then that kind of praise, just like non-constructive criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

“When the basis for your actions is inner alignment with the present moment, your actions become empowered by the intelligence of life itself.”

Eckhart Tolle. Spiritual teacher and author.

To explore what a healthier substitute for praise might be, I drew inspiration and guidance from an 80-year-old remedial reading teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz. I investigated not only her teaching methods but also her approach to raising her child. Not so much as to improve my chances in delivering meaningful innovation, but to be a better father to my son. I ended up with advice for both. Win-win I say. Here’s what Charlotte said:

“I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do, I praise them when they do something really difficult—like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you.” When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.”

Rather than using the familiar mechanisms of reward and punishment, Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to “what a child did and how that child did it.” Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly, she observed, she listened. She was present. Presence helps build the confidence of those we work with and for, by showing he or she is worthy of your thoughts, your time and your attention. All three in equal measure, each and every time. 

The absence of one or two divorces in others the journey from the destination. It instills a sense that the activity itself is meaningless unless it’s a means to getting praise. This plays out for all of us, and apart from augmenting the meaning in the development of innovation, it matters throughout life. Give up this notion that it is tooting your own horn that matters. Make it about the other party. Focus on serving and adding value, and it won't ever feel or felt as if you are bragging. What do you love about what you do? What excites you about the work you do? What are my audience’s needs and how do I meet them? What is my unique skill set that makes me better qualified to serve my clients? What do I do that no one else does? What problems do I solve for clients? What value do I add? If you connect with that, communicating your value will come naturally. Your environment should already be good at rewarding you for the value you create, now imagine what this will become when you do this by first aggregating your thoughts, time and attention. Then and only then do you create something more than value; you create something of meaning between yourself and the recipients of your offer.

People ask us for our thoughts for several reasons. Sometimes because you’re seen as smarter than most of your peers. Hey; it happens. And kudos to you if so. But are you intelligent enough to understand that you won’t be right about everything? Offering your thoughts is engaging in conflict. It invites argument. Arguing quickly descends into entitlement issues. When you offer thoughts through an act of presence, you seek to avoid seeing people take things personally. That can be as straight-forward as starting your thought with “I could be wrong, however…” Not only will it put people at ease, it will prime yourself to be more open-minded, and think less out of entitlement. This ‘intellectual humility’ is a balancing act between two polarities: the willingness to change, and the wisdom to know what you shouldn’t. It breaks down into four components: having respect for other viewpoints. Not being intellectually overconfident or over-invested. Which requires you to separate your ego from your own intellect. And last, the willingness to revise your own point of view. Those with a true presence-over-praise mindset will have high capabilities in all four components. I heralded it in other principles, but here too; curiosity is the key to acting with presence. Simply put, if you’re not curious enough to listen to other viewpoints, you really are not that open-minded.

Giving your attention to others is offering to listen without an agenda. When you have your own agenda when you are listening to someone, what you’re doing is you are planning responses. You are not processing what the other person is saying; you are processing your reply. Our sense of achievement, the one we camouflage as ‘drive’ or ‘passion’, feeds this driving need to show off, or be heard. If you are, however, truly grounded and at comfort with yourself, you can actually get in the other person’s world. You empathize with them. This goes much deeper than keeping eye-contact, nodding in approval, facing the speaker, or any of those other so-called ‘body language’ tips. Listening is a complex three-part process that includes receiving, attending to and responding to stimuli. For which we need the qualities of reflective awareness to gain a nuanced understanding.

Throughout the day, I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking and listening. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders. We listen but do not hear: we use our ears but only to hear our own thinking. We hear words but not the message. We can receive sound, but are not tuning in to others. There are three words for you to mantra throughout the waking hours of your day: “Be Here Now.” The curse of being infectious day-dreamers and incurable night-thinkers has our minds going back and forth between the past and the future. This removes us from the space we truly are at all times; the here-and-now. Be here now.

Being present, whether with peers, with clients, or even with oneself, without agenda or need for recognition, is always going to be hard work. A craft few of us may hone to some degree of perfection. But isn’t this attentiveness, this presence—this feeling that someone is trying to trust and care for us—something we want more than praise?  

Counterintuitivity - Bonus Principle, nr11 - It's presence, not praise.