The Power of (the Right Kind of) Praise

With perpetual blasting of the importance of individuation in our society, it is natural to start thinking that we are ever so self-sufficient, flowing freely in the waters of our self-esteem, and not in any way contingent on other people’s judgments and opinions.

This is encouraged daily: even if you’ve never seen a therapist, any old magazine will have you reminded that you ought to be so self-assured that no amount of outside praise or criticism should disturb your confidence or balance.

This is, of course, nonsense.


“Man is by nature a social animal…”



What to do but agree with Aristotle? We only exist in the world with other people, and while the oversensitive souls amongst us can benefit from not absorbing every ounce of people’s goodwill or negative energy, none of us are immune to other people’s reactions and feelings, and – here is the rub – nor should we be. 

I have a friend who used to be a pretty angry young person. Her life philosophy was something along the lines of: “only assholes and people who don’t care about others succeed.” I hear this a lot. And while it is true that there is a surprising percentage of jerks in the C and VP ranks (if that is how you define success, of course), it is not true that they don’t care. Perhaps they don’t care about being liked by most people, or the bodies they run over on the way to the top…but what is the top other than a place defined by other humans, their judgments and opinions? 


Why does this matter?


But, OK, let’s not focus on the jerks. Let’s focus on you, trying to make some sort of a positive change in your life. Turns out, my friends, that positive feedback is extremely rare, and not just in corporate America, where you’d think they would have figured it out by now. It is rare back at the ranch, too, in your everyday life, and especially if you want to make a radical, important move.

Whenever I set out for big life and career changes, the feedback from those around me was, for the most part, not encouraging. Even though my feelings were occasionally hurt by cynical, disparaging comments, and even though I often wondered if friends advising me to stay on a soul-crushing path were right, I was blessed with a strong Northern Star, and I stayed my course. Lucky factors aside, here is the shocker: I did not notice until much later how influential the negative feedback was, and how much I was lacking the encouragement.

The problem is that we tend to trust those we love and who love us (even though they’ll projec their fears on us), we tend to trust our friends and family (even though they can be envious and stuck in their ways), we tend to trust the society (that is by design bent on bending us into a certain shape even if it kills us).


The right kind of people


Here is what blasted me off my feet last week. At the tender age of 43 (that was sarcastic, btw), I had a spiritual awakening of sorts, realizing that some patting on the head, some encouragement – what we like to call in that annoyingly scientific, lab-rat kind of way: positive feedback –  can affect me pretty dramatically.

I had a boring, tough week at work, and while the crummy news were disheartening, two conversations (one online, one live) changed my perspective entirely. I got some really great, incisive feedback from two brilliant and super accomplished colleagues, and I was not only super touched, but also surprised at how much it mattered. I could not help but ask myself: why?


Praise is great. Selective, intelligent praise is better.


I am a lucky girl in that I get a lot of encouragement from my husband and friends; what I am trying to say is that I am not walking around hungry for compliments and support, and I don’t take it for granted either. So when I got these fine complimens, I had to think about why they felt so good and had so much power. Conclusion: because they came from folks who don’t dispense compliments easily; who are by default very discerning, even critical.

Recently, I went on a weekend with these awesome women from my book club. We are not the “we are girls, let’s reassure the crap out of each other” kind. We tend to mock people and make fun of each other a lot more than we braid each other’s hair and tell sweet nothings. Which is why when these gals say something reassuring about my career or abilities, I tend to trust it, and again, be really touched. Most importantly, I get inspired to go kick some ass and think big, rather than sit on my accolades and waste time on plotting a promotion from some petty corporate minion.


The takeaway


Who are you surrounding yourself with? People who love you and tell you how smart you are and that you can do whatever you want, or Negative Nancies who never fail to remind you to think about security and 401k, and that you owe them and the world to stay put? If latter, reconsider. I am not saying to ditch your friends and family, just let the naysayers know you don’t appreciate their nonsense, and spend more time with the former kind.

Or, do you surround yourself with people exactly like you – perhaps those with secure, well-paid jobs that afford you travel, fancy dinners and parties – people who may be great friends but will not help you ponder why you are so unhappy with your career and life overall? If so, you need to make some changes. Now.

If you want to start a company, go find an entrepreneurial Meetup. If you want to ditch it all and travel the world, go have coffee with some people who have given up their apartment and live in a trailer so they can do just that. If you want to become a cook, go hang with chefs. Those are the people who will see your potential, kick you to become who you are meant to be, and polish off the tarnish from your star.

After all, as Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.To give credit where credit is due, I got the quote from a friend who took this apparently excellent course. It looks good to me – and, anyway, you know my theory: pick one great method/book/coach/course, and stick with it. In the right company, of course.

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