It dawned on me in 2005. I was in Bali working with a renowned dance teacher every day for two hours to learn an intricate, difficult dance. I realized that if she told me that what I was doing was great, I would do the dance again and again and again for her out of sheer enthusiasm. And in doing it again and again, it would get even better.
After our lesson, I reflected on my response to my teacher’s praise and how I’d responded to criticism in the past. In a flash of self-understanding, I realized: If I’m doing something I love and you tell me I’m doing great work, I will work sooooooo hard! However, if you tell me that I’m doing terrible, I want to stop working and die.
Ever since, I’ve held this realization close to my heart. But now that I’m learning about all this new research about praise, I’m wondering: Is something wrong with me? Am I a praise junkie? Why am I so sensitive to what my teachers tell me?
When teachers have told me that I was doing bad work, or even worse, that “I didn’t have what it takes,” I would spend hours and hours of mental energy processing those statements. If I am so bad at X, how was I accepted into program Y? Am I so bad that I deserve to be placed with other students who really don’t seem to care? If I am incapable of achieving XYZ, how is it that I was able to achieve ABC? And on and on.
But now I’m realizing that those hours of processing negative messages never helped me learn a single note or dance move or improve in any way. In fact, some of those teachers’ discouraging statements led me to spend months or even years avoiding my true heart’s desire—or pursuing my true heart’s desire in utter solitude—out of fear that I was essentially inadequate.
In contrast, when I eagerly danced over and over for my Balinese teacher, I honestly don’t think I was seeking the reward of praise or avoiding the punishment of a scathing critique. I believe that her encouraging praise really fed my own intrinsic motivation. Maybe her praise couldn’t “hurt” me because I was intrinsically motivated. (Sort of like how the Book It Pizza Hut pizzas could never dim my love of reading.)
On the other hand, I notice a pattern when I look at the withering “feedback” that distracted me and discouraged me:
“You’ll never achieve…”
“You will never be able to …”
“You aren’t going to attend school for ….”
“I really don’t see you as [having the career you desire] but [in a completely unrelated career]”
“You think you know how to do X but what you’re doing is not X at all…”
These statements didn’t give me any clear direction on what to do differently to improve! What could I do to achieve my dreams? What did I need to learn to prepare for school? If I really didn’t know a technique or skill, how could I acquire it?
Those statements did not answer those questions. They were just judgment. They did not provide guidance, except perhaps “guidance” to abandon my dreams. (Needless to say, I never speak to my students this way.)
Then I remember my teacher in Bali. She did not come from a culture of excessive praise and self-esteem boosting. I believe in my heart that she really believed that I was doing well. She wasn’t just trying to make me feel good.
But now I realize that when she told me I was doing well, she wasn’t just praising me. She was engaging with me. She was going to continue to help me to grow and improve. But the other teachers’ statements were statements of disengagement. They were no longer interested (or able?) to help me grow and improve.
So maybe what really matters is engagement.
Dancing with my awesome Balinese dance teacher, IGA Raka
The Power of Praise (#1)
Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman
Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #1
Toning Down the Praise: Experiment #2 (I am going through praise withdrawal)