‘You make a great cup of tea.’ I know it doesn’t sound like the most fulsome praise to give someone, but it’s a decent start. The small things matter, in fact, people are more likely to believe and remember the small compliments, the droplets of praise; they become the mortar holding our days together, they are essential encouragement in re-energising and keeping us scampering around that wheel: try, repeat, strive.
I think that high fiving, crying ‘way to go’, telling someone with a heartfelt nod, ‘you did good’ is cultural, I think some some nations are better at it than others. Where I come from, I tends to be an expiry date after childhood. We’re adept at praising the children, applauding how the almost-two-year-old can hurl a big stone into a rock pool and trample a sandcastle. We congratulat the teenager the evening after the exam, listen to their post-mortem, and assure them they’ve smashed it. We sit through the end of term concert and clap until our palms smart and push aside the forgotten lines and sections that went off tune. For a while, we keep it up, say, for those making their way in a new job where we remember to say something encouraging, pick out the small wins. Our North American cousins are good at it, perhaps they over-do it to a point where we don’t believe their positive feedback. I think of the new world mantra of ‘you gotta believe in yourself’ versus the mantra of what I was schooled in, that ‘self-praise is no praise’. They don’t sit easily together. But even if you’ve been to the no-self-praise school, and the message has been engrained, it shouldn’t stop you from doling out gold stars to others, yelling encouragement, offering a jelly baby at mile 22 of someone else’s work-life marathon.
I know someone who drives a Tesla, or, as she says, it drives her because it tells her off if she behaves badly in the driving seat, small things like holding her hands in the wrong position on the steering wheel. ‘It’s so annoying,’ she says, ‘because it never tells me when I drive well.’ I thought this was interesting, that this high-achieving person felt chided by her high-end car. Then there’s the famous Harry S Truman quote: It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. Absolutely. Laudable words expressing an ideal that we ought all aspire to, but it would take someone who has ascended to the greatest heights of enlightenment not to need occasional validation, someone somewhere to tell them, you did good.
My friend bakes cakes. They are works of art. She takes days planning them and many hours to bake and decorate them. She tells me she wants to know that people love them and that they taste good and that it’s frustrating when she never hears back. She asks me if I think that’s mad. I tell her it would be mad not to want to know if she has made people happy. Funny, isn’t it? How once you grow up you feel that you ought to out-grow praise. Such a confused and confusing thing: heaped upon us when we are young only to run as dry as a reservoir at the end of a dry summer by which time, we are parched for it.