The Perils of Praise

Big Tom Hanks memeThe Good Student was a teacher’s favourite in school, consistently earning praise from teachers for her work. Over time, the tokens of approval changed from gold-star stickers to A grades, but the mechanism remained constant: teachers liked the Good Student’s work and contributions, favoured her with extra attention, and told her she was going to go far.

Perhaps you’ve met the Good Student. Perhaps you were one.

The Good Student received constant praise. Contrary to what one might think, though, this wasn’t a good thing. Constant praise does bad things to human beings. It’s much like any other drug that affects our dopamine levels: provided sparingly, it induces brief sensations of warmth and happiness, but provided constantly, it induces dependency. Just like the cocaine addict requires constant bumps just to get to ‘normal’, so too does the praise addict require constant reassurance just to function. If the praise ever dries up, the recipient goes into withdrawal. This is talked about most often in regards to rearing young children, but it applies just as well to older children and youths in high school and university. Deprived of praise, the addict becomes anxious and emotionally fragile. Rather than try new things or practice new skills, she prefers to retreat into fantasies of power and control.

Unfortunately for them, while the school system is a great place to get constant praise from one’s superiors, outside of school it’s much harder to come by. Employees receive much less feedback from their employers in general, especially for those working entry-level jobs. Often, the only time an employee gets feedback is when she screws up; good work isn’t singled out for praise, but rather is expected and taken without comment.

And so, Good Students who enter the world of work often suffer an unexpected shock: for the first time, nobody is telling them how great they are.

I’m sure the person who wrote the movie Big (1988) with Tom Hanks was familiar with this situation, because the movie is a perfect recitation of the sort of fantasy that these circumstances provoke. In the film, Hanks’ character is an anonymous data-entry clerk whose work is repetitive and dull. Management, to the extent that they notice him at all, holds him in contempt, seeing him as a drone incapable of anything important. But then he catches the eye of the firm’s owner, who immediately sees that this kid has real talent. Overnight, Hanks is a senior executive, with his own office, secretary, and fat paycheque. Better still, he has flexible work hours and the autonomy to do his job as he likes. In return for this recognition of his genius, he leads his company to fantastic new achievements.

This is the sort of thing that Good Students daydream about, when they’re not seething about how they deserve better than what they’ve got, dammit. Don’t they know how special I am?!

Young people with fresh undergraduate degrees, faced with this unexpectedly difficult environment, often beat a hasty retreat to grad school. It’s a bad idea, because they’re not going because they love their subject, but instead because they hate being just another nobody. This is unfortunate, because it’s a recipe for quitting ABD (but that’s a post for another time). Bad as this scenario is – I’m surprised it wasn’t written up as one of the 100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School – the PhD holder who leaves academia for the working world outside has it worse. At least the undergrad has an escape hatch, but the ex-academic has no grad school to retreat to. She has no alternative to going cold turkey.

Well, I suppose there is one – she could start looking for a constant stream of validation in her romantic life. I suspect the results would be ugly.

The best response is to grit your teeth and get over it. It’s a painful process, in the same way that athletic training is painful. Getting physically stronger takes time and discomfort, and getting emotionally stronger is no different. Good Students in recovery, rather than waiting for the world to acknowledge how special they are, should recognize and embrace the opportunity to learn some important life lessons: that you are not your resume (or even your CV), that good work is worth doing even if nobody notices it, and that ultimately you are the only judge that matters of whether you’re living a good life. If you know that you’re doing something worthwhile, and you’re doing it well, then no else’s approval is necessary.

—Andrew Miller

About andrewmiller2007

Andrew Miller is a Strategic Leader with the City of Mississauga in Ontario. He holds a BA from McGill, an MA from Yale, and a PhD from Johns Hopkins, none of which are related to what he's doing now. His interests include cities and urbanism, narratology and game design, noir fiction and belles lettres, and Aristotle and Saint Paul, but it's his expertise in public-transit policy and implementation that pays the bills. He volunteers his time to PhD students interested in exploring lives and careers outside of the academy. He's been a panelist on CBC Radio on the subject of municipal finance reform, and is a two-time TEDx speaker. He's also fun at parties.

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