Some time ago, it occurred to me that while society is pretty obsessed with celebrating the successful (in fact, it’s pretty much all we celebrate), it’s not quite so willing to encourage people that aren’t successful yet to become successful (where success is measured in their own terms). It’s even worse at picking somebody, formerly succeeding, up off the ground, when they hit the skids or fail spectacularly. We regard failure as a contagious disease that nobody wants to catch, it seems.
That seemed very wrong and very wasteful to me. Everybody needs encouragement to keep doing what they’re doing, until it gathers its own momentum and becomes fulfilling in the best possible way, for the person concerned. More to the point, if you have been flying high doing whatever it is that you do and suddenly you aren’t anymore, for whatever reason, it’s so easy to conclude you were unworthy, found to be wanting, found out or have lost your touch. None of that is true, of course. You haven’t forgotten how to do your art; you just didn’t have the right luck going your way.
So, I made it my business to encourage, whenever an opportunity presented itself. It’s not a very expensive or time consuming thing to do. If given an opportunity to respond to somebody, or answer their call for affirmation, however subtly framed by them, it is far more satisfying to offer words of encouragement than it is to ignore them, or worse, offer criticism and judgement. It doesn’t make you any bigger to make somebody feel smaller. In fact, it hollows you out. It turns out that bigging somebody up takes you along for the ride as well. You feel much better in yourself, if you are encouraging.
What I discovered was that it’s almost always the case that those words of encouragement cause them to produce better and better art. Without it necessarily being causal, it seems to be correlated. The more encouraging you are; the bolder people get at trying their best, trying something new and at just putting their soul on the line, without fear. Those are pretty good returns for a few simple words of encouragement.
You don’t need to be insincere, cloying, sycophantic or lie to them, either. It’s amazing how much quality you can find out there, in people privately pursuing their own art. You don’t have to snow job them. There is always something great to encourage. Even those at the very start of pursuing their artistic path present amazing, praiseworthy things, worthy of the encouragement you can give.
What could possibly go wrong with being relentlessly encouraging toward people?
One of the more interesting and surprising things I’ve learnt about encouraging people is that many people are not good at accepting encouragement. They’re not used to it. They have been so ceaselessly and mercilessly taught, throughout their entire lives, that the world is a brutally competitive, dog-eat-dog place, where you have to stand on your own two feet, or perish, and where only winners are valued, that when somebody offers a kind word and tries to give them a boost or some well deserved praise, they wonder what is really going on here. In what new and subtle way are you setting them up for disgrace and shame? People tend to distrust encouragement. They think you’re being creepy, stalking them or just plain annoying. They think that your words of encouragement are fake words and that you are saying them for wholly ulterior motives.
What these people don’t know or understand is that encouragement is its own reward. It feels really uplifting to encourage others. Better still, if they subsequently succeed or even improve incrementally, it can put a secret smile on your face that can last all day. Truly.
It’s wonderful to see people have the courage to put their work out there and for it to be good and accepted. I love it when people try their best and eventually succeed. Heaven knows, there is plenty of success to go around. It’s not in short supply. In fact, success is abundant, but you wouldn’t know it.
So much of the world seems to be geared toward success prevention. Somehow, it seems that those who have succeeded fear others succeeding, because it might take something away from them if others do. How absurd! There’s plenty of room at the top of the self-actualisation tree. Your win doesn’t diminish mine. This is not a zero sum game.
It’s funny that the people that are most in need of a little encouragement, who are hurting, or afraid or frustrated, often don’t want it. They perceive the encouragement as charity, pity or sarcasm. They think that by praising them, you are subtly taking a poke at them or holding them up to ridicule, laughing behind their back, when they dare to accept your compliments or boosts to their egos. People are wary of accepting the encouragement you offer, at face value. They think it’s some kind of hoax or trick. Sometimes they can become hostile and drive themselves to crazed distraction trying to figure out what the real subtext of the encouragement is, in reality. There is no subtext. It’s just encouragement. Open, honest, freely and generously given encouragement.
If somebody previously thought to be successful fails, falls upon misfortune or for any other reason falls down, watch the vultures circle! There is an entire industry built around selling printed paper for vast profit, filled with tales of falls from grace. Celebrities that fall out of contract or grow older and are forgotten by a youth obsessed media are suddenly “shame fodder”, as if their current circumstances are evidence of some alarming moral turpitude that was previously hidden behind the gloss and glamour of their former lives. They’re pilloried for profit, on an industrial scale. They’re treated appallingly, as if their loss of standing is in some way deserved, for the previous sin of having been good at what they do. I can’t believe we collectively buy into this, when it is so easy to choose the alternative. We can be encouraging just as easily as being prurient, so why don’t we?
At a personal level, if you are taken down a notch in your art, or your career, observe carefully who comes and puts the boot in. It can be a revelation, I can tell you. You can never really tell who is going to take your misfortune as an opportunity to brag, laugh at your failure, put you down, ignore you entirely or erase you from their lives. Nobody wants to catch the contagion, do they? Well, you don’t need these people. You never did. Nobody does.
If you do decide to be encouraging to others, sometimes people can see your encouragement as a weakness and attempt to exploit it. They try to put you down as a mere “hopelessly devoted fan”, or pathetic audience member, instead of recognising that you, too, might have your own art to pursue and that it might be worthy of some of their encouragement. Sometimes, they’re so self-involved in their own journey that they forget to help you along yours. That’s sad for them. They’re missing the chance to make a deeper connection. In the connection economy, where attention is currency, that’s failing to create value in their community. We’re all the poorer for it.
You shouldn’t imagine that you should only be encouraging to those that you think need it. You can be equally well encouraging to those that apparently don’t need anybody’s encouragement. There actually aren’t too many people in the world that are this self-sufficient, in fact, who do not require affirmation or appreciation, but even if they are comfortable with who and what they are, a little encouragement doesn’t hurt anybody. Nearly everybody thrives on praise, including those who, by any measure of success, are seen as successful. Praise is like sunshine, because it helps us grow.
Nobody really knows the darkness of those private moments of self reflection and despair that even the most beloved of stars and the biggest hits can feel. They can feel empty and hollow, despite the adulation or even, perhaps, because of it, if they feel, in their heart of hearts, that they’re not worthy of it or deserving. That’s why a bit of genuine, human empathy and sincere encouragement can be so necessary and worthwhile. Connection is everything.
So, trying to be encouraging, whenever the opportunity arises, is not an easy road. Your motives will be questioned. Your character may be put under the worst possible scrutiny. People may react to your encouragement in unexpected, hostile, suspicious and dysfunctional ways.
But it’s still worth doing.
Encouragement has the power to change lives.