I’ve been reading about praise and encouragement (a.k.a ‘positive reinforcement’) in relation to children and I came across an interesting suggestion that we should only praise children for their effort and not for their talents. After all, we are born with our talents so we don’t deserve to be praised for them. Whereas we choose whether to work hard, to be persistent in the face of difficulties – or not.
I think this makes a lot of sense and if teachers and parents made less fuss about children’s natural abilities and talents and rewarded effort instead, it would provide a level playing field which might well motivate the less ‘able’ and at least lessen the lack of confidence that besets most of the children I have taught.
But would it be sensible to apply this to adults as well - I’m thinking of artists in particular? It’s very clear from artists’ forums and blog comments that it is generally accepted that most of us need praise and encouragement about our work. If someone commented, ‘I can see that you’ve worked very hard and I think that is highly commendable’, wouldn’t we perhaps suspect an unspoken, ‘but’, such as, ‘but I don’t think your designs are up to scratch’?
So yes, when it comes to adults and their creative endeavours, the praise of our peers does support and encourage us in a fiercely competitive market! But I do think that we need to be discriminating in our praise of one another’s work to avoid our praise becoming devalued. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we should hold back from responding positively to something we really like. But I have seen parents who, with the best of intentions, ‘positively reinforce’ every single thing that their child does – it seems as if they simply can’t stop themselves, praise seems to ooze from their every pore! And I’ve seen the way their children react – or rather, they don’t react any more because they are canny enough to know that they don’t deserve or even want this constant drip-feed of overblown admiration; so they just tune it out.
At times I’ve felt a little bit like one of those children when I read all the testimonials and wall comments on Greeting Card Universe and Zazzle. They sound very nice, and I’m sure many of them are genuine. But when they seem to come so easily, what are they really worth? Do they really mean anything? And worst of all, is there an ulterior motive hiding behind some of them?
It seems pretty clear that many of us are looking to our fellow artists for reassurance that we do indeed have enough talent to make our work saleable. And I think this is fair enough in the beginning; but after a while we need to be able to assess our own work and find a confidence that doesn’t depend on the praise of others. What will ultimately build our confidence is likely to be, in part at least, actually achieving those sales! And that, by the way, may well take some of those qualities – hard work, persistence, even courage! – that are not innate talents but require effort from us! (I had to dig very deep to find the courage to approach the owner of our local Art Shop and Gallery with my Christmas catalogue!)
Sometimes we don’t seem to be getting anywhere – this post about rejection on Terry Heath’s blog should encourage anyone who wonders whether they will ever make it!
And that’s when the encouragement of our friends and fellow artists is worth its weight in gold!