The need for praise

When you’re in training for something, it’s common to receive fairly regular doses of positive reinforcement. Messages of congratulation on a job well done, a pat on the back on a challenge overcome. Praise, when carefully administered by teachers or peers, is a powerful incentive – it’s a feedback loop that helps keep us learning.

However, I’ve noticed that once you reach a certain stage of proficiency, the formerly reliable dopamine injection of praise drops off a little. Once you’re viewed as essentially competent, people just assume you know you’re doing a good job, and that you no longer require positive reinforcement.

It’s a perfectly sensible reaction. One doesn’t want to risk patronising someone by offering praise for something they consider routine, or didn’t struggle to achieve. Likewise, an overabundance of unnecessary praise could lead to dependence or ego inflation – and goodness knows there’s enough of the latter in the creative world.

Nevertheless, there’s an adjustment that an emerging artist or creative person, or really anyone in any field, must make, as they move from disciple to practitioner. It can be very hard to shake the requirement for regular praise, a dependence which we form during our chrysalis phase.

‘Praise addiction’

I think this adjustment can result in particular difficulties for those who assume leadership positions. I’ll use conductors as a convenient example from my field, but I think it applies across the board.

Those who seek out leadership often have a very high tolerance for praise. Some may even be ‘praise addicts’, as described by Martha Beck in her article, Are you addicted to praise?

To summarise Beck: essentially, everyone can tolerate a certain amount of praise, before it makes them uncomfortable. Beck’s ‘praise addicts’, however, can quite happily receive near limitless amounts of the dopamine-inducing feedback – it gives them a rush, and it becomes a subconscious imperative to seek out the next ‘hit’.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I daresay all musicians can think of conductors who fit this profile. To an extent, it’s a manifestation of a societal problem: the world seems to teach us that we should be special, or stand out somehow. Accordingly, we have a tendency to view ourselves as special, and we expect people to respond accordingly. Leon Seltzer approaches the same problem from a different point of view:

In one way or another, virtually everybody dreams of standing out, being admired or acclaimed. To be viewed, and to view ourselves, as merely “average” or “adequate” really doesn’t do very much for our ego. This may be all the more so because we live in a meritorious, American-Idol-type society that refuses to celebrate or lavish praise on individuals unless they’re judged exceptional.

How do we avoid falling into the trap of requiring constant praise? How should we approach the transition from student to practitioner, when we can’t rely on the praise of our mentors to motivate us? It’s not like the need to learn goes away – we’re all always learning, or should be.

The courage to be normal

It’s natural that the regularity of positive feedback from others should decrease once we achieve proficiency. However, validation has to come from somewhere, and even the most experienced and competent require it. Here are a few ways I’m exploring to reconcile this disparity:

Absence of praise ≠ criticism
Silence doesn’t imply judgement. We should not expect to always be greeted like a master returning home to a dog. People are generally more like cats – perfectly content with you but not demonstrative about it…

Save really good feedback
I’ve taken to saving some of the nicest comments I’ve received from choir members, concert-goers or peers in a folder on my computer. That way, if I ever find myself in need of a bit of validation, I can return to them and be shocked anew at the nice things people have said.

Learn to reward yourself
Here’s Seltzer again:

…it’s crucial that when you’ve executed something well, demonstrated skill or talent, behaved generously or selflessly, you learn how to congratulate yourself.

Ultimately, we’re the only ones who can provide ourselves with confidence and motivation – we can’t always rely on external forces to supply it.

Have the ‘courage to be normal’
Earlier, we saw how the need for praise can arise out of the desire to be special or extraordinary. It’s a natural tendency, especially when we compare ourselves to others. But we know, really, that everyone is normal, whatever society might be trying to tell us.

‘The courage to be normal’ is one of the key insights of the book The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga:

Why is it necessary to be special? Probably because one cannot accept one’s normal self.

The days are past when conductors, standing well above the orchestra, commanded unquestioned respect because of their towering genius – when their perceived ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’ qualities permitted them to be dictatorial and excused unacceptable, even abusive behaviour.

Of course, there are still a handful of people around who haven’t got the memo. But, by and large, we now expect and encourage a spirit of collaboration, in which a degree of responsibility is shared out among the group or team, and no one is the ‘special’ one, not even the conductor (perhaps especially not the conductor – after all, they are the only one not making any noise).

It’s in cultivating this ‘courage to be normal’, then, that we stand a chance of avoiding the pitfalls of excessive praise-seeking, and instead become collaborative, imaginative musicians or artists, secure and confident in our own abilities – but not so confident that we can’t continue to learn.