Phrases like these can keep us going when the going gets tough, and can help us rise to the occasion when our convictions might otherwise falter.
At one time or another, most of us need a little encouragement, or at least some reminder of why what we’re doing is worth doing well. Too often, though, we focus on our moments of weakness and mediocrity, and we fail to realize how many times a day we successfully embrace all kinds of challenges — from delivering a last-minute project to showing up for an early-morning fitness class that would have been sooo easy to skip.
Every day, we all employ initiative, intelligence, discipline and our own innate resourcefulness to accomplish things we might just as easily abandon. And every day, those around us do the same. So, why is it so hard for us to accept a pat on the back, and why don’t we extend these pats to others more often?
I think a big part of it is time scarcity.
In so many areas of our lives, we have filled up every last margin. All those little white spaces we used to reserve for preparation, observation and acknowledgement have been stuffed full of more right-this-minute action items. As a result, we sometimes fail to notice when we (or others) have done a challenging or basic-but-important thing well. Our attention is already firmly focused on “the next thing.”
Another big challenge is that we simply aren’t around each other enough to do as much back-patting as we might like. We’ve gotten so efficient and transactional in our interactions with each other, so isolated by our productivity, we barely say “Hi,” much less, “Hey, I wanted to tell you that I’ve noticed this thing you are doing/choosing/making happen, and I think it’s terrific.”
There’s a very funny story essayist David Sedaris tells about how his sister Lisa trained her pet parrot, Henry, to offer her spontaneous words of encouragement during a rough time. “I’d call,” he writes in his book Dress Your Family In Denim and Corduroy, “and hear him screaming in the background: ‘We love you, Lisa!’ and ‘You can do it!’”
That image never fails to make me chuckle, perhaps because, as a person living alone, I can totally relate to the slightly pathetic desire to get some positive feedback from an enthusiastic and supportive audience — even when there’s no audience there.
The image also touches me, though, because I think so many of us can only hear encouragement and accolades when they do come from the outside. We simply don’t have the knack for appreciating our own outstanding efforts unless someone else is willing to herald them first.
Moreover, we often neglect to notice the rewards that are quietly accumulating as the result of our unheralded successes. We eat well and exercise regularly, and we get strong and healthy in the process — but we’re focused on the parts of our bodies that just don’t seem to be falling in line with our idealized image. We apply ourselves to important projects and do great work — but we’re so obsessed with one area of frustration that we fail to take any satisfaction in our accomplishments.
As a recovering perfectionist and workaholic, I am plagued by all sorts of “never good enough” tendencies. But I do strive to practice what we preach here at the magazine, so while working on this issue, I gave a fair bit of thought to how many things really have gone right this year — both in my own personal and professional life, and in the other contexts I care deeply about.
This year, the Experience Life team was recognized 10 times at the Minnesota Magazine and Publications Association awards — and to my absolute delight, we were awarded the organization’s top prize for General Excellence. We also brought home our second Folio award, and got hundreds of letters from readers who told us we were making a positive difference in their lives. That’s about as nice a reward for virtue as I can imagine.
We dedicated this issue of the magazine to helping you notice and acknowledge your own major and minor triumphs. Let us know what you turn up!
Oh, and if you’ve been working on getting healthier this year, or if you’re looking for one more good reason to make your health a priority, check out my article on page 50. It’s about how basic health pays off with some extra benefits that just might surprise you.