False Praise is a Death Sentence

“Good game out there, buddy, have a trophy”, said my football coach.

I think his name was Terrance. And this was minutes after he brained me in the face with a football from about 40 yards away.  

Full bore.  I was 8 years old.

I put my hands in front of my face, squinting behind the spaces between my fingers, but missed the catch and  — BAP! — the pigskin smashed me in the face, warping my glasses, and yet, in my dizzying state, I was awarded a trophy.  

It was on this particular day that we were all winners somehow.

When I was in third grade I played flag football after school at the local community center across the street from my elementary school.  My parents made me do it, just so I would have something to keep me busy after school before they came to pick me up. I’ve never really been into sports. I was more into activities that involved sitting down like video games, eating breakfast cereal, or… sitting down.  So, no, I’ve never been a big sports guy and yet at the end of the game, to my surprise, I got a shiny trophy. Shiny little football guy on top and everything.

The coach just handed it to me.   

Me and every other kid who played that day.  

Both teams, actually.

It is human nature to want to feel important, and that’s great. We want to feel accomplished. Capable. Special. We want to be recognized for these attributes and contributions in the world. These things help make the bizarre experience of life worth the struggle; things that feed our motivation to work hard and build the kind of life we want for ourselves.  We all crave appreciation and recognition, but one thing nobody ever wants is false-praise, which is exactly what I got after Terrance smashed me in the face.

I played football in fourth grade as well, and at the end of a game, Terrance handed me the exact same trophy; a congratulatory token for merely showing up and existing on the same patch of grass where a football game had transpired.  Before he handed me the trophy I was probably wondering whether the post-game snack would be Teddy Grahams or Goldfish, or thinking about what new video game I wanted to save up for. Or boobs.

Anything but football.

There’s a weird thing in our culture where we award people simply for participating or completing a task. The gold stars on homework assignments or scratch and sniff stickers on tests. Trophies and plaques for recreational sports. My-kid-is-an-honor-student bumper stickers and on and on. You get the idea. As a culture, we tend to coddle our youth, doling out “participation awards” just so we don’t hurt anybody’s feelings. In doing so we condition each other to believe that, why, yes, you are amazing and gifted, which in turn imbues a false sense of confidence stemming from this flattery and false-praise.  

Everyone wants to be special and unique.  We all want our talents and efforts to be recognized and celebrated — me included.  But suppose you get your wish.  What if tomorrow everyone started telling you that you are amazing, and that you are gifted, or that you are good enough?

How do you know? Who’s to be trusted?

King George V had a set of six maxims displayed on the walls of his study at Buckingham Palace.  One of these maxims said:

Teach me neither to proffer, nor receive cheap praise.

This is almost always what the gold stars, the stickers, and goofy trophies are — cheap praise.

Looking back on it, my experience in graduate school was largely based on cheap praise. The feedback I got was valid, sure.  Valid within that fabricated bubble of an environment, but not necessarily in the real world.  During my graduate school years, I would work so hard for the carrot on the stick that was the final grade. I put in the reps, did the hard work, and if I got an A, I felt really good about myself. I would experience a slight uptick in how confident I was in my abilities.  Whether it was a carefully written essay or well-delivered presentation, a single day after the due date, it was as if it never existed.  The more A’s I got, the more confident in my abilities I became, yes, but this sense of achievement really only existed in a microcosm; a hermetically sealed ecosystem of rules that don’t apply to life outside the bubble.

If it wasn’t good enough to spread around to peers or colleagues, or even attempt at being published, was it really an A paper?  Did it really have a lasting impact on anything but itself?

Epictetus has this somber take on flattery which I really like:

Crows devour the eyes of the dead when the dead no longer need of them. But flatterers destroy the souls of the living and blind their eyes

Shortly after graduation I was talking about future plans with a coworker and I told him I wanted to write about nutrition for a living.  Paul started asking me questions about the quality of my writing and whether I would start a blog or do something else entirely.  I was so convinced of my writing abilities, so utterly blind to the reality of the situation, that when asked about my level of competence, this is what I said:

“My writing speaks for itself.”  

Come again?!

The arrogance.  

The ego.

The delusion.

I feel so terrible knowing that I actually said those words.  And meant them, no less. I was an arrogant, self-centered dipshit with an inflated sense of importance. Still am, to be honest, but I’m working on it.

“My writing speaks for itself.”


I made plenty of A’s in graduate school, so, naturally, I thought I could actually compete in the real world right out of the gate. Graduate school taught me some valuable skills, to be sure, but without real world application, it was just practice.  Child’s play.

This was a lesson I should have learned after graduating from college, but it took getting my Masters degree to get the message.

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice…

One of the main lessons I learned from formal education is that ego is the enemy, and I’ve been trying to deflate that bastard ever since I realized it was a problem.  False praise and flattery are harmful because they imbue you with a confidence that hasn’t truly been earned.  The ego is fertile soil for false praise — it lives off of it — and the more you internalize this form of deception, the faster your ego will grow out of control, unchecked, like a weed. That’s what happened to me at least.

The bigger the ego becomes, the less receptive you’ll be to sincere praise or constructive criticism when you need it most.

It’s like Adam Smith said:

Undeserved praise is a reprimand — a reminder of what I could be

When we receive false praise, we are in effect being reprimanded, and the results can be destructive.  Suppose you want to be a writer.  Now, to get better at writing you need to do two things.

  1. Write constantly.

  2. Receive ruthless feedback on your work.

Anybody with the determination can do the first part, and you’ll get better to a point simply by doing the work.  But, you need to stretch your abilities to truly excel, and to do this you need the objective, honest feedback to help you break through your plateau and graduate to the next level.   

A few weeks ago Tucker Max wrote an article called Who Should You Ask for Feedback on your Writing?  When soliciting feedback from someone, Tucker advises that that person be from your specific audience, or someone credentialed and experienced in writing or editing.  And even then, there are no guarantees.  I can’t put words in his mouth, but I’d bet that Tucker would agree that false praise is a death sentence.  Hell, he started a business that is contingent on creating consistent, high quality work; the result of honest communication and constructive criticism between the client and the team at Book in a Box. If honest feedback from the right people wasn’t a cornerstone of his business, the resultant books might just be mediocre, and mediocre businesses usually fail.

You need people to tell it to you straight in life.  They aren’t always easy to find, and I struggle with this too, but you should try to be around people who are better than you; people that can show you a mirror of yourself and help you fix the mistakes you’re making.

The point is, there is a fine line between appreciation and flattery. In contrasting this difference, Dale Carnegie said:

One is sincere and the other insincere. One comes from the heart out; the other from the teeth out. One is unselfish; the other selfish. One is universally admired; the other universally condemned.

When someone appreciates your efforts, acknowledge it, but also study it.  Be mindful of the compliments you receive and the criticisms of your work, but learn to discern between authentic appreciation and flattery.   There’s a time and place for giving people compliments to console or cheer them up. Some flattery is just social pleasantry, like paying someone a compliment.  If the feedback puffs you up with confidence and pride; if it feels too good to be true, well then, it probably is.


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