That is, until you find yourself operating in an environment where you don't get affirmed very often.
If you're living in an environment devoid of encouragement, you might not immediately notice its ill effects. When you do, you might not recognize them as such. It's hard to get going in the morning...well, that's normal, right? Energy levels sag, we need more naps...well, we are getting older. We're less motivated to do things that used to turn our cranks...should we get our hormones checked? We hear ourselves snapping with the people we claim to love most...well, kids are irritating, aren't they? Or maybe we're just rotten people? When our health seems to be diminishing and our attitudes need adjusting, we tend to do one of two things: accept it as normal, or blame our flawed selves.
Curiously, we don't do that this with plants. If a plant fails to thrive, we don't call it normal, and we don't blame the plant. We recognize, rightly so, that something's gone wrong in the environment--that the soil lacks nutrients, or the plant was attacked by a disease or pest or severe weather event, or the amount of light or water received was too little or too much based on the needs of that particular plant. We don't dowse ferns in ethyl alcohol rather than water and expect them to thrive (or even survive); we don't plant bulbs in sand and expect them to bloom; we don't put our herb gardens in a windowless basement and act surprised when they wilt. We know that living things require the right mix of soil and water and light.
The fact that human beings are also living things--well, sometimes we seem to forget that. But we need the same stuff that plants need.
A couple of days ago, a journal accepted one of my articles for publication. Of course hearing "yes" is always a good feeling, especially in an endeavor where "no" is more the norm. But this time, "yes" felt especially energizing--so much so that it stunned me to realize how deprived of professional encouragement I've been lately. (As a crazy but weirdly wise relative once told me, "You drink water every day and don't think about it, until you find yourself parched in a desert. If someone gives you a drink then, that's the one you'll remember.") It made me realize just how serious the consequences of long-term demoralization can be, not just on the individual level but on the wider scale as well.
Affirmation, encouragement...what am I, some kind of new age guru who wants everyone to hold hands and sing "We Are the World" while wearing dorky matching outfits like the silly folk group in A Mighty Wind? (Great movie, by the way.) Nope. Am I advocating empty praise, just telling people "You're great" whether they are or not? Not at all. (In fact, quite a few social science studies suggest that empty praise is quite damaging.)
What I'm advocating is actually that sacred currency of the academic realm--"critical thinking." Yes, critical. Not in the sense of Random House definition number one--"inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily." The world has plenty of that already. I'm talking about "critical" in the sense of Random House's third definition-- "involving skillful judgment." (In academic circles that's what we mean--or claim to mean--when we talk about being "critical," though at times we all lapse into operating under the other, more widespread definition.)
Skillful judgment is exercised by good leaders who know how to bring out the best in people--not by pretending flaws don't exist, but by noticing where improvements need to be made and where strengths lie. True leaders know how to offer specific guidance, and when growth isn't happening, they figure out and identify what needs to be done differently. When it comes to skillful judgment, part of the "skill" includes knowing how to say things in a manner more likely to encourage than discourage. Effective leaders know that "fault-finding and severity" is like pouring ethyl alcohol on your plants instead of water. They understand--through critical thinking--that living things thrive in environments designed to meet their needs, that we all need the right amount of light, soil and water, and that individual needs will vary.
Academics are no exception. Despite having undergone the doctoral process, we're still human (presumably). We are living things, and we need what all living things need. But those things can be tough to find here. We tend to be highly trained professional fault-finders. Peer review can be brutal; expectations can feel impossible. It's easy to feel that whatever we do, it won't be enough. There are always more books or articles we should have read, more potential counter-arguments we should have anticipated, more nuances we should have addressed, more artful ways we could have articulated, more pedagogical tricks we could have employed. And in this new academic climate that somehow sneaked up on us, with its emphasis on perpetual assessment, we often sense the implication that we're doing our jobs badly, and that when students don't do so well, it's presumed to be our fault (even if, say, said students skipped fifty percent of our classes or tried to skim by without reading any textbooks).
It's also easy to project this fault-finding ethos into the rest of our work. How often do we read student papers not with an eye toward noticing what is promising--"exercising skillful judgment"--but through the lens of looking for mistakes, as though we are searching for evidence that the students really are as lousy as we suspect they are? "Wrong," we write in the margins; "vague," or my personal favorite, "awk." (What's more awkward than the abbreviation "awk"?)
So what, you may say? Serious intellectual pursuits aren't for the soft or faint of heart. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the conference room or the classroom.
That's true. Serious intellectual pursuits demand a lot of us. All the more reason we need to think more critically about, and strive to create, the kind of environment where such pursuits can thrive. I know that I'm far more effective, as a scholar, educator, parent, spouse and friend, when I feel encouraged rather than diminished. Poor Stuart Smalley, though funny, is actually quite sad when you think about it: He's reduced to looking in the mirror and telling himself he's "good enough" precisely because he's been told far too often that he's not. Perhaps if we lived in an environment more conducive to healthy growth, there would be far less need for people to stare at themselves in the mirror.
Some say, the world is a tough and cruel place; our job is to help people prepare for that harsh reality. But there's no brilliance in telling students (or anybody else), "Someday, somebody is going to be mean to you--so I'm going to help you out by being mean to you now." There's not much critical thinking in that approach.
Yes, it can be a tough and cruel world. That's the whole problem. But the job of teachers, and of leaders, shouldn't be to add to the cruelty. Instead, the task should be to help those under our influence to grow hardy enough to thrive in that cruel world, perhaps in the process even growing strong enough to make a start at changing it. We do that by creating an environment that is conducive to thriving--an environment rich in encouragement and honest affirmation.