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After each of the many workshops I’ve conducted, I asked my participants to fill out an evaluation. And no matter how much heady praise they had heaped upon me personally as they filed out of the room (“That was amazing! I learned so much!”), many of them still managed to downgrade me or find something to complain about on the form. (“There was too much noise outside. You should’ve had more pictures.”) At first, I was confused. Did they like my work or not? As people we tend to gravitate toward the negative when the response is ambiguous, so I assumed they had merely been kind in what they said aloud. I drove home depressed. But, over the years, I’ve decided I was wrong.
When asked for an evaluation, people feel compelled to criticize—even if we’re evaluating ourselves. Only a shameless, childish Pollyanna would see all good. Nothing is all good. No one is completely extraordinary. A person who has nothing but good to say is unaware. As the nurse Nellie sings in SOUTH PACIFIC, when we complain…we “appear more intelligent and smart.” We may feel superior.
True, nothing is ever perfect. If you look hard enough from enough angles at anything, you can find something wrong or lacking. It’s our duty to criticize! Criticizing is the way we make things better, isn’t it? Not necessarily. Sometimes it’s the way we feed the negative. Whatever you feed, grows. So you tell yourself or an employee or maybe your teenager everything he could have done to be better: “Yes, you cleaned your room, but you didn’t do your homework…Yes, you did your homework, but you didn’t take out the trash…Yes, you took out the trash, but you didn’t leave gas in the car.” And he improves, right? Not necessarily. Maybe he gives up. Maybe he doesn’t clean or do homework or anything else. Maybe he decides you hate him and stops talking to you. Only a fool works perpetually trying to please someone who won’t be pleased. You’re trying to attract bees with vinegar. You’re depressing yourself.
What a pessimistic viewpoint ignores is the fact that we want to believe in ourselves and a better future. We want to believe what we’re doing matters. There’s a reason gratitude enhances satisfaction with life. A whole lot is wrong, but what’s right? Once we see what’s right, we can build on it. We can use a tiny success as fuel to propel us through trouble.
This year has been dark and filled with scary changes (change is almost always scary). The media personalities who spend their days ferreting out something wrong with any new idea don’t make our lives more satisfying, but when we’re terrified we’re easier to manipulate. We start to believe that this is the worst time history has ever seen. The fact that every generation—even the ancient Greeks—complained that they were living in the worst of times proves we’re a difficult species to please.
From what angle is an apparent misfortune an opportunity? So maybe there’s no money for raises, but how much does praise cost? Maybe it’s time to create a lifestyle that isn’t dependent on a certain place or a certain salary to be fulfilling. Maybe it’s time to count our blessings before we wallow in our problems. Life is a test. Anyone who knows test psychology can tell you that you’ll do best on a test if you stay relaxed so your brain is creative enough for you to spot possibilities. Maybe it’s time to look on the bright side…for a change. : )