Not long ago a study was released explaining kids are negatively affected when we tell them they’re good at something. It sounds crazy, I know, but the article said if we say to our kids they’re good musicians or good athletes, they feel an enormous amount of pressure to live up to the expectations we’ve unknowingly set. The study found kids are much better off if we say great job scoring that goal or you sounded really good in practice today.
The difference, the study suggested, is we’re praising what a kid did rather than praising his or her identity based on select criteria. In other words, when we say you’re a good musician what the kid hears is you only matter if you’re a good musician and you should fear losing that status but when we say you sounded great in practice today what the kid hears is you sounded great in practice today, nothing more and nothing less. Their identity has nothing to do with whether they’re a good musician or not.
Most parents mean well, of course, but the article had a great point. When our identity gets tied up in success, we begin to fear failure or the loss of that status, and fearing failure is one of the reasons we begin to hide our real selves and project a false identity.
I could trace a similar dynamic through my own career.
My first book was reviewed decently but nobody told me I was a great writer so I didn’t feel much pressure writing a second book. After my second book came out, people were much more kind and I started believing, without realizing what was happening, that I had to measure up to their expectations. I didn’t want to let them down with my next effort. And so the time it took for me to write a book was longer and longer with each new project. My first book took a year to write, the second took a year and a half and now it takes four years or more for me to finish a book. Why? Because the pressure to measure up has compounded.
Where there’s much to lose, there’s much to fear.
And I was paralyzed by the fear.
Once people start telling us we’re good at something we can feel it and we wrongly believe we have to produce something better or we’ll fade away. And this idea affects more than just our careers. Anybody who has built their identity on being beautiful is probably terrified to grow old or gain weight. Anybody who has built their identity on being rich might be afraid of losing money or status.
Anybody who controls people with power might be afraid of being seen as weak. (Tweet This)
Once we believe we matter based on certain conditions, we become a slave to those conditions.