“Wow. Did you hear what he did? You’d think someone that successful would be sharper. Why do the ones who ‘can do no wrong,’ often do so much of it?”

Last week’s topic, redundancy and relaxation, has a lot to do with it. We live in two worlds, the real and the imagined, walk and talk, action and impression. It’s the world of impressions in which we can ‘do no wrong,’ not the world of action. Success in the world of impressions often masks the pressure to keep succeeding in the real world. That’s why the successful often lose touch. It’s what’s dangerous about resting on your laurels, or becoming a ‘legend in your own mind.’

As dangerous as such masking can be, most of us think it sounds like fun. It would be nice if we had status enough that we could do no wrong. The pressure to perform well would be off. We could relax. Our reputations would precede us. We could cruise. There would be no more of that ‘what have you done for us lately?’ pressure.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Indeed, the active ingredient in most luxury items is masking. We spend what we can on buffers against the elements. We don’t just buy warmer and safer homes that mask the vicissitudes of the weather. We buy buffers against discouraging feedback; charms to ward off both evil and corrective spirits. We buy praise, encouraging feedback, signs that the world will love us in perpetuity.

And then, safely buffered we either fall under new selective pressures (‘since winning the lottery, I’ve had time to work on my screenplay’) or we go soft. (‘since winning the lottery I haven’t really done much of anything.’)

Which raises a broader point about the squirrelly relationship between praise and effort: Do people make a greater effort when they receive praise? Yes and no. Sometimes when we succeed in reaching the bar we raise it. Sometimes we just hang out at it. This ambiguity can be diagrammed simply as follows where increases in praise cause either more (+) effort or less (-).

Since the relationship between praise and effort is a two-way street, we need a reverse arrow too. Do increases in effort always lead to greater praise? Again the answer is yes and no. Sometimes the more you do, the more you’re rewarded. But sometimes the more you do the more people expect of you.

Combining the diagrams we get an elegant depiction of a conundrum we all face at home, at work, and everywhere as givers, getters and seekers of praise.

At best we create a virtuous circle-more effort wins more praise which wins more effort which wins more praise. But ask any parent: it’s not always easy to engineer a virtuous circle spiraling ever upward.

Guessing when to praise and when to discourage is a little like trying to exit an underground parking lot with those one-way spiral tunnels going both up and down between the floors. If the way up is poorly marked, you have to guess at each tunnel entrance whether it’s going to take you up or down. In life, the way up is often poorly marked and you just have to bet. It’s a parking lottery.

Experts might tell you to bet on praise. Employees and children make more effort when they get lots of encouragement and not discouragement. The carrot is mightier than the stick. But of course there are exceptions. You may get more bees with honey than vinegar, but we’re not all bees and some percentage of the time vinegar works better on us.

I’m grateful for the discouragement I felt in my childhood-years of aching over not making the mark fueled me toward goals that I’m glad to still be pursuing here in mid-life. I’m sorry I spent years as a young musician easily impressed, and full of self- praising enthusiasm for my modest abilities. I became complacent and didn’t progress much during formative musical years. But then I’m also grateful to my mother who praised me generously.

The take-away is to study the patterns. If you’re ever lucky enough to arrive at the top getting nothing but praise, a little pattern-fluency could keep you from going soft. Knowing the patterns can help you design into your life compensatory pressures so your legendary status doesn’t just go to your head.

If I ever arrive at the top,
my doubts about me I could drop.
I would get a good sleep,
There’d be no counting sheep,
There’d be no one to question my slop.