Bucking the Trend: The "No-Praise Zone"
Forgive my self-interest, but those three letters, MIT, caught my interest, and so I delved deep into the past to see what Greenspun had to say. He was fascinating. Using the old form, Weblog, that was once on the cutting edge and has since fallen into disuse and forgotten, he just wrote.
He was a blogger before there were blogs, writing his own web CMS so he could tell the stories of his photography, flying, his beautiful dog, teaching at MIT, and his startup. It was when he wrote about the startup that he caught my attention. I remember reading the story of the people, his mistakes with investors, what he learned. Oh man, this guy is a blogger, for sure!
Greenspun wrote about whatever was in his head at the moment, frankly and without any hint of facile self-service. It was, for lack of a better word, real. Winer saw it that way as well.
Reading through ancient history, Greenspun's writings from the 1990's, I came across the latter part of a paragraph that foreshadowed so much of what ails us today.
This is what I meant by the unedited voice of a person. That’s what a blog is. That’s all you have to do to be a blogger. But to be a great blogger, you must have something to say. That’s Greenspun, for sure.
I'm not sure how much time these three guys had ever spent with engineers. Chuck Vest, the president of MIT, in a private communication to some faculty, once described MIT as "a no-praise zone". My first week as an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student I asked a professor for help with a problem. He talked to me for a bit and then said "You're having trouble with this problem because you don't know anything and you're not working very hard."
Back then, the world wide web was still little more than a twinkle in a computer scientist's eye. It was an idea so filled with promise that hearts burst at its prospects. But it happened at a time when society, or more particularly a generation that had just given birth to the most wonderful children ever, held the belief that the future greatness of its offspring required that no child ever failed at anything. There were no strikes in t-ball, and no one ever came in last in a race. Every child got a trophy, for doing their best was all we could ever ask of anyone.
Many of the readers here were those children. Fewer of the readers were, like me, the parents, but those few will remember the theory. We hoped beyond hope to watch our babies achieve greatness, and would do anything in our power to help them. We played Mozart because someone said it would make the babies smarter. We hovered over you so that you would never make a bad choice. We wouldn't let you run because you might fall and skin your knee.
Most of all, we believed that if our children had high self-esteem, it would give them the confidence to believe they could achieve anything. We looked at our babies starry-eyed, wondering whether you would cure cancer, perhaps AIDS, solve world hunger or write the most compelling concerto ever. The possibilities were endless, provided your self-esteem was never dashed against the rocks of reality.
It wasn't the the theory was utterly lacking in basis, but that like so many other ideas that seemed valid at the time, it was just plain wrong. Instead of creating a generation of brilliant over-achievers, we created a generation of delicate teacups, who were too fragile to accept anything other than unconditional praise.
The minds that developed at places like MIT in the 1990's gave us things that a decade before were inconceivable, fantasies that only existed in movies and story books. They made them happen not because they were given trophies for walking without falling down, but because they were not. Harsh truths were spoken, and they rose to the challenge of overcoming their deficits and failings.
Achievement doesn't come from unwarranted self-esteem, but from building the fortitude to face challenges. That's what was, and what is, real. We made a terrible mistake to believe otherwise, and did you no favor coddling you and catering to your every whim. But now that you know better, you can still rise to the occasion and be what we always hoped you would be.
Screw the false praise that you so desperately needed. It's worthless. Seek the "no-praise zone" where your achievements will speak for themselves. You can still do it if you are up to the challenge.