Bucking the Trend: The “No-Praise Zone”

Kevin O’Keefe was  kind enough to post about “early blogger” Dave Winer’s Blogger of the Year – 2012.  No, it wasn’t a lawyer. Not even a political pundit, regardless of flavor.  Instead, Winer chose Philip Greenspun.  Kevin offered this explanation:



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!

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.

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.



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.

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. 


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.









8 comments on “Bucking the Trend: The “No-Praise Zone”

  1. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    SHG, I’m gonna have to vehemently agree with you on this. I know from firsthand experience . . .

    My grandpapi was the single most intelligent person I’ve ever known. And hard working too. He grew up through the Depression; his upper middle-class family being thrown, almost overnight, into poverty. He valued education more than anything in the world, yet he wasn’t able to afford college when it was his time. But that ended up not mattering much, if at all, as he became a self-taught engineer and, literally, a master at everything he attempted. He retired at age 50, a self-made man . . .

    We spent a lot time together after he retired, from age eight or nine until into my mid-twenties, when he died. He was a very generous man but brutally critical too, of everyone and everything. To say the least, he did not suffer fools gladly or lightly. Including me . . .

    He would call me “ol’ Retarded™” when I said something stupid. He would correct every single grammar and pronunciation error I made when speaking with him. He made me look up words in the dictionary I didn’t know, on the spot. We spent hours on end in the local library, where he was a benefactor. Watch Jeopardy together a few days a week, he would answer – I’m not kidding you here – at least 95 percent, maybe more, of the questions before the contestants would . . .

    But the thing is, as much as I hated criticism from him or anybody else, for that matter, as I look back at various things I have accomplished, most were powered by my need to prove the critics and naysayers, including, and maybe primarily, grandpapi, wrong. Even long after he died. And to do that, I learned to take every criticism as a challenge to work harder and to better myself, to strive to “win”, to point to the “scoreboard™” for my own validation, while never looking to or expecting it from other people . . .

    True Story™ . . .
    .

  2. SHG

    While your grandpapi’s efforts are laudable, my bet is that he hoped you would internalize the lessons he taught you so that you would no longer try to achieve to prove him wrong, but do so because you internally desired to achieve and took personal pride in overcoming the challenges, whether or not anyone else knew.  Of course, since he wasn’t my grandpapi, I’m only guessing.

  3. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    I’m gonna somewhat, maybe mostly, agree with you here too . . .

    I once had a shrink tell me, long after grandpapi was dead, that she was sure he didn’t mean to scar my fragile childhood psyche by being so critical and, especially, by calling me “ol Retarded™” one time too many. I thought about it for a moment and replied, “That’s probably true, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter what he actually thought, only how I perceived and have reacted to it. And I cannot deny, whatever he did and however he did it, and the ultimate affect it had on me, he drove me towards accomplishment and the love of learning and continuous self-improvement, which, upon reflection, I can only view as a good thing.”

    My maw, on the other hand, has always and will always be too nice to me. I could be a cereal killer and she would say, “But you’re really a fine cereal killer; I’ve never seen anybody eat Cheerios with so much panache and taste.” And the fact is, I’m not sure I would have been driven to any success at all had I internalized that message . . .

    I believe we are defined and toughened and made resilient by our scars, not our tender, soft-white underbellies – those parts of our being which have been over-massaged, stroked, and, generally, wholly wussified . . .
    .

  4. AlliG

    I don’t take praise well and I don’t give it indiscriminately. I always assume more can and should be done. And I think you have to get kicked around a little–a lot–to really understand anything. But I did receive praise from my parents growing up. What I think hurts kids more than praise is receiving the gifts of affluence for truly mediocre (or worse) work–designer jeans, video games, iPhones, cars, and, of course, college tuition. I was told I could have the things I wanted in life–whatever they might be–if I killed myself working hard to earn them. When you realize how tall the ladder is, a little encouragement at a young age can go a long way–as long as the kid knows she has to do all of the actual climbing herself.

  5. SHG

    I suspect there’s a missing nuance in there somewhere. Praise earned is different from unwarranted praise given to bolster self-esteem without acheivement.

    Praise can come in many forms, from verbal to trophies and red balloons to iPhones, cars and designer jeans. Of course, we didn’t have designer jeans when I was a young man. We had dungarees. My parents bought them for me so I wouldn’t walk around pantsless, which would most assuredly have not brought me any praise.

  6. AlliG

    It’s really too bad you don’t have a Pinterest account. I suspect all SJ readers would love to see a young SHG walking uphill to and from school in dungarees.

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