When you’re a baby, a toddler (if you have good parents) much of your progress and milestones are rewarded with gushing praise. Clapping, their smiling faces beam at you as you drunkenly lurch from one foot to the next, taking those first few steps. Praise is showered as you grasp a pencil in your hand, that what is so unfamiliar, and you carefully sweep the lead across the dotted line above and below, printing your name, the alphabet, your first sentences. The roller coaster of notes soar in their voices, hitting high and dramatic, as you read your first book, play a sport, learn something new. On and on it goes, as you proceed into the world, learning, failing, trying again, with your own personal coaches who teach you, praise you, tell you that they’re proud of you.
And then it all sort of fades away. We grow up, and our success becomes measured in other ways. Are you married yet? How good is your job? Are you the favorite in your office? Do you receive a raise? Some places establish goals and financial rewards follow. Performance reviews are scheduled – the dreaded sit down, where nothing should be a surprise and yet so often is – they become opportunities to couch constructive criticism while highlighting the positive. Nobody usually applauds.
We learn to give it to ourselves, the positive self-talk, the pep talks, the inner cheerleader, the one who combats the inner demons, who so readily cling to any shred of negativity, as though that will become the true motivation for change. But when it is given, freely, and unasked for, when you’re 41, it is akin to finding the golden ticket resting atop a Willy Wonka chocolate bar.
When I got my job offer, my husband stood up, walked over to me, put his hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and said, “I’m proud of you.”
A week later, a really good friend of mine said the same thing on the phone. I feel like I’ve left those two wonderful pieces of praise on the table, looking at them from across the room, marveling at how they made me feel, somewhat afraid to even pick them up and tarnish them with my own fingerprints. I’ve had more time to think about them, and perhaps it’s all churned to the surface because someone congratulated me on my job and immediately followed that up by telling me I was lucky.
I’ll confess, I bristled a bit.
Is it luck? Does my accomplishment, do my three months of unemployment, so small compared to others, become diminished by luck? Is something deemed ‘lucky’ diminishing the work that accompanied the result? I prefer to think of it as good fortune, I suppose. I recognize what it’s like out there, I was just out there. I know people are losing their homes, and in far worse circumstances than we ever were. And I guess I do think some of those situations are very unlucky. Every situation is different. Every person has a different set of skills,circumstances, background and aptitude. And for the most part, in my business anyway, it comes down to who you know. And I networked myself like a hard core motherfuckin’ salesperson, as if my life depended on it, because in a lot of ways, it did. And it paid off. But in the background of all that networking, I was sending out resumes right and left, searching for jobs, having black dark days, imagining moving, leaving my home, friends, possibly working and living somewhere else while James stayed here, just to make ends meet. I know of some fellow ad brethren who are sitting at home and playing WoW all day. Giving up. Waiting for the job fairy or the bank to knock on the door. I can count on one hand the number of days where I felt “ok”and didn’t feel like the earth was crushing down on my shoulders and that, somehow, in all of this, I had failed.
Last summer, in Bryant Park, a woman told me I had beautiful eyes. I felt like shit at the time, I was hot and sweaty, my boss had galloped off ahead of me, and like a million other moments in my life, I felt on the outside looking in. It brings tears to my eyes now, because it was such a kind thing to say. To a stranger. In one of the biggest cities in the world. Another friend of mine, upon meeting up at a coffee house told me how pretty I looked. I felt startled. Nice, but startled. I joke about preening and I’ll kiss the backs of my hands, like I’m a diva, but my diva days have been few and far between this year. I’ll be glad to close the chapter and ring in 2010, with a new job, and far more wisdom than I expected I’d gather this year. The bruises will fade, but the memories will take more time.
I lived my formative years with two huge cheerleaders (who also knew how to handily employ the stick, lest you think it was a cakewalk of rose petals and confetti), and then I went out into the world, unsure of how to give that to myself. Sometimes I still don’t know how. What I do know is that when praise is given – by someone you love, respect or are passing on the street, it feels good. Everyone should do it more often, because genuine appreciation and acknowledgment is soul-nourishing.
And luck has nothing to do with that.