Encouragement is the Key to Unlocking Potential

Don't Confuse it with Praise

Who will cross your path today? Some will be the people you know the best and love the most—you’ll create some of these intersections, other will seem random. Every personal interaction presents you with an opportunity for impact. Knowing why praise is not encouragement is the key.

Does it surprise you to learn that that you will meet between 80,000 and 100,000 people over the course of your lifetime? You’ll be in the presence of millions more. Let’s create a quick visual of the size of this opportunity. Picture yourself sitting in the The Rose Bowl filled to capacity. Now wrap your head around the knowledge that you are going to have a face-to-face interaction with everyone sitting in that stadium over the course of your life—amazing opportunities for impact.

No one has your unique place in history for impact—to positively change the course and trajectory of the lives of the people who you’ll meet. What I have come to realize is that we underestimate our potential for impact and miss important opportunities to share encouragement.

We can be quick to share a kind word of praise, but this is not the same as encouragement. The critical difference is that encouragement breaks down barriers and unlocks potential while praise can create ceilings. Carol Dweck, Ph.D., is a researcher at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

There is a growing body of research and Dweck’s work is very insightful. Let’s focus on one example.

They took a random sample of 500 fifth graders from across the country and gave them a simple 10-question test. Then they randomly created two groups and praised them in one of two ways.

  • 1st Group was praised for their intelligence. “Wow, great job. You must be very smart.
  • 2nd Group was praised for their effort. “Wow, great job. You must have worked hard.”

Now they asked the kids to take a second test and told they had two options.

  • Option #1 was a harder version of the original test—“A great opportunity to learn and grow.”
  • Option #2 was similar to the original test—“You will surely do well on it.”

Which test did the kids decide to take?

  • 67% of the kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test that they were told they would do well on.
  • 92% of the kids praised for their effort chose the harder test that provided them an opportunity to learn and grow.

Now it gets really interesting. They gave all the participants a really hard test—an impossible test. What did they observe?

  • The group that was encouraged by praising them for their effort worked harder, longer and actually enjoyed the work more.
  • The group praised for their intelligence and talent became frustrated and quit more quickly.

The researchers gave the kids a final test that was as easy as the first test and compared the performance to the original.

  • The group praised for their intelligence actually did worse! Their average score dropped 20%.
  • The group encouraged for their effort excelled. The average score rose 30%.
  • A 50% difference in results between the two groups based on the differentiated feedback between praise and encouragement.

Dweck’s research draws some powerful conclusions. When we hear someone tell us we are brilliant or talented we believe that is why he or she admires us and we better not do anything that will disprove this evaluation. Simple praise leads us to play it safe, limits our growth, stifles our willingness to learn, and encourages us to push challenges aside.

The voice and tenor of encouragement focuses someone on the strategies they use, the way their are stretching themselves, taking on hard tasks, or the intense practice they are engaged in they focus themselves on the process of growth and improvement.

When you praise someone for being smart and talented they will be sure not to engage in anything that may lead you change your evaluation of them—they play it safe and seek goals, assignments and projects that they know they will succeed.

Today you will come face-to-face with one of the 100,000 opportunities you will have to make an impact on someone.

I like to remind myself from time-to-time that we are all just kids in adult bodies. We need encouragement, we want it and we simply don’t get enough of it.

We get comfortable with praise but thrive on encouragement. Encouragement is the right person, with the right word, at the right time that changes our thinking, focuses our attention, lifts our doubts, pushes our fears asides, gets us restarted, helps up put our foot on the accelerator, and pushes towards the finish line.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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