{104} The Importance of Ruthless Encouragement

I received a few grateful comments on my post about my writing “technique” (less of that than a writing “attack” but whatevs) from friends who felt encouraged by reading about someone who does not write “by the rules.”

Because rules are good for establishing a framework of communication and dedication, but they should rarely (never? Never.) be absolute laws. Except gravity, of course.

Those comments, as appreciated as they were and are, also infuriated me. They represent the profound influence of the scourges of our culture: the belief of One Right Way and the power of ruthless criticism.

And yes, yes, and YES, criticism is important. We do not grow as artists if we are never informed of what we are doing wrong. But “wrong” should not be about rules, but results. Instead we all try to find the right set of rules to follow (laws, religions, gurus, teachers, methods) and internalize the concept of right VERSUS wrong. 

But really, “wrong” is more like a mile marker on the path to “right.” Are you going to play Mozart if you don’t grasp music theory and know your scales? Probably not. But you are not going to know those things without doing them wrong, a lot.

I am not going to create beautiful drawings of the human body if I don’t get pencil to paper and draw body parts to the wrong scale and perspective, repeatedly.

Instead we let the idea of “right VERSUS wrong” burrow down into our hearts, with every person who rips our work apart because it isn’t right enough. We become so fearful of being called out for doing something “wrong” that we don’t do anything…at all.

Worse, our culture has valued brutal criticism as a virtue. The editor who makes writers cry? Obviously inspiring genius! The conductors who rage and scream at performers? Clearly raising the bar! Teachers who tear down students’ work in the name of some abstract ideal of perfection? Pushing excellence!

I’m here to call BULLSHIT on all of that. I’m here to say:

  • If criticism hasn’t been asked for and isn’t respectfully given, it’s pointless crap.
  • If your idea of helping is to let someone know how bad they are at something, or how impossible it will be to accomplish their goals, then do all of us a favor and DIAF.
  • If you believe that breaking someone down is more important for their artistic development than encouraging them, you are wrong.

The fact is that those of us who are trying to improve our work know when we do things wrong, or when we need advice and constructive criticism. On the other hand, those who are doing something for fun and don’t give a damn about standards don’t need advice from anyone, ever, unless they ask for it.

But here is what people DO need: encouragement.

People need others to tell them that it is okay to do things wrong, as long as they are doing them. Encouragement is 10000x more important than criticism, because anyone who is highly motivated will seek out ways to improve their work on their own. They will find the teachers, editors, and yes, critics they need. They don’t need all of that thrown at them when they are feeling down and upset about their skills.

Yes, there is only one way to perfectly dance Swan Lake. But there are a lot of styles of dance, and there are many ways to interpret a theme. In fact, most great creative souls are remembered for breaking the rules, for taking their art to the next level, not because they hewed to the conventions (and criticism) of their time.

Motivation and encouragement are the true keys to artistic, creative success. Throw out every notion that there is One Correct Way that will lead to artistic/creative success. There isn’t. There is only encouragement, motivation, and our goals — and if all those are inspiration enough, we will each find our own way to writing that book, playing that music, creating that drawing, performing that dance according to the rules we have chosen to follow.

I know too many talented people who shy away from doing anything for fear that they will be criticized for doing something wrong. Of course, they will do something wrong, at some point — such is the price of creative practice. But the fear of that is too great, and so we all lose their voices, their vision, their art. It’s a tragedy.

This is why I have left criticism behind and focus instead on ruthless encouragement. I don’t care what you are trying to do, what rules you have decided to follow: I will encourage you. I will support you. I will tell you with complete conviction that you can achieve your goals.

I do this because it is what is really needed, I think. I give criticism when asked for, if I can. Oddly, I often am asked, because people who feel inspired want to do better, and will demand help towards that goal. I’m glad to help. I’m glad to encourage them however they need.

Try practicing ruthless encouragement, and see what it gets you. I bet you will be surprised.