On Encouragement: Dare to Be Great

(Grant Cavalry Statue | Nicolas Raymond)

(Grant Cavalry Statue | Nicolas Raymond)

Encouragement does not mean "comfort," it means the opposite, it means "to be pushed into courage to overcome our comforts."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

"Encouragement," like many overused words, loses its classical meaning over time. Its meaning shifts based on what we want it to mean, rather than what it is meant to mean. Rather than having a thought transform us, we conveniently transform the thought to confirm our bias.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
— George Bernard Shaw

Repeating what you already know is like saying nothing since nothing changes from it. Ideas become cheapened and in the process, they lose their worth.

Bravery in Fear

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Being brave and afraid is like having hope within suffering. If there is no suffering, there is no need for hope. It's only when we are afraid that we must be brave. Without fear, what need is there for courage? They exist to oppose the other.

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask, “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?
— Erin Hanson

We think "comfort" can be used interchangeably with "encouragement," but that is like using fear interchangeably with courage, courage and encouragement exist to oppose comfort and fear. Comfort itself is a helpful practice (just as fear can save your life) but not in the same way as encouragement. Comfort asks you to be happy where you are, where encouragement asks you to soar high above it.

En-courage-ment is derived from the Old French term "encoragier." Encoragier means to "put into corage." "Corage" is derived from the Latin word "coraticum," meaning "heart, daring." Courage is the ability and willingness to confront fear, uncertainty, intimidation, and the unknown. Encouragement isn't about making us feel better or comfortable — that is no different from discouragement. Encouragement asks us to be daring, to have heart, to break free, to grow beyond our perceived limits. Comfort, however, rejects growth; it wants to be complimented and validated for our lack of growth. Comfort tricks us, it makes us believe encouragement is discouraging and that we can grow while staying the same, staying comfortable. This is why it never works, it's wanting to change without changing. (Like wanting to lose weight without changing your diet.)

When people today are pushed to do their best, we mostly hear, "Hey, that's not encouraging!" It makes me think of The Princess Bride:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
— Inigo Montoya

When we seek encouragement, we're asking to be propelled forward — to progress. When confronted with our doubts, our sensitives, and our lack of resilience, we'll replace the meaning of encouragement with that of comfort, and we'll get upset at those who push us forward. But encouragement does not mean "comfort," it means the opposite, it means "to be pushed into courage to overcome our comforts." You can't be courageous and comfortable at the same time; and when people ask this of you, when you ask them to push you, you can't expect it to be comfortable.

On Changing Our Minds

What is mindset and how do we change it? I posed this question to best-selling author and Forbes writer Amy Morin. She said:

Our mindset refers to our overall core beliefs and attitude in life. So while someone with a generally positive outlook on life may still experience the occasional negative thought, if they’re determined to overcome adversity, they’ll get through it. Our mindset largely determines our behavior and the choices we make despite whatever circumstances we face.

Most people struggle to create realistic expectations. The digital age has definitely made this worse. We think everything should happen at the touch of a button — but in reality, self-growth occurs at a much slower pace. Whether we want to create a successful company, or we want to transform our bodies, we tend to lack the patience it takes to get there.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that we underestimate challenges. We think, ‘This will be easy,’ and we expect success to happen right away. At other times, we overestimate our abilities and think, ‘I can do that. No problem!’ We need to find a balance between a confident outlook and realistic expectations.

When we see progress, even if it’s small, it can help us stay motivated to keep going. Tracking your progress could involve anything from keeping a journal to marking your progress down on a calendar. Progress doesn’t always come in a straight line so it’s important to look at our goals as a marathon and not a sprint.

There is a Korean saying, "byung joo go yak joo dah" (병 주고 약 주다), which means "to give poison, to give medicine." It sounds contradictory, but it's the same premise of balance as Amy Morin is making. Challenge builds us up, comfort soothes and heals what we already have. They work better in conjunction. One without the other only risks our well-being.

You Cultivate Friends, Your Friends Cultivate You

Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.
— Seneca

Don't create a circle with only "positive" enablers; surround yourself with people who also encourage you. They may make you angry at times, but they will also be the ones you thank, the ones who will influence you the most in your life. In award speeches, we don't thank the friends and accomplices who wallowed with us, stayed up and ate ice cream with us, finished a bottle of wine us. Those things are nice and have a place, but when it comes to appreciation for enduring influence rather than immediate comfort, we thank our teachers.

Comfort is an agreement that we will not influence each other; encouragement is an agreement that we will actively influence one another. There is ample room for both in our lives. Just as water flows in and out, we cultivate our relationships and our relationships cultivate us.

Comfort your friends but also challenge them. Listen to their ideas but also give them feedback. Often what we need is the opposite of what we want. But if we keep hearing what we want to hear, we are only getting more of the same. And nothing changes from that.

Moralizing Behavior

In the right context, comfort can be medicine: imagine a sick child or someone who has endured a loss. In the wrong context, it can be poison: imagine an addict, someone in a toxic relationship, someone without a future. It's when we assert morality, good or bad into tasks, that we lose sight of context. We fear that if we don't accomplish what is intended or expected, we are bad. Even when no one tells us so. Because when we do complete a task, if we're always told we are good, then the opposite must also be true when we can't accomplish it.

Just as when one child is told they are good, the other children assume they are bad. (So we end up telling every child they are good.) And when we don't accomplish something, we must be bad. That is the framework of logic we've been taught. Only being given positive reinforcement does not mean we are unaware of its opposite. Even without negative reinforcement, the unintended outcome of positive reinforcement is negative reinforcement, because any lack of positive reinforcement will be considered a negative. We don't need to be told we're bad because being told nothing will mean the same. That is the indirect consequence. Now everyone is being praised, which defeats the purpose in which it was initially created, to facilitate improvement.

Rather than being encouraged to love growth, the emphasis on comfort motivates us to fear discomfort — running away from fear rather than running towards growth. The expectation to be perfect is suffocating us. We can't move because always being told we are "good" is unnerving. It sets up expectations that cannot be matched. We eventually stop trying. After a while, we don't even want comfort, we just want to be left alone.

Growth is a system. We improve through trial and error not trial and validation. Without error, when we fear error, we rob ourselves of improvement. We mustn't take feedback as being more than it is; they're observations and they say nothing about our virtue or value.

Criticism, like positive reinforcement, is all about value — approval and disapproval, good or bad. When we approve, when things are good, it's positive reinforcement. When we disapprove, we things are bad, it's criticism. Feedback is neither of these things; it's only information for improvements.

Variety Is Healthy

Courage is born out of vulnerability, not strength.
— Dr. Brené Brown

The truth is, some people will have breakthroughs and some people will break. It's a risk to allow ourselves to change, to allow new ideas to penetrate our hearts. When we grow comfortable with darkness, we must be bold enough to open ourselves to new light. Courage requires vulnerability, it rises from it. But it also takes courage to be vulnerable. When we avoid being vulnerable, courage has no room to grow. When we pretend to be strong is when weakness arises. If we seek perfection, we'll only see imperfections.

Making encouragement the same as comfort is like making light the same as heavy. And if light and heavy are the same, then weight no longer exists. And if all things are the same, then nothing exists. Existence requires variation, progress requires change.

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.
— George Bernard Shaw

Summary

When being encouraged to do our best, we can often feel sensitive and pressured. We can turn inspiration into oppression when we are too frail. In giving and receiving encouragement, rather than adding the pressures of morality, good or bad, change your perspective and acknowledge things as systems, processes, and feedback. Fear of getting hurt can muddy our judgment, but how are we to live without ever getting hurt? Happiness takes courage. And it takes a great deal of courage to live a daring life.

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