Encouragement is Actually Important

As much as we don’t want to admit it, encouragement is actually important. As individuals, we often believe we don’t need encouragement. We think “I am passionate, smart, and tough enough to do this without support.” Many fail to realize that encouragement is responsible for where we are now.

We also learn to be distrustful of encouragement. Businesses, organizations, and people take advantage of encouragement to get us to do things they want. We get notifications, likes, awards, participation trophies, achievements, gold stars, performance reviews, new titles, and nice comments. All this generalized, fake encouragement washes away once we hit reality. It makes us think all encouragement is useless and that anyone praising us must want something. We become jaded and lose out on the benefits of encouragement.

When you look at history, you’ll see that encouragement is actually important. There are many examples of important people doing important things because of encouragement. The encouragement might have been small, such as a specific and personal sentence or two, but it has helped shape the world we live in today.

Whenever you hear the journeys of important people, they often state how large an effect key pieces of encouragement had in their life. Specific, personal encouragement can be both life-changing and world-changing at the right moment.

“Remember: It costs nothing to encourage an artist, and the potential benefits are staggering. A pat on the back to an artist now could one day result in your favorite film, or the cartoon you love to get stoned watching, or the song that saves your life. Discourage an artist, you get absolutely nothing in return, ever.”

Kevin Smith

The Importance and Impact of Encouragement

Here are some examples of the importance of encouragement and the impact it has made:

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison

Henry Ford pitched Thomas Edison the idea for the gasoline engine. Edison replied “Young man. You have the thing. Keep at it.” Ford later wrote:

“That bang on the table was worth worlds to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. I had hoped that I was headed right, sometimes I knew that I was, sometimes I only wondered if I was but here all at once and out of a clear sky the greatest inventive genius in the world had given me a complete approval.”

Francis Ford Coppola

Dorothy Arzner, a film school teacher of Francis Ford Coppola, encouraged him to continue school when he wanted to quit. 

“Arzner’s most significant impact on her young student came through an act of spontaneous encouragement. One day, he was feeling downhearted and ready to quit school. She walked by as he was moping and told him that she sincerely believed he was going to make it. Having been in the movie business for many years, she saw something in this young man and urged him to stay the course. He credits her for inspiring him to do just that.”

Vincent Van Gogh

Theo Van Gogh supported his brother Vincent emotionally and financially. Theo encouraged him to become an artist, corresponded with him regularly, and was his closest friend. He kept writing Vincent letters even though he would rarely get responses. He cherished and kept every response he got. The letters between the two are a key source of information about the artist.

“The majority of Theo’s letters and communications with Vincent are filled with praise and encouragement. Vincent would send Theo sketches and ideas for paintings, along with accounts of his day to day experiences, to the delight and eager attention of Theo.”

Rick Rubin

Music producer Rick Rubin is famous for encouraging artists like the Beastie Boys, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Johnny Cash. He doesn’t play any instruments, mix, or do things “traditional” music producers do; he acts as a supporter for artists. He encourages them to discover and create music that is truer to themselves. He explains his process as:

“I’ll spend time with an artist and listen very carefully to what they tell me and get them to talk about their true goals, their highest, highest goals. We go back to the heart of why they started doing what they are doing in the first place.”

Mary Shelley

After being challenged to write a ghost story, author Mary Shelley developed the idea of a student re-animating a ghastly corpse and in doing so mocking “the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” This idea would become Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  

Her husband, Percy Shelley, encouraged her to expand her plan from short story to novel. He provided corrections, edits, and contributions, the extent of which is unknown and argued over. In any case, it would be a different story without him, Shelley wrote:

“I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world.”

Karl Ove Knausgård

Karl Ove Knausgård stated he wouldn’t have been able to get through writing his hit series “My Struggle” without daily encouragement from his editor and friends.

“I really couldn’t write when he saw something I’d written and believed in me. He still believes in me, and he has to tell me that — every week — what I’m doing is interesting, what I’m doing is good, and that he believes in me. And he has done so for 20 years. Without him, I wouldn’t have been a writer.”

“I also have friends who do the same thing. They said, ‘Okay, this is good. Don’t give up. Keep on writing.’ And they did because if not, I wouldn’t have the strength to do it. Maybe I would, but it makes my writing life much easier to have helpers.”

Tyler Cowen

Economist Tyler Cowen encourages Master’s students to pursue PhDs, and created Emergent Ventures to encourage researchers, creators, and entrepreneurs to pursue innovative, new projects and career paths.

“Yesterday I had lunch with a former Ph.D student of mine, who is now highly successful and tenured at a very good school. I was reminded that, over twenty years ago, I was Graduate Director of Admissions. One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do [sic] the latter. My lunch partner was a beneficiary of this de facto policy.”

“At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.”

Claude Monet

Former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau supported Claude Monet, especially nearing the end of his career when he painted Water Lillies, a symbol of peace for France after WWI. Monet had cataracts while painting them. Clemenceau encouraged him to get an operation allowing him to see colours and finish them.

“They almost had an argument when Monet, who was working on the Water Lilies, wanted to stop, discouraged. Clemenceau wrote to Monet that he was ready to give up on their friendship if Monet gave up on his job.”

Venture Capitalists

A long list of venture capitalists investing early in companies. Y Combinator is most famous for doing this with many early-stage companies who now represent some of the largest, most important companies in the world.

Peter Thiel is another example. He was the first outside investment into Facebook and an early investor in many more companies. He also founded the Thiel Fellowship, which encourages young people to drop out of college in exchange for funding. Thiel Fellows have founded Ethereum, Figma, OYO, and Polkadot.

Plenty of businesses start because someone said they would pay. Customers provide businesses with plenty of encouragement, especially if they solve an important problem. Talent is recognized and encouraged to do something more ambitious.

You Should Encourage Others More

All this should encourage you to encourage others more. It’s free and inexhaustible. A great place to start is telling someone you appreciate their work and they should do more of it. You should listen for when people are looking for encouragement and provide it at the right time. Common times include when they are sad, have failed, or are looking to pursue new opportunities.

To maximize effectiveness, your encouragement should be personal and specific. It should be with people who value your opinions, either because they trust you or you have high status with them. It will likely need to be repeated. Also remember, it’s not about you. You are helping them, but you should get out of the way when the time is right.

The examples make me wonder how much potential is lost because of a lack of encouragement. Many people with a dream and the capacity to achieve it fail without encouragement. This is something you can make a difference in by encouraging those around you now. Do it enough, and you’ll make the world a better place. You’ll never know if the person you’re encouraging will be responsible for the world’s next groundbreaking work.

Thanks to Jason Nguyen, Jude Klinger, Minnow Park, Stew Fortier, Sara Campbell, Dan Hunt from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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