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The picture above is from the movie Paper Chase. The story follows James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) through his first year at Harvard Law School, focusing on his relationship with the brilliant contract law professor, Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman, in one of his first roles).
Kingsfield’s class works on the Socratic Method, and, after a series of public humiliations, Hart has had enough. Kingsfield asks him a question and Hart refuses to answer. “When I have something relevant to say,” he tells Kingsfield, “I will raise my hand,” Kingsfield asks him to come to the front of the class. Hart shuffles down the stairs of the lecture hall, head down. Everyone is watching. And then Kingsfield hands him a coin and says:
Mr. Hart, here's a dime. Call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.
Hart walks slowly back up the stairs.
One of the most annoying things that I see on social media looks like this. (I have many real examples but don’t want to pick on anyone.)
So-and-so told me that I wasn’t going to make it through grad school. And here I am, a full professor at [prestigious university] and have just won this [amazing prize]. Take that, asshole! I hope you choke on it!
And then everyone goes: Good for you! What a loser So-and-so is!
Imagine that you are in a position to advise someone whether to continue to pursue a serious long-term project, something that they’ve put their heart into, that really matters to them. Like getting a PhD, finishing a book that they’ve been working on for years, or graduating from Harvard Law School. Maybe they asked you your opinion; maybe it’s your job to provide feedback; maybe, for whatever reason, giving this advice is just something you want to do.
You might encourage them to stick with it—never give up, never surrender! It’s tough, sure, but they are every bit as good as others who have done this—better, even. They have limitless potential, they will succeed. You have faith in them.
This usually goes over pretty well. Right away, there’s a happy person in front of you. You just told them that they rock, which is always nice. You’ve also reassured them that they haven’t been wasting years of their lives; they don’t have to pack up and start again. You told them just what they want to hear.
But what if you say that they’re not cutting it, this isn’t for them, and it’s time to explore other options? You can say this in private, warmly with a lot of love, or you can do it in a lecture hall, handing them a dime and telling them to call their mother.
Even if it’s done nicely, be prepared for tears and shouting. They will often be hurt and angry. It’s not what they want to hear.
Those are the immediate effects of encouragement and discouragement. What happens further down the line?
Encouragement, then Success: You are the hero. “I nearly gave up,” they say in their Nobel Prize speech, “And [insert your name here] made all the difference in the world.” You are warmly thanked in the acknowledgements of the book; maybe the book is dedicated to you. I have felt this sort of love myself; I’ve had people thank me for never giving up on them and it feels great. (This has happened even in cases where I thought they probably should give up but was just too shy and conflict-aversive to say so, and so I reap the benefits of being both avoidant and wrong.)
Encouragement, then Failure: Perhaps pumped up by your kind words, they continue for years before giving up. When things go badly, when they leave the graduate program in their fifth year with no degree, they will mourn the loss of their time and money, and curse their bad choices. But they will not blame you. Actually, maybe they will feel a bit ashamed that they let you down. You might get an apology.
Discouragement, then Success: Well, we’ve seen this:
So-and-so told me that I wasn’t going to make it through grad school. And here I am …
Discouragement, then Failure: At some point, perhaps because of you, they leave a pursuit that they would never have succeeded at. But they have no love for you. Maybe they even blame you for why things didn’t work out. If you had more faith in them, perhaps they would have succeeded.
Regardless of the outcome, then, there is little love for those who discourage.
We’ve been looking at a specific case—discouraging someone from sticking to a long-term pursuit. Doesn’t this just reflect the general truth that nobody likes critical feedback of any sort?
In the very short term, yes. Everyone prefers “You look perfect” over “Do you have time to go back and change?”, “Accept as is” over “Resubmit with major revisions”, A+ over C-. (The motivation behind grade inflation isn’t exactly rocket science. Professors, like everyone else, prefer to make people happy, particularly when this happiness is conveyed through student evaluations and increases their chance of tenure and a better salary boost.)
In the long term, it’s more complicated. Suppose I send you a book manuscript that I’m working on and ask for your comments, and you respond with “I noticed a small mistake on page 332 [description of mistake] but otherwise, it’s absolutely brilliant”. That’s a nice response. (The mention of an easily-fixed mistake is an old trick to reassure the writer that the critic actually read it.)
But what if I know that my manuscript needs plenty of work? In this case, I’m disappointed. Detailed feedback (given with warmth, of course, and the right bit of praise), is what I’m looking for. Sometimes we want to get better, and criticism, though not exactly fun, is the medication that we are grateful to get. The acknowledgement sections of books often include thanks to those who have provided extensive comments, sometimes comments that involved rewriting large parts of the manuscript, and these thanks are sincere.
Discouragement is different. Discouragement isn’t “Oh I love it, such important work, here’s how to make it even better”. Discouragement is: “You have wasted your time. Give it up.” It’s not medication; it’s amputation.
Daniel Dennett tells this story of when he advised a friend to abandon a book:
As I was leaving, Massimo [Piatelli-Palmarini[ handed me a typescript of the book Jerry [Fodor] and he had written about evolution and asked if I could have a quick skim and give him some feedback. I read the thing on the plane back to Boston and decided that probably my friend Massimo wanted me to give him support in urging Jerry not to publish it. In any event, I decided that I would kick myself later if that had been Massimo’s intent and I hadn’t tumbled to it, so when I got home I took a leap and wrote him an email strongly recommending that the project be abandoned for the sake of our friend Jerry’s reputation. I was wrong; Massimo was not inviting any such response, as his stony silence made clear.
This is a weird story. Massimo writes a book with Jerry and hands it to Dennett for comments, and Dennett convinces himself that there is a secret message here—kill the book, save Jerry’s reputation. Somehow Dennett didn’t seem to appreciate that it was Massimo’s book too! If Massimo really thought the book was a giant embarrassment to Jerry, why would he have written it with him? I think Dennett should have been satisfied with the stony silence; it could have been a lot worse.
But, in defence of Dennett, what if the book was terrible, what if it would have ruined his friend’s reputation? Isn’t discouragement the right thing to do here?1
A sharp young scholar recently wrote on Twitter that when he reviews papers, he never suggests rejection. If he doesn’t recommend acceptance, he suggests revision and provides helpful comments. A journal shouldn’t give up on a paper, he proposed—it should work with the writers to get the paper to a point where it’s good enough for publication.
As a journal editor, my view is different: Some papers should be accepted as is; others need work to get there; and others (most of the submissions for a competitive journal like mine) aren’t just good enough for us and there is no path for them to get good enough. The experiments are poorly designed, the theories aren’t sufficiently developed, the topic is boring, and so on. I have a stock rejection letter that says that they might have better luck with a different journal, and this is usually what I believe. But sometimes what I want to say is: Give it up. This is a bad project. You’ve spent too much time on it already. Nobody else will want it. Start over with something else.
Some people don’t believe in discouragement because they think everyone can do anything. If you start to train for an Ironman Triathlon, you can finish an Ironman Triathlon; if you want badly enough to be a Hollywood movie star, that’s where you’ll end up—keep doing those auditions! James Hart should not use that dime to call his mother; he should just keep trying.
Here’s a nice response to the anti-discouragement crowd by Freddie deBoer, in a post called Everyone Can’t Do Everything,
[My] time working in K-12 schools had left me shaking my head, again and again, at how relentlessly the “you can be anything you dream” ideology was pushed on kids. Everywhere you looked, there was another poster insisting that If You Believe, You Will Achieve! and related cliches. It was as close to a secular civic religion as I have encountered in 21st-century American life. And it seemed and seems pathological in a couple of dimensions. The first problem is that the kind of people who get up in front of crowds and say “I never gave up on my dreams, and I made it!” don’t understand survivorship bias - all the people who never gave up but nevertheless never make it don’t get invited to stand up in front of crowds and make speeches. The second is that, once we have misapprehended the nature of success in that way, the insistence that we should never give up becomes immensely cruel; it keeps people stuck pursuing kinds of success they will never achieve, and it tells them that if they eventually give up, that failure is their own fault.
It’s totally fine, of course, to engage with activities and projects that you are not good at, where you will not excel, and that you will never finish. If you see me training for a marathon and conclude that I have no chance at a respectable race time, you shouldn’t catch up to me (not difficult!) and try to talk me into giving up. Maybe I don’t care about my time; maybe I don’t even care whether I’ll actually be there on race day. I know a few people who play around at writing a book, and I wouldn’t dream of telling them that they aren’t likely to ever finish and so should abandon their plan. What business is it of mine? Discouraging someone from doing something that they enjoy—because they’re not doing it well enough by someone else’s standards—is just cruelty.
But there are a lot of activities that are not like this. Few people go to graduate school, law school, or business school because they like it. They go, at least in part, to get a degree and then a job. If you felt certain that someone you cared about was investing their time and money in something that was not giving them pleasure and not going to work out for them, it is an act of kindness to tell them. For you to believe that they will fail and say nothing is a lousy thing to do to a friend. For you to believe that they will fail and encourage them—because it’s what they want to hear, because they’ll love you for saying it—is cruel and cowardly.
There’s a more general point here: For many of us, life is a winnowing process. We try many things—hobbies, relationships, sports, meaningful projects, and so on—and we stick with what works and jettison the rest. One might give up a hobby because it becomes boring, say, or regularly spend time with a friend because it’s enjoyable. But some of our pursuits involve paying a cost now (money, time, boredom, stress, and so on) in the hopes of a future benefit later, maybe much later. When the likelihood of getting the benefit is uncertain, it becomes tremendously useful to know what the odds are. Maybe they are better than you think, and you should resist the urge to give up. Or maybe they are worse than you think, and discouragement is just what you need.
For some of us (such as me, a professor who advises graduate students), discouragement is part of my professional responsibility. I’m supposed to advise students on their progress through the program, and if I only give approval and encouragement, I’m not doing my job. But it’s a hard part of the job. I find it difficult and I have colleagues who never do it.
What if there is no professional responsibility? You are approached by a friend who asks about a project they are involved with, one in which a lot has already been invested. If you think they will succeed, encouragement is just the thing, and it will make you both feel good. But what if you think it’s not going to work out? Given how discouragement is usually taken, the right sort of discouragement is the ultimate act of love.
The hardest case is when your friend asks for advice about a romantic relationship. If you honestly think they don’t belong together, it’s a great kindness to say so. (“Honestly, I never felt they were right for you. Too needy, Too mean, and, really, I don’t think they’ve been faithful.”). Real life-saving stuff—unless they end up staying together and the partner learns what you said. Then they share a powerful bond—their hatred of you.)
I haven’t told you how the scene from Paper Chase ended. Hart makes it a few steps and then stops. You see him thinking, gathering his courage. And then he whips around and shouts:
You are a son of a bitch, Kingsfield!
and then he quickly walks to the door in the back. But just as he gets there, Kingsfield barks at him: “Mr. Hart!”. And then says:
That is the most intelligent thing you've said today. [laugher from the students]. You will take your seat.
And Hart does. You can watch it here:
It’s a good line from Kingsfield. Actually, he gets all the good lines. The movie loves him. He’s the one that everyone is trying to impress, the focus of everyone’s attention. (Hart enters a relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter (played by Linsday Wagner) and they make love and then talk about Kingsfield.) Kingsfield gets a standing ovation at the end of his final lecture and Hart tells him how much he changed his life. (And keep in mind that Kingsfield was wrong—Hart aces his first year of law school, including the Contracts course.)
The movie came out in 1973, 50 years ago, and maybe our perception of those who give brutal feedback has changed since then. But I don’t think so. I think we appreciate at some level that people differ in their abilities, that not everything is for everyone, and we have some admiration for, and fascination with, those capable of honest assessment, those who tell it like it is. (See also House). We just don’t want it in the real world, and certainly don’t want to have to do it ourselves.
But we should. The world needs more Kingsfields.