Completely agree with this sentiment. That said, I feel compelled to offer a modest defense the other side.
Encouragement, and demonstrating resilience when things look tough, are of course also important, as I'm sure you'd grant. I take the central thrust of your article to be that we discourage less than we ought to, and that leaves plenty of room for resilience and encouragement. There are plenty of ambiguous cases, though, and I think it's worth bringing some of the reasons in favour of encouragement out in the open, since the only one that gets mentioned here is that it is jolly.
First, when making short-to-medium term sacrifices for the hope of long term gain, it is easy become wary of the uncertainty, and heed too strongly to small signals. I might have fluffed my presentation, and conclude that graduate school is not for me. Voicing my doubts to a professor, it helps me if they remind me that this is very weak evidence that I don't fit in, and they might do this by highlighting the possibility of improvement, and pointing to evidence to the contrary (all the good I've done since I've been here). Those need not be praise, really, but they are generally taken as encouragement. The function here is not really to make me feel better though--it's to recalibrate my response to negative signals so as to give them due weight.
Second, in graduate school in philosophy at least, my own observation is that those disposed to feel like they should quit are most often (by a massive margin), women and/or members of disadvantaged communities. Of course in pretty much every one of those cases, their insecurity not grounded in an accurate judgment of their competence, but that insecurity *does* affect their ability to display signs of competence, for instance, being a vocal student. In such cases, it makes sense as a professor to discount prima facie evidence against success (not being vocal) and re-interpret it as a sign of insecurity, to which the proper medicine is quite likely encouragement.
Just wanted to offer two considerations in favour of encouragement. Of course, whether to encourage or discourage is deeply context-sensitive, and the point that we unduly discount discouragement because its unpleasant is well taken.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that cowardice is often mistaken for kindness, and kindness cruelty? I suppose we do often forget that honest communication takes courage and presupposes goodwill.
Well said! I've wanted to comment in more detail but, I believe this article is aware of the many nuances. I think that perhaps, that the assessment of one's capabilities are not as clear, during a discouragement- someone might be more capable towards a goal than they appear, but, for strategic/tactical(?) reasons, might downplay it. One difference in 50 years of advice, is that the tools today to filter or block criticism is easier (despite the more global village nature of the world), and the self-reclusiveness of federated sites (as opposed to public squares) can prevent a last minute "Mr. Hart!" before they (he/they/her) exits the chat.
Great article. I haven't read What Darwin Got Wrong but it does seem like the kind of book Dennett would have strong objections to. If he thought it was as wrong headed as many other reviewers did, it would at least somewhat make sense to believe Massimo's intentions were to have him urge it not to be published. Now if Dennett was given the book by one of it's authors and then without yet reading it assumed that he was supposed to tear it apart, that would be strange.
Anyways, looking forward to more of your writing!
Thanks for your writing. This post reminds me of when I trained to be an instructor in the Australian TAFE sector. TAFE is an acronym for Technical and Further Education. It the sector that trains people for trade occupations: electrician, mechanic, carpenter, etc.
At TAFE colleges, there is no "Pass" or "Fail". The gradings are: "Competent" and "Not Yet Competent" relative to the skill level being assessed.
Fundamentally the meaning is the same but the sub-text matters.
I am happy you have this substack. I appreciate the easy almost conversational style of your writing while questioning reality. A disarming style. You might have made a good diplomat,I am guessing.
Hi Professor Bloom, I’ve been a big fan of your research, your books, and I now absolutely live for your small potatoes blogs.
Usually, after reading your substack, I walk away feeling very convinced of your point and can see 10 experiments lined up to prove your theory. Reading this post on discouragement, though, left me with a question on how Mr. Hart’s example delivers your point. If I understood this article correctly, you’re saying that discouragements are helpful to individuals who are struggling on a certain path that doesn’t guarantee future reward, and it’s helpful because it saves them from wasting energy on something they are unlikely to succeed in, if they followed your seemingly brutal, but in reality helpful, advice. However, though Kingsfield brutally discouraged Hart in public, and Hart succeeds in law school and thanks Kingsfield in the end, Kingsfield’s discouragement did NOT make Hart quit what he was doing. Instead, it fired up Hart’s motivation to prove himself in the course/law school, and Hart succeeded in precisely what Kingsfield discouraged him from doing. If Hart followed Kingsfield’s discouragement and quit law school, and achieved great success in medical school, then I can see how that proves your point of the utility of discouragement.
If you have time, could you elaborate on why Kingsfield’s example defends the merit of discouragement? Kingsfield’s discouragement seems to have simply been a bitter incentive for Hart to do better in that path and prove himself.
Thank you for your ever-so-amusing posts and your time reading this comment!
All true, yet most of us will continue to detest discouragement. It's only human, for two reasons.
First, discouraging someone is usually a statistical statement. I have compared your efforts and hopes to those of others and have concluded that, given the traits of those who succeed, you will fail. Your thoughts on evolution cannot be made into a convincing book, your shoebox full of notes about bats will never cohere, you keep changing your thesis topic and it has been 7 years, etc. etc. How do I know to discourage you? Because I have compared you to those who do achieve, and I find it unlikely that you will share their traits.
No one likes to accept the idea that the usual odds apply to him. And for a very good reason: Our own lives, our own selves, are improbable in the extreme.
What were the odds that your parents would make love on that particular night and that the result would be that this particular sperm cell would fuse with this particular egg? What were the odds that you'd meet the love of your life at that party you almost didn't attend? The odds of you having a roommate in college who dragged you to the class that made you change your major? Awareness of our uniqueness gives us a powerful hunch that the odds do not, should not be used to understand our lives. You think it's unlikely I'll play in the NBA? I get your point. But it's unlikely that I'll exist at all, so, I think maybe I'll keep at it.
The second reason we all hate discouragement is its family resemblance to the voice in our head that says "give up, this is stupid, no one cares, you're a fraud" or whatever. Anyone who has achieved anything has learned to set that voice aside at least some of the time. So we tend to do so when it comes from outside, too.
Paul - this is Philip, Producer of the Politics on the Couch podcast. We were in touch over the summer about you coming on our podcast but our topic wasn't right for you then. I have another, probably better suggestion and wondered whether I can send it to you? What would be the best way? Best wishes, firstname.lastname@example.org
In other words, tough love is, well, tough - and not just for the recipient. But it is, as you say, morally obligatory. It is not only “I love (respect) you, but...”, but also “I love (respect) you, therefore...”. Likewise, if people respect you, and are themselves honest, they will take your criticism seriously. If not, why worry about it?
In still other words, “We’re all adults here, or should be."