Dear friends,

We need to be careful, even when we mean well.

I recently read a personal story where the writer revealed that a boyfriend kept pushing her to be her “best self” because she was “capable of so much more” … but to her, this backhanded encouragement was really sending the message, “you’re inadequate as you are.”  As in, “you could be great, but you’re not there yet.”

I thought of all the times I’ve sent these messages to young people.  All our lives, we’ve been told anything’s possible if we work harder.  If you get a poor grade, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, and if you just apply yourself, you’ll do better next time.  But what if that grade is the best you can do?  If it’s your best work?  Is it shameful to have done your best work, but not get the highest mark?

You’ve seen how gymnasts, dancers, and figure skaters can bend backward from the waist, bend themselves in half.  You can only do this as an adult if you’ve been doing it from a very young age.  I could never learn to do it, no matter how much I apply myself, because my bones and muscles aren’t capable of that movement.  Am I not trying hard enough?

“I’m so proud of you for X” can backfire.  If I tell a young person “I’m so proud of you for always getting such good grades,” how are they going to feel when they get a bad one?  If I tell you “I’m so proud of you for never losing your temper,” are you going to feel you can authentically express your anger in front of me?

We academics have to be especially careful about encouraging our best students to go to graduate school.  Grad school isn’t for everyone, and depending on your career aspirations, you could educate yourself right out of the job market.  Grad school is great if you aspire to be a college professor, or if your job requires it, but it’s not necessary for most people.  Yet, when a student balks at the idea, we often say, “take a couple of years off and then come back!”  We forget that it’s entirely possible they won’t *want* to come back, that they’ve had all the schooling they want/need, thank you very much.

I’m taking this to heart, and being more thoughtful about how I offer encouragement.  We need to find ways to say “I believe in you,” without saying, “I’ll believe in you later when you’ve done better.”  We need to find ways to acknowledge the gap between where we are and where we want to be, without making ourselves feel shame that the gap exists.

I believe in you.  Now.  Today.