But did you know that Whitman struggled through years of obscurity to get anyone interested in his poetry?
One day, in the midst of crippling discouragement, Whitman received a life-changing letter from an admirer of his work.
The note read: "Dear sir, I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career."
It was signed by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Though Walt Whitman's honored place in literary history is now firmly established, when times were tough he needed encouragement to keep going.
So do we.
When we are on the brink of failure or in the midst of heartache or frustration, an encouraging word can keep us in the game!
"You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life." - Zig Ziglar, salesman, author, and motivational speaker
Encouragement is a Skill
Learning to be encouraging is a skill that comes more naturally to some of us than others. However, the good news is that we can all learn to become more encouraging people with practice. In fact, it seems we must!
Recent studies demonstrate that we are gradually losing our aptitude for encouragement, due at least in part to our society's increasingly narcissistic tendencies.
In a 2012 study published in The Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, researchers measured the correlation between Facebook usage and two "socially disruptive" elements of narcissism – grandiose exhibitionism ("GE") and entitlement/exploitativeness ("EE"):
GE includes ''self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies" and people who score high on this aspect of narcissism need to be constantly at the center of attention.
EE includes "a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others."
Facebook usage appears to be positively correlated to the incidence of both of these tendencies. In summary, researchers noted that there is "increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships. [They are more likely to] seek social support, but less likely to provide it."
What does this mean for us?
I'm not one of the aforementioned researchers, but I think the manifestations of these findings are pretty obvious.
We are becoming increasingly susceptible to posturing and constructing facades related to lifestyle, competence, and accomplishment! And we're less likely to encourage other people in these same areas.
Let's be real. When's the last time you posted a picture to Facebook and thought, 'This will really make me look awful!'
Yes, I'm being facetious – but, honestly, I prefer pictures that make me look 'rico suave.'
So, how can we resist the "anti-social me-booking" both online and off? One solution is to combat it directly by becoming more encouraging.
What's the Big Deal?
Maybe you're thinking to yourself, "So what?"
I understand - you're a modern multi-tasker who already has too much on your plate. But before you write off adding 'encourage others' to your daily 'to-do' list, consider these truths about encouragement:
To encourage another person is to help him gain courage that he might not otherwise possess - to face the day, do what's right, take risks, or make a difference.
"Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light." - Albert Schweitzer, theologian, physician, and Nobel Laureate
To encourage another person is to help her gain an understanding of her value - to see her true potential and embrace it.
"Treat a man as he appears to be and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he already were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be." - Goethe, writer, artist, and politician.
To encourage another person is to add value to him, and in turn he will like you more and desire to help you succeed, as well.
"Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you." - William Arthur Ward, author and educator
In short, when we help other people feel valued and capable, we can change their lives - and our own - and have a positive impact on the world around us.
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." - Mark Twain, author and humorist
So let's get down to it.
I hope I've sold you on the importance for us to work at becoming more encouraging. If so, here are five principles to keep in mind:
- Be Sincere - It's critical that our encouraging words be genuine. We must start with an authentic desire to encourage, and guard against any temptation to manipulate. Faux encouragement wielded with ulterior motives is damaging and will only undermine the relationship and foster distrust or resentment.
- Be Specific - It's also best to be as specific with our encouragement as possible. This requires that we speak to noteworthy qualities we see in a person, or particular situations in which she has performed admirably. Alternatively, more generalized or vague encouragement is often less meaningful and less effective.
- Be Consistent - We cannot expect to mitigate treating another person poorly with sporadic words of encouragement. Instead, our words must ultimately be consistent with how we routinely treat the individual being encouraged. Incongruence will cause him to doubt the sincerity of our words. It will also confuse his expectations of the relationship, further weakening it.
- Be Persistent - If you're doing your best and applying these principles, don't give up - even if your encouragement seems to have little effect. Keep encouraging, through thick and thin. As the Apostle Paul said, "Encourage one another while today is called today!"
- Relax - You don't need to be a psychotherapist to provide meaningful, effective encouragement. The little things have a greater impact on others than you might think. Occasionally, encouragement will require insight or creativity. Still, don't underestimate the significance of helpful acts and kind words.
Though society may be moving in the opposite direction, we can choose to contribute to a more encouraging culture. We each have the choice to become a more encouraging person. As we cultivate the habit, it will become a personal characteristic evident in all we do. Perhaps Walt Disney said it best:
"There are three kinds of people in the world today. There are 'well-poisoners,' who discourage you and stomp on your creativity and tell you what you can't do. There are 'lawn-mowers,' people who are well-intentioned but self-absorbed; they tend to their own needs, mow their own lawns, and never leave their yards to help another person. Finally, there are 'life-enhancers,' people who reach out to enrich the lives of others, to lift them up and inspire them. We need to be life-enhancers, and we need to surround ourselves with life-enhancers."
What do you say? Do you have any tips on becoming more encouraging?