“Ungrateful wretch.” That about summed him up, I thought. I was basically babysitting a whole flock of unruly kids in Telbang, the little Filipino fishing village I called home for several months in 1997. Between the language barrier, the expected travails of working with grade school kids, some trouble children and my 16 year-old inexperience with all of the above, I was frustrated. My songs and stories and overall programming ideas were falling flat. And a nearby adult was doing nothing to help and was instead muttering under his breath in critique of what I was trying to do. I was fed up and feeling very under-appreciated.
Before setting out on my year-long service adventure I had dreamed of being a heroic help to everyone I came in contact with. Instead I was feeling decidedly mediocre, the kids were being uncooperative and the most petulant child turned out to be an adult.
Looking back, the experience of not being glowingly recognized for my well-intentioned work was a helpful one for me. But helpful growth experiences are often only helpful in retrospect. In the midst of the chaos and toxicity of the day-to-day, trying to do the right thing and help other people can be a very low profile, unrecognized job. For a generation of 20-30s coddled by Baby Boomers into thinking that everything they do is deserving of heartfelt pats on the back, not being recognized for good deeds is often extremely demotivating. Good deeds are only good if they attract a storm of Facebook comments and some serious retweets.
It sounds pretty superficial and ridiculous but my age demographic (I just turned 30) doesn’t want to do anything unless we get props for it. Part of this is obviously human nature. Everyone wants to be recognized and praised for good deeds. But in a society saturated by diva values everyone wants the spotlight and everyone wants the praise. When good deeds and acts of service do not get the attention they supposedly deserve, we questions whether it all is worth it.
Whereas we all admire someone that does good without seeking credit for it, very few of us want to be that person. What is it that drives this value set? Why can’t we be satisfied by the mere act of service? Personally, whenever I do something for someone else that does not get attention, I feel an intrinsic reward that makes me wonder why I don’t do more without seeking attention. I wish this mindset would last but its hard to resist the will to do things for the rewards of recognition.
When the credit goes to someone else
There’s only one thing worse than not getting the praise for personal do-gooding and that’s when the credit for something we have done goes to someone else. SO frustrating. This one is especially tough in the workplace where everything from respect to wage scales can rest on who gets to take the credit for a job well done.
A solution I am experimenting with
Is there a way out of all this? Not an easy one. I have found that the pressure that I put on myself when I let the desire for praise to fuel my performance in life, hurts me in the long run. Whenever I have focused on simply being helpful or turning away from personal needs for glory, I have felt that weight of anxiety and at least some of my fear of failure start to lift. It takes the pressure off when I give myself permission not to be obsessed with myself and my ego. This is not something that comes naturally to me and it has to be a daily shift of focus. But however imperfect my attempts so far, this approach has by far, been the most satisfying.