Motivated to Appear Generous

One of the big challenges in life is being content with ourselves and our work without needing others to notice the good things we have done. As social creatures we want acknowledgement, praise, and approval from our fellow humans, so simply being good or doing good on our own doesn’t seem to satisfy us in the way we need. We all recognize and understand that we should be content without someone patting us on the head to tell us good job, but nevertheless, we pursue social approval all the time.


Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this type of behavior within our charitable donations in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They write, “Griskevicius calls this phenomenon blatant benevolence. Patrick West calls it conspicuous compassion. The idea that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off.”


As a child, I used to seek approval and gratitude from my mother in a similarly conspicuous way. If I did a chore like vacuuming, I would leave the vacuum out so that my mother would see that I did something. She would tell me to put the vacuum away and be a little frustrated, but at least I could be sure that she knew that I did something good.


These direct appeals for attention, praise, and recognition are frowned upon. We don’t like the person at the gym water fountain who over-plays how out of breath they are and tells us how hard that last set of squats with all that weight was. We don’t like the person in the office that goes out of their way to show us how long the report they wrote was. As adults, it is harder to get away with obvious gestures that are designed to get people to notice the good things we do.


Our charitable uses of money or time are a way to get around this. We can publicly donate a large amount of money, we can save our money for donations in public settings such as charity auctions, and we can make sure that everyone sees our Facebook photo about how blessed we feel to be able to give back by volunteering. As long as it appears that our main motive is to do something good, we can get away with the same type of bragging or showing off that I did as a child when I made it super obvious that I had done my chores.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart when the researchers gave each group a follow-up test of equivalent difficulty. The group told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test while the group told they had worked hard performed either just as well or slightly better. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for working hard, learning, and being good students did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse, and were more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. The ego does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans are. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on implementing the things we say we want to do. If we remember that the  hard work is what is important, and focus on that instead of focusing on talking about our goals then we can address the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, and Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, on a follow-up test, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart.  The group that was told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test than they had on the first test. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for their hard work on the other hand did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse. As a result, the group praised for effort was more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. It does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment with children back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans our. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on the next test. If what we remember to be important is the hard work that we put toward solving the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal, then we can shift our mindset and overcome the obstacles in our way. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

It Comes Down to Purpose

John Boyd was a brilliant military officer, strategist, and consultant who helped shape a generation of military leaders. Boyd is the focus of one chapter in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, titled, “To Be or To Do?” Boyd, Holiday explains, was a terrific air force pilot and a very insightful and influential mind within the armed services. He raised to the rank of Colonel,  but never was promoted to become a General and is not someone that most people have ever heard of. What Boyd represents for Holiday, and why he is an important figure for the book, is someone who chose his duty and service to his country over his own power, pride, and greed. Boyd set out to be the most meaningful version of himself possible, not to be the most impressive, rich, or comfortable version of himself. Holiday wrote the following about a piece of advice that Boyd gave to a young officer (emphasis Holiday’s),

 

“The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose.  What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?” quite easily. If what matters is you – your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life-your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and  generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field you’ve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come.”

 

What we can learn from Boyd’s life is that there are often conflicts and decisions that we have to make about doing meaningful and valuable work and trying to receive recognition and praise for who we are and what we do. Quite often, we can do meaningful things and be well compensated and rewarded, but not to the same degree as those who may do less meaningful things but make more of an effort to capture attention, please others, and maintain the status quo which rewards the talk but not the walk. This can be seen in the way that we compensate teachers relative to financial traders or in the way that lawyers like Bryan Stevenson working to protect the rights of death row inmates are compensated relative to lawyers like Michael Cohen who have worked in less meaningful fields for wealthy and powerful clients.

 

The lesson that Holiday tries to teach with the life of Boyd is that we can be content with living a life where we don’t feel that we get all the dues we deserve, where we don’t get all the praise and attention from others that we may feel we have earned, and where we are not always recognized for our valuable contributions equal to the impact of those contributions. But living this life is not somehow a loss. The praise and recognition I just described ultimately hold no real value in our lives. Making a difference, working on meaningful projects and helping shape the world around us in a positive direction is what brings true value and meaning to life. The conflict is that success is typically viewed through the lens of the first set of rewards, and it is true that we need to earn a decent wage to be able to eat, house ourselves, and live comfortably and happily. I don’t exactly do a great job of following the advice of Holiday in my own life, but it is helpful to keep his advice in mind and recognize when I am living for my ego and pursuing recognition and praise as opposed to when I am living to do meaningful work and striving to make a difference in the world.

Seeing Yourself With A Little Distance

In his book The Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes  the following, “You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”

 

In this quote, Holiday is encouraging us to focus on our work and goals in a way that is not flashy and that does not seek praise. He is encouraging us to practice the skill of doing good and meaningful work, even if we are not immediately recognized for what we do. Often, the important work that must be done isn’t sexy and isn’t visible to the people we want to impress. We won’t always be immediately rewarded with a trophy or a bonus for the work that needs to be done, but if we are the one to put in the extra effort and effectively and efficiently do a good job, we can find our way to success.

 

The flip side, and what Holiday is urging us to avoid, is doing work only when people are watching. He encourages us to recognize and work against the expectation that we will be noticed and recognized for our work, because the public recognition is not the most important piece of what we do. If we only put forward hard work and extra effort when we know our effort will be visible and publicly rewarded, then our effort in is not actually about the work, but instead about the praise and status that comes looking impressive. We may like the praise and incentives do matter for human beings, but if we are trying to approach the world rationally and make a difference, then we should recognize that this approach to life and work likely won’t guide us toward making the biggest impact possible.

 

When I was a child, one of the chores I always hated was vacuuming. When I would actually do what my parents had told me and vacuum, I intentionally leave the vacuum out because I knew that my mother would then have to acknowledge that I had vacuumed. I would be sure to get a “thank you for vacuuming, now can you please put the vacuum away?” but if I did my work completely and put the machine back in the closet when I finished, I risked getting no notice from my mother for having completed my chore. This is the childish mindset that Holiday is encouraging us to get away from when it comes to doing important work in our life. We should strive to be successful in life because it will mean that we are making a difference in the world or can obtain further resources to allow us to do more through charity and meaningful good deeds. What we should avoid is working hard to try to improve our status and to have more ego inflating fun trips and toys to try to set us apart from others. Focusing on the first goal will ultimately take us further and lead to better quality work and engagement with the world than the second ego inflating goal. Only performing and doing our best work when we can be praised for it will lead us to situations where we fail to cultivate habits of hard work and focus, and will drive us to positions where we are not working for ourselves and for the good of humanity, but for our ego and to make showy purchases to impress other people that we likely don’t even care much about.

William Tecumseh Sherman on the Spotlight

William Tecumseh Sherman was a brilliant general for the Union Army during the American Civil war. If you have never heard of him, its likely because he made an effort not to be the center of attention or be famous. Grant is the famous Civil War general that we all remember and know at the very least from the 50 dollar bill, but General Sherman was an important figure and someone who was well respected at the end of the war. In Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy, the two generals are compared as an example of how ego can drive the decisions we make.

 

Holiday contrasts both Sherman and Grant who were well regarded after the war and who both had opportunities to channel their success into personal gain, impressive higher offices, and ego building fame. That rout was chosen by Grant, but not by Sherman. Holiday explains that in the end, Grant faced debt, declining popularity later in his life, and challenges as the fame and praise fell away. Sherman, on the other hand, preferred to stay out of the spotlight and chose to put his country before himself. In a letter to Grant quoted in Holiday’s book Sherman wrote, “Be natural and yourself and this glittering flattery will be as the passing breeze of the sea on a warm summer day.”

 

Holiday describes Sherman as someone focused on doing their job well, not focused on doing their job in a way that intended to gain fame and popularity. Rather than trying to impress other people, Sherman looked for opportunities to perform at his best and allow the results to speak for themselves. During the civil war this meant saving the lives of thousands of soldiers by choosing paths that would not lead to great ego boosting battle opportunities and would instead lead to more strategic victories to help the Union Army. His story is helpful for us because we often spend time seeking out the visible opportunities that will make us look the best rather than the meaningful opportunities that will help us grow, develop skills, and do great work outside of the spotlight. Living in the spotlight can be nice, but it creates a lot of pressure and can put us in situations that are not the best for where we are at mentally, skillfully, and in terms of preparedness. Ultimately, focusing on doing our job well and helping make a difference in the world is what will bring us fulfillment whereas chasing popularity will bring us stress and en ever moving finish line.