“Embrace the Suck!”

There’s a great phrase Army personnel use, “Embrace the suck.”  Basically, it means, “Of course the situation is bad, there are obstacles, it’s unpleasant or even deadly. That’s to be expected. Accept it and get on with the job.” Still another layer is the earned pride many soldiers – men and women – feel in who they are and what they have accomplished. When noting how badly the situation sucks and saying, “Embrace the suck,” there is also an element of, “That’s why they need us; good thing we’re here.”

“Embrace the suck,” is a formidable mantra. It leads not only to persistence in the face of difficulty, but also to a quest mentality – find the suck. Somewhere along the way, many soldiers develop a celebration of challenge. They start to look for opportunities to push themselves, mentally and physically and as leaders. Run a marathon. Try for a Ranger tab. Become a drill sergeant. Ram through a heavy load of courses to finish that degree. Over and over, they either accept and relish (“embrace”) challenges in their paths, or they put themselves into challenges. They have learned to avoid the curse of the Easy Button.

You know the Easy Button – push it, and what was hard, irritating, challenging, or inconvenient magically disappears and you have the results you want. Magic! Tempting, but wrong. Literature offers so many examples of the false allure of Easy – wishes gone awry, easy living turning into a trap, etc. At one level, we know life is not and probably should not be Easy – that we have to work for it and, moreover, it is the achievements and relationships we work for that we value the most. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, nailed this one. He summed up the core of dysfunctional beliefs that work against us in these three:

  1. I must do well.
  2. You must treat me well.
  3. The world must be easy.

The third statement is the exact opposite of “Embrace the suck.” Instead of accepting, even expecting and embracing challenge, difficulty, and even failure as only to  be expected and as signs we are working at the growing edge of our skills, knowledge, and experience, “The world must be easy,” tells us that adversity is scary and a sign something is “off” with the world around us. That’s not good news for weak, naked little creatures that are easy prey and inadequate hunters. We need to know that we can manage the world around us. It all turns on how we interpret our experience. All of the deep, dysfunctional patterns of thinking (SMART Strengths, Chpater 7) work against learning. We don’t learn from success because it should be easy (no need to learn) and we don’t learn from failure because it should not have happened. We also don’t learn from feedback as these beliefs will cause it to be interpreted as criticism and therefore a violation of “You must treat me well.”

I thought of all of this as I read a great article in New York magazine on some of the more recent research on Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets (SMART Strengths, Chpater 8). (The article is totally worth clicking over and reading in full!) Beyond the research, the writer goes on to tell how it felt to try and apply the research in his own parenting. First there is the issue of authenticity (remember Integrity [Authenticity, Honesty] is one of the VIA Character Strengths):

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

Too much praise is also a problem:

Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

But, offering process praise – focusing on effort, strategy, knowledge – while helpful to the recipient, may not feel as good to the praise giver:

Truth be told, while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime, it was I who was suffering. It turns out that I was the real praise junkie in the family. Praising him for just a particular skill or task felt like I left other parts of him ignored and unappreciated. I recognized that praising him with the universal “You’re great—I’m proud of you” was a way I expressed unconditional love.

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

In a similar way, we put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments. We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise. The duplicity became glaring to me.

Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.

Of course, there are many other ways to build connections and show love, including Green Light Responding (SMART Strengths, pp. 263-265), noticing and affirming strengths, and appreciative questions (Chaptedr 10). Don’t let praise become the one-stop love shop. Learn to “Embrace the suck,” and help others to do the same.

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