Praise is potent. Do not exceed recommended dosage.

When I first planted a garden, I learned a hard lesson about fertilizer. I had a patch of beans that sprouted but stalled, and some Googling suggested they needed fertilizer to grow and produce. I bought some liquid fertilizer, and the directions on the package told me to pour half a cup of the stuff in an applicator and spray it on with the hose. I decided that if half a cup was okay, 2 cups would be even better, so I mixed up an extra-generous batch and doused the beans good. I know, you veteran gardeners are already shaking your heads as you see the words “extra-generous”, but I was a rookie in the process of making a rookie mistake… I soon discovered that fertilizer is powerful stuff and too much of it can be worse than too little. It can burn things up, and within 24 hours, every one of my plants was shriveled and dead. It turns out that praise, too, is potent stuff and it needs to be applied in the right quantity to achieve great results. If a leader misses the mark to either side bad things happen.

Too little praise leaves people impoverished, and when their personal motivation and momentum wanes, their performance stalls. They may start strong, but when their effort and engagement goes unrecognized, they lose their vigor or they wilt when things get tough and the heat and competition rise. Fortunately this is relatively easy to fix— apply more recognition. Take note of people’s effort and productivity and recognize it more specifically and personally. Reallocate some of your attention and give it as a gift to those you lead. Turn up the quantity and application of praise because being miserly with it will starve your people and stall productivity.

Too much praise is a different problem. When we are too generous with our praise, the expectations can get muddy and productivity can suffer for very different reasons. People have a tendency to calibrate their standard of what is expected based on what is praised. More specifically, praise tends to indicate that something exceptional, something above and beyond expectations, has been done. This means that praising people for simply doing their jobs well can be confusing and run the risk of actually lowering their estimation of what that job actually entails. Instinctively, leaders who want to maintain high standards of excellence are wary of praising people for simply doing their jobs, but this doesn’t mean that they should take effort and engagement for granted. Here’s a simple tip for recognizing people’s contributions without running the risks of over-praising: say thank you.

Thanking people is different than praising them, but it is no less powerful or personal. While praise tends to recalibrate expectations, gratitude tends to reinforce them. For example, saying: “Thank you for doing a good job on this. Our success depends on this kind of effort and I appreciate it” recognizes important contributions without recasting them as unexpected or “above and beyond”. Similarly, saying: “Thank you for working so hard on this. It’s exactly what we needed!” recognizes the effort of the recipient in the present without tempting them to dial it back in the future.

In the end, its your ability to strengthen and sustain people by recognizing their contributions that will enable them to grow and produce as you hoped. Take a little extra care in this process and you’ll reap the rewards.

New Years Resolutions or Restitutions?

I think the reason most New Year’s Resolutions fail is because they’re pitched wrong from the start. They’re either New Year’s Revolutions aimed at overthrowing or turning around a big problem in our lives, or they’re New Year’s Restitutions aimed at making up for some chronic deficiency or past failure. Either way, when we propose aspirations like these, we’re making a bad bet, one that will require large investment for limited return, and one that is likely to leave us more discouraged than different. No ball-dropping-champagne-fueled-moment-of-clarity-and-conviction is likely to reverse the well-worn path of habit or make you something you’re not. I believe in personal development, but the way to get it isn’t always to stop and go in another direction. Some of the most meaningful and achievable change in your life lies on (or at least near) the trajectory you’re already on.

What if this year, when the confetti flies and the calendar turns, you didn’t purpose to fix something wrong with yourself or to be more like you should be, but instead redoubled your efforts to be even more of who you already are? What if you didn’t try to backfill some gap in your abilities or whip up some discipline you lack, but instead to do more with the talents and habits you already have? What if you stopped trying so hard to be everything, and turned your attention to making the most of your thing?

This year, up the ante on the hand you’ve been dealt instead of betting on the come.

Happy New Year!

A Reflection on Calling

Some of the most motivated and fulfilled people I know describe their endeavors as a “calling”. I think they use this word to identify a sort of confluence of talent and purpose that makes them feel like they are doing exactly what they are “supposed to do”. It’s a sort of Right-Person-Right Place-Right-Time combination that makes all the effort and challenge worth it, and provides affirmation and significance en route. Needless to say, it sounds pretty good.

Sometimes I talk with people who’ve identified their calling, but most of the time I talk to folks that are trying to figure it out and are frustrated. Calling sounds good, but it can be maddeningly elusive. It’s like a unicorn— magical, but mythical; fun to hear about, but unlikely to be experienced firsthand.

Ironically, I think we bump into our calling now and then in the hurriedness of our lives, but we are poorly tuned to it and miss or mistake it for something else. This morning over breakfast, a friend of mine used an interesting metaphor to describe what this feels like. He said there were certain experiences or interests in his life that always seemed to “exert a kind of gravity” on him– certain subjects or circumstances that seemed to draw him toward a deeper investment any time they crossed his path. I could relate. The notion of calling can seem a little grandiose or mystical, but admittedly some causes and concerns seem to “call” to me more than others. They exert a sort of existential gravitational pull that draws me in.

I often recognize this pull when it’s happening, but I resist it because getting caught in it threatens my safety and self-control. I’m naturally wary of strong things I can’t fully understand and this mysterious pull is both powerful and inexplicable. The attraction is more than simple interest or opportunity can explain and it tempts me to engage more physically (to do more), and more emotionally (to care more) and I think its the prospect of caring more that frightens me the most.

In the whirlwind of life, I work hard to keep my emotional life as tidy as possible. I try to keep the whole barrage manageable by not actually caring too much about it. If I let this oddly compelling interest or engagement pull me in, I know I’m going to start caring and that’s going to make things messy. It’s also going to make things matter, and that ups the ante on everything. When things really matter, a “win” isn’t guaranteed and I can’t easily renegotiate the stakes to satisfy my need to feel good about myself. That makes life scarier because it is what it is, and what it is, is frighteningly real. In the end, I feel, but fear, this gravity because it threatens the precarious stability and confidence I manufacture every day. It pulls me past the boundaries of the safety zone I’ve outlined for myself toward the center of something else, and I know I could be wrecked or lost in the process.

The conversation with my friend this morning has me thinking. I’m beginning to suspect safety might be a pleasant fiction I’ve composed for myself that actually insulates me from hearing or heeding my “calling”. Maybe the stability of staying in the lines is overrated because the real prospect of being wrecked or lost seems to accompany anything that really matters. Here are two paradoxes I’m considering that might prove food for your own thoughts:

The pursuit of your calling isn’t safe. The life you’re called to live has pain and peril, but its worth both and you know it. That’s what makes it different and more fulfilling than the other tamer or tepid versions you’ve constructed.

Looking for your calling feels like giving up who you’re trying to be, but finding it is like reconnecting with who you’ve been all along. It seems like we’re always called toward something scary but exciting, messy but alive, and away from the inexorable pull of ourselves. You’re no fool, and you’re right about the peril this presents. You’re likely to be wrecked by heeding the call, but the wreckage turns out to be part of a grander transformation you hoped for all along.