Where are all the compliments?
I recently learned something about myself. I always knew I was self-critical but didn't know why. Kathy would frequently say, "Stop being so hard on yourself."
John Richie, the then CEO of TaxPartners, asked for a meeting. I was the largest investor in the company and also the board chair. John and I worked closely together on company planning and strategy and held regular monthly operation reviews. The business was doing well, but our relationship wasn't.
We met in my conference room. I sat at the head of the table, and John was to my left. He started the meeting by saying, "Do you think I am doing a good job?"
I answered, "Yes."
Then he asked, "Do you believe in complimenting people?"
"Of course," I said.
Then he said something that has haunted me for the last fifteen years.
"You give compliments using a teaspoon. You need to start using a ladle."
It has haunted me because he was right.
When I was running companies, my direct reports would tell me that I made them better at what they did. They would say, "You always have high expectations."
I would walk away thinking, "Doesn't everyone?"
What I learned about myself later in life with the help of friends like John Richie was this: High expectations combined with little to no compliments wears people out.
My direct reports, and later the entrepreneurs I invested in, would meet these high expectations. But once achieved, they would discover that I moved the bar on them. So they continually lived with this feeling of never being quite good enough.
What these people experienced was my inner dialogue.
I have high expectations for myself, but I never allow myself to celebrate my achievements. I simply move the bar. This leaves me with a feeling of not being good enough. And all my career, I used this self-critical technique as a method to help people achieve more. But as great as they became, they were left feeling they could have been even greater. This is awful. Not fair. Not good. Not right.
But why do I do it?
The answer was in my father's love letters to my mom. These letters were written in 1933 and 1934. As their relationship progressed over this two-year period, he expressed how he was falling more and more in love with my mom. My dad was a great writer, and he was clearly a romantic.
But also in those letters was a cry for affirmation. He wanted letters from my mom, something from my mom, that would say he was great. Maybe just saying he was fun and showed her a good time on their last date. What he got was nothing. She kept dating him, and they eventually married. He continued to fish for compliments for forty-six years.
I now realize my father was surrounded by people who gave compliments with a teaspoon. His parents were Italian immigrants slammed together in an arranged marriage that lacked passion and respect. Their discontent was clearly present in their child rearing.
In spite of his gymnastic achievements as a senior in high school (he medaled at national American Athletic Union events), graduating from high school with high grades, having great reading and writing abilities, finding employment, buying his own car, getting married, and providing for and raising a family, it was never enough. He was judged by his closest family members as never measuring up. And the woman he married treated him the same way with little to no compliments.
And there it is.
I realized I was treated by my dad the same way he was treated by his family. The compliments would be doled out using a teaspoon and not a ladle. And this was passed on. My dad and mom were miserly with their compliments to their kids.
This is not to say other people didn't compliment me. They did. But their compliments didn't change who I was inside. I was looking for compliments from my dad, from my mom, not from my friends. I wanted them to say I was great. This, I believe, is what led me to living a life of being self-critical.
This is awful. Not fair. Not good. Not right.
I thank John Richie for making me aware of my behavior. He helped me have a better relationship with my wife and kids and the entrepreneurs I invested in. He showed me where I was coming up short in relationships. Over time after his conversation with me, I decided he was right. I had a behavior problem and needed to compliment people, celebrate their achievements.
But what I didn't realize is why this was so hard for me. I now realize where it all comes from.
My dad could not give what he didn't get. I can't give what I don't have.
My dad suffered a compliment deficit.
I suffered a compliment deficit.
My wife and kids suffered from a compliment deficit.
And this compliment deficit from close family members resulted in me being highly self-critical. This is a torturous life. It results in "I succeeded, but it could have been even better. I am not enough."
Now that I see where all this started, I'm calling an end to it with this writing. No more being self-critical, no more being so hard on myself.
I am certain this will result in a change of behavior for me.
I will hear compliments from others and receive them. I'll believe them and not deflect the compliments.
I will judge my successes to be just that, success. They are enough.
I will compliment others on their achievements using a ladle instead of a teaspoon.
I am good enough. But more importantly, God has surrounded me with great people all my life. Every one of them, my wife, my family, my friends, and the entrepreneurs I partnered with are all successful people.
And you know what? I need to tell them that!
Now where is that ladle?