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I used to know Pete Barlow. Pete had a dog-and-pony act and he spent his life travelling with circuses and vaudeville shows. I loved to watch Pete train new dogs for his act. I noticed that the moment a dog showed the slightest improvement, Pete patted and praised him and gave him meat and made a great to-do about it.
That’s nothing new. Animal trainers have been using that same technique for centuries.
Why, I wonder, don’t we use the same common sense when trying to change people that we use when trying to change dogs? Why don’t we use meat instead of a whip? Why don’t we use praise instead of condemnation? Let us praise even the slightest improvement. That inspires the other fellow to keep on improving.
Warden Lewis E. Lawes has found that praising the slightest improvement pays, even with crime-hardened men in Sing Sing. “I have found”, Warden Lawes said in a letter which I received while writing this chapter, “that the voicing of proper appreciation for the efforts of the in-mates secures greater results in obtaining their co-operation and furthering their ultimate rehabilitation than harsh criticism and condemnation for their delinquencies.”
I have never been incarcerated in Sing Sing—at least not yet—but I can look back at my own life and see where a few words of praise have sharply changed my entire future. Can’t you say the same thing about your life? History is replete with striking illustrations of the sheer witchery of praise.
For example, half a century ago a boy of ten was working in a factory in Naples. He longed to be a singer, but his first teacher discouraged him. “You can’t sing,” he said. “You haven’t any voice at all. It sounds like the wind in the shutters.”
But his mother, a poor peasant woman, put her arms about him and praised him and told him she knew he could sing, she could already see an improvement, and she went barefoot in order to save money to pay for his music lessons. That peasant mother’s praise and encouragement changed that boy’s life. You may have heard of him. His name was Caruso.
Years ago, a young man in London aspired to be a writer. But everything seemed to be against him. He had never been able to attend school more than four years. His father had been flung in jail because he couldn’t pay his debts, and this young man often knew the pangs of hunger. Finally, he got a job pasting labels on bottles of blacking in a rat-infested warehouse; and he slept at night in a dismal attic room with two other boys—gutter snipes from the slums of London. He had so little confidence in his ability to write that he sneaked out and mailed his first manuscript in the dead of night so nobody would laugh at him. Story after story was refused. Finally, the great day came when one was accepted. True, he wasn’t paid a shilling for it, but one editor had praised him. One editor had given him recognition. He was so thrilled that he wandered aimlessly around the streets with tears rolling down his cheeks.
The praise, the recognition that he received by getting one story in print, changed his whole career, for if it hadn’t been for that encouragement, he might have spent his entire life working in rat-infested factories. You may have heard of that boy, too. His name was Charles Dickens.
Half a century ago, another boy in London was working as a clerk in a dry-goods store. He had to get up at five o’clock, sweep out the store, and slave for fourteen hours a day. It was sheer drudgery, and he despised it. After two years, he could stand it no longer, so he got up one morning, and, without waiting for breakfast, tramped fifteen miles to talk to his mother, who was working as a housekeeper.
He was frantic. He pleaded with her. He wept. He swore he would kill himself if he had to remain in the shop any longer. Then he wrote a long, pathetic letter to his old schoolmaster, declaring that he was heartbroken, that he no longer wanted to live. His old schoolmaster gave him a little praise and assured him that he really was very intelligent and fitted for finer things, and offered him a job as a teacher.
That praise changed the future of that boy and made a lasting impression on the history of English literature. For that boy has since written seventy-seven books and made over a million dollars with his pen. You’ve probably heard of him. His name was H. G. Wells.
Back in 1922, a young man was living out in California having a hard time trying to support his wife. He sang in a church choir on Sundays and picked up $5 now and then by singing “Oh Promise Me” at a wedding. He was so hard up he couldn’t live in town, so he rented a rickety house that stood in the middle of a vineyard. It cost him only $12.50 a month, but, low as this rent was, he couldn’t pay it, and he got ten months behind. He worked in the vine- yard picking grapes to pay off his rent. He told me there were times when he had very little else to eat but grapes. He was so discouraged that he was about ready to forego a career as a singer and sell automobile trucks for a living when Rupert Hughes praised him. Rupert Hughes said to him : “You have the makings of a great voice. You ought to study in New York.”
That young man recently told me that that little bit of praise, that slight encouragement, proved to be the turning point in his career, for it inspired him to borrow $2,500 and start East. You may have heard of him too. His name is Lawrence Tibbett.
Talk about changing people. If you and I will inspire the people with whom we come in contact to a realization of the hidden treasures they possess, we can do far more than change people. We can literally transform them.
Exaggeration? Then listen to these sage words from the late Professor William James of Harvard, perhaps the most distinguished psychologist and philosopher America ever produced :
“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our physical and mental resources. Stating the thing broadly, the human individual thus lives far within his limits. He possesses power of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.”
Yes, you who are reading these lines possess powers of various sorts which you habitually fail to use; and one of these powers which you are probably not using to the fullest extent is your magic ability to praise people and inspire them with a realization of their latent possibilities.
So, to change people without giving offence or arousing resentment, Rule 6 is :
PRAISE THE SLIGHTEST IMPROVEMENT AND PRAISE EVERY IMPROVEMENT. BE “HEARTY IN YOUR APPROBATION AND LAVISH IN YOUR PRAISE”.