But far from breeding laziness and entitlement, as is often claimed, rewarding ourselves frequently and liberally helps us learn new skills and develop desirable traits. When we receive a reward, our dopamine neurons fire up, encouraging our brain to repeat the behavior. Consequently, linking rewards to the completion of a difficult or odorous task helps us master it: this is why we train animals with treats and tell students to place gummy bears at the end of the textbook chapters.
Moreover, praise — especially self-praise — is an example of the sort of positive thought patterns that scientists and life gurus keep claiming will make us happier, healthier and more productive.
So millennials may be on to something. While frequent rewarding undoubtedly can create undesirable patterns (dopamine plays a huge role in addiction, for example), it can also be utilized as a powerful motivator and mood-booster.
Considering how many of us claim to be burnt out by our high-stress, high-stakes world, perhaps we could all do with a few more participation medals.
1. Showing up
Few of us feel 100 percent confident 100 percent of the time. While we all have individual insecurity triggers, many people particularly dislike big, public events, such as networking conferences or team presentations. But if you find yourself stressing out about your inability to deliver a gilded-tongued elevator pitch to a hundred different people, dial back the pressure by reducing your goal to one, simple thing: showing up.
It sounds facile. But often just stepping into the situation we’re terrified of is the hardest part. Once we’re in it, we usually realize it’s not as bad as anticipated. Moreover, once we’re there we have to act, and this usually kicks our brain into gear in a way that gets us through it.
Because your only requirement was to show up, it doesn’t matter if the rest of the event is an unmitigated disaster — see it as a learning experience which you can improve on the next time around. Because now you’ve mastered just showing up, you can take on a new challenge. Progressing through baby steps isn’t pathetic; it’s a tried-and-tested way to actually conquer your fears.
2. Giving it a go
We all know an overachiever who seems to excel effortlessly at everything they turn their hand to. But in reality, the chances of being good at something you’re trying to do for the first time is close to zilch. This is because it takes time to learn new things; Malcolm Gladwell famously claimed that becoming an expert in anything requires 10,000 hours practice.
If we only commended ourselves every 10,000 hours, we’d be a pretty demotivated bunch. Instead, aim to see the value in trying hard at something, even if the results aren’t as flawless as you would like. Volunteer for a new project or try out a new technique with the view that it will be a valuable learning experience, and refrain from putting pressure on yourself to be perfect at it first time.
Gritting our teeth and getting on with a job, especially when it’s difficult, is a good trait to have. If you know you’re trying your hardest, be proud of your effort, not just your results.
3. Being a runner-up
The whole point of a winner-takes-all mentality is that it only rewards the very highest achievers, leaving everybody else out in the cold. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough superstars to fill every company role, so employers that engage in this sort of reward structure usually end up demotivating most of their staff. This atmosphere is also detrimental to developing new talent, who are not currently on the superstar level but would have got there with the right nurturing and training.
Remember: just because you didn’t “win” something does not mean you didn’t achieve anything. If you double your sales target but come just shy of your colleague’s total, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that you’ve performed extremely well. If you narrowly miss out on a job offer because the chosen candidate has more experience, you can still commend yourself for creating a great CV and honing a strong interview technique.
The only person you should be constantly measuring yourself against is yourself. As long as you’re constantly progressing and improving you should be proud of your achievements, regardless of whether other people are “beating” you or not.
4. Not giving up
Sometimes, things just don’t go well. Perhaps you’re just having a bad day. Perhaps some vital piece of equipment broke or some crucial file got lost. Perhaps you made a stupid, irreparable mistake. In these situations, any sort of productive progress is out of the question, and you’ll feel lucky if you managed to keep everything at its original level. Despite your best efforts to fight the fires, you’re well aware that the whole situation is going to end up as an unqualified disaster.
Even if you had a hand in causing the problem, don’t beat yourself up about it. Accept that not every situation can be salvaged, but the fact you’re trying to do so is what counts. Dealing with horrible situations is tough, and sticking with it when all you want to do is creep off into a corner and cry is impressive. Not giving up shows that you have resilience and tenacity, traits every employee worth their salt has in abundance. So be proud of yourself.