When I was a little boy many long years ago, my favorite song was “Home on the Range.” (MP3)
The words and melody still reverberate in my head (although I don’t wear my Davy Crockett coonskin cap and Gene Autry spurs in public anymore).
The particular lyrical refrain of “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word / And the skies are not cloudy all day” is quite relevant to our lives as creative adults — sans cowboy or cowgirl paraphernalia.
Unfortunately, many of us work in an environment where often is heard a discouraging word and encouraging words are seldom bestowed. This is a genuine pity.
Real encouragement does not cost money, and it takes little in the way of either time or effort but can yield tangible creative rewards all around.
Recently the power of encouraging words was brought home to me by two unexpected events.
First, I received an e-mail from out of the blue thanking me for making possible a highly successful twenty-year career in advertising and public relations. The name of the writer did not ring a bell, and I had no recollection of telling this stranger to go into advertising and public relations.
Here is what happened. In 1984, my wife, Amy, and I sponsored a citywide poetry competition called “Philadelphia Voices and Visions.” We got some stellar entries, mostly from grad students, librarians, community activists, and teachers. Apparently, at the awards party, a young and unassuming woman asked me what she could do to earn money when the only thing that she was good at was writing poems. I must have told her that she had the requisite talent for a career in the ad and PR biz, and she must have believed it.
Two decades later, she is a senior manager at one of Philadelphia’s top communications firms and works on major international accounts. Go figure!
A second fortuitous event occurred when Amy and I wandered into a premier Philly art gallery about three years ago. We were greeted by some really large, eye-catching watercolor paintings. By chance, the artist was there — she was one of our first major clients in the early ’80s. I had not seen her for close to fifteen years.
Our client had been a high-level manager in Philadelphia city government. How did she move from spotless business apparel to a paint-stained t-shirt? Apparently, it was because of something I told her years and years ago — and I have no memory of it whatsoever.
Although her first career was devoted to management, she had graduated from art school in the 1960s. When we worked together in the mid-’80s, she was professionally successful and respected, but lamented to me that her creativity and artistic abilities had evaporated under the constant pressures of the office and being a mom.
Apparently, I told her that our creativity and artistic talent never leave us, although they can go dormant for decades. Just get a little watercolor pad and fool around in odd unoccupied moments and, if you can, go to an artists’ colony like the Vermont Studio Center for a creative sojourn.
At any rate, our former client is now a full-time painter (with a city pension) who is earning between $20,000 and $30,000 a year doing something truly creative. One never knows where encouraging words might lead people over time.
Conversely, I will never really know (nor will you) what one’s discouraging words have done to others.
All of our “constructive” criticisms, dire warnings, petty cruelties, and mindless morsels of sarcasm have most assuredly diminished the creative potential of those around us.
For the heck of it, try bestowing some sincere and encouraging words on your family members, friends, and colleagues — then watch their faces soften and shine.
You may have opened some previously shut doors inside them. And they just might walk through those invisible portals to something better for themselves and society.