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A little positivity and praise towards others can go a long way for how you assess and treat yourself, too.
A couple of weeks ago in this column, I took aim at some behaviors that can make folks appear trollish. My first suggestion was to avoid being Dr. Negative (or Mr., Ms., etc. if you haven’t earned your doctorate just yet). There are more than a few ways to do that, and it gets easier with practice, but some are more wide-reaching than others.
This week’s title makes no secret of what I consider one of the best behaviors: be generous. You might have heard the subject used as part of a trite wedding toast, which is good advice in and of itself, but the trait can be a bottomless social goldmine.
I stumbled sideways into one facet of it early on in med school. It can be a cutthroat environment, as can other competitive academia and sought-after professions; so much so that “CT” was a commonly used abbreviation on my campus long before most of us were at a stage to be talking about radiology scans.
Classmates had differing ideas about what rose to the level of cutthroat behavior. Most probably wouldn’t restrict the term to things like stealing others’ texts or feeding them false information. Suppose another student was ill and out of class, for instance: They asked to copy your notes or simply what material got covered that day. If you flat-out refused to assist, you’d probably be considered CT for it.
It’s not too hard to imagine why folks would behave that way towards potential competitors. They might consider the situation a zero-sum game: Every point I score above you is a drop in the bucket towards my ultimately ranking higher than you in class. Every bit of knowledge I master that you don’t stands to get me a higher score on my exams (such as USMLE) than you. Why should I do anything that helps you compete against me?
It didn’t take too long to determine that I didn’t want to think that way, let alone act like it. I’ve subsequently figured out more reasons why that was the right choice for me, but at the time it was a gut instinct. Not only did I not want that to be who I was, I didn’t want to develop a reputation for it.
In the fullness of time, the answer fleshed itself out: I wanted to be generous, rather than clutching to myself every possible advantage I could think of—not because it might make me more popular (although that’s also a worthwhile advantage of this approach), but because it boosted a positive sense of self. I find it a lot easier to be proud of the fact that I give freely and help people whenever I can than the alternative.
Another advantage that I’ve come to realize over the years is that when I’m being Dr. Generous, it’s almost impossible for me to be Dr. Negative at the same time. Generosity is about saying “yes” or acting affirmatively. What comes more naturally when you’re saying or doing something good for someone? Praising and giving words of encouragement or criticizing and belittling?
Generosity isn’t just about giving things of material value, or “giving till it hurts.” Actually, online as well as in a rad’s professional life, it’s usually not even possible to physically give anything to the folks you’re interacting with. Words are usually the currency and they’re more than sufficient to the task. They also cost you nothing to utter.
Be generous with your praise. Coming from a competitive background, where maybe you didn’t get an abundance of positive feedback, you might not reflexively give it to others. It might take someone saying something truly brilliant or doing something heroic to pry those appreciative words from your lips.
Fight that instinct. What exactly are you giving up by telling someone they had a good idea or did a good job? The option to subsequently say that they did something bad? There’s a time for [constructive] criticism, but every time you can truthfully say something positive to someone, take the opportunity. “Catch them being good,” as an old psych colleague once put it.
People appreciate it, especially if they came from the same praise-poor educational and training background you endured yourself. Further, if you’re both surrounded by other praise-stingy professionals, being the rare person who’s generous with positive words will practically put a halo over your head in the recipient’s eyes.
Finally, generosity of praise begets generosity of appraisals. As a wise Jedi once said, “Your focus determines your reality.” Practice finding things you can honestly praise, and you’ll start noticing more that is praiseworthy. A glass half-full outlook helps you see more of the good stuff and takes you a giant step away from being Dr. Negative in general.
That can circle back to generosity with yourself, another valuable trait. Get in the habit of appraising people more kindly, and that can carry over to self-reflection. It could take the edge off a dysphoric perfectionist streak, if you’re prone to that, or maybe just allows you to give yourself a pat on the back a little more frequently, which, again, could be just what you need if you’re in an environment where you’re unlikely to get it from others.
In case that’s insufficient motivation to be more generous, I’ll briefly revisit a topic from a couple of my old columns: reciprocity. One of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s “principles of persuasion,” it refers to the hard-wired instinct of social animals to give back when we have received.
You don’t have to count on karma or the like to pay you back when you’ve been generous to others (although it can’t hurt!). With every generous word or deed you give, they’re incrementally motivated to pay you back for that positivity. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not even in a way that either of you realize is connected at all. Perhaps years later, the classmate, colleague, or social media contact who experienced generosity from you will just happen to be in a position where they return the favor because they’ve come to know you as “one of the good ones.”