Reflections on Aphorisms #77

Taking a brief break from La Rochefoucauld today for a little variation in perspective. Don’t worry, I’ll go back to his Maximes. I just like to keep a fresh perspective on things instead of getting too heavily focused on a single writer’s work.

Aphorism #115

To ask for advice is in nine cases out of ten to tout for flattery.

John Churton Collins

Interpretation

I have a really hard time with this. Because of past traumatic experiences as well as my own tendency to want to be successful, I crave validation for everything I do.

It’s a problem in many cases because not only do I wind up becoming reliant on this validation I also find it a little distasteful. First, one should always be honest in their dealings with others, and fishing for praise is possible in a tasteful way. It’s not hard to just ask what people think, and they’ll give you an honest answer. To ask for help when you don’t desire any is just a waste of everyone’s time.

We’re social creatures, and it makes sense that we want to look good. There’s an added element of flattery in asking someone for advice. It shows that there is enough respect in the relationship that the opinion of the advisor is valued above the asker’s.

However, when this falls flat the opposite effect is had: the person who has been asked for advice instead realizes that they are being used for emotional gain. Even if there weren’t a slightly scummy immorality to the process, it would still be a practice that risks consequences for the flatterer.

One good antidote to this is to surround yourself with people you respect and humble yourself to the point that you are willing to do whatever they suggest. I try to do this; if I am taken by a momentary desire to flaunt stuff for appearance’s sake, at least I can redeem it by actually using the feedback I get. I also try not to judge other people when I look at their work unless they have asked me to do so.

I feel that I should take a moment out of this to quickly praise my brother, who has faithfully helped me edit some work and whose feedback I highly value, even though there were a few times when I was definitely just trying to show off writer chops.

Of course, there’s an extra element of risk here for those who work in the creative fields. I’m sure there are accountants who like to get approval for their wonderful spreadsheets (disclosure: I’m not actually sure what accountants do, though I appreciate their work), but those of us who are in the business of creating things wind up at even greater risk of wanting to preen and show off.

For most of us, people like me who freelance, it’s a matter of survival. If people don’t like my work I don’t keep working and my creative endeavors are over. I plan on returning to teaching, but I would like to do so after I get an advanced degree, not because the money ran out.

If someone is truly successful, though, there’s also a cocky attitude that can come up. There’s a thrill in knowing that you’re good at something; I’m a good writer, for instance, in the sense that I do it comfortably and almost professionally.  There’s an even greater thrill in knowing that you excel at something. If you are recognized as one of the best, the temptation to shed humility grows even more insidious.

Resolution

Remember you are mortal.

Don’t lie: if I want praise, show off openly.

Take the advice of others.

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