Standing Ovations and Undeserved Praise

I made my stage debut in The King and I as one of the Siamese children. (Yes, I am white, as were most of the other kids in our production. Yes, they literally dipped us head to toe in stage makeup to make faux Asians out of us. Yes, this would be unacceptable today. That’s a topic for another day.) I was in 6th grade. When we did the curtain call on opening night, the audience gave us a standing ovation. That was in the mid-1970s, when such an ovation still meant something. Now a standing ovation is practically obligatory at every show, regardless of the quality of the performance. The gesture has become meaningless as anything other than a polite matter of course.

But that first standing ovation felt awesome! All these years later, it still stands out as a great moment in my life. Aside from being the first time I experienced the thrill of the stage, it was meaningful because it was deserved. My role was a tiny one, but I knew that even though this was just a high school production, it was a very good one. I have been involved with shows since then that also received standing ovations, but ones which were in no way deserved. They felt phony.

When I was a kid, my parents praised me to the skies, even when I didn’t deserve it. I was a pretty good young musician, but not the best in school, and certainly not the best on a statewide or even citywide level. If I lost a battle for first chair in the band, or didn’t get top score on a solo, my parents acted as if I had been cheated. I wasn’t cheated; I simply wasn’t as good as the competition, and I knew it. To be told otherwise felt like a lie, even if it was well-intentioned. The praise my parents offered was meant as support, but again, it felt phony.

There is a big difference between “You ARE the best!” and “You can BECOME the best.” The latter is helpful; the former is not. When a student (in music, sports, or anything else) hears “You are the best,” the message is “You needn’t bother trying harder; the world has to come around to you.” This is unfair to the student and also casts a negative shadow over the world for not recognizing talent. It would have been much healthier for me to hear a lot more of “You can become the best” while growing up. There the message is, “You are not the best yet, as you are well aware, but the potential is there if you work at it.”

Being told I was the best when objectively and obviously I was not led to a distrust of compliments. It also implied that I was already as good as I could ever hope to be, and since I knew others were better, it led to a feeling of hopeless inferiority. I don’t mean to bash my parents, and I also don’t claim that this is always the case. I just wish I had figured all this out a lot sooner.