How to Rest on Your Laurels

by Lisa Rothstein on 01/25/2010

Take your bow! It's good for you.“Don’t rest on your laurels,” was one of my Mom’s favorite phrases when I was growing up. She said it so much, for the longest time, I thought “laurels” was a euphemism for a certain part of the anatomy, rather than the prize in Ancient Greece for the victor in a sport. “Resting on your laurels” meant sitting on your posterior after your latest accomplishment. I know Mom meant to push me to continue to strive for the next goal, and she did. That constant drive is what got me into an Ivy-League university, got me my first job as a copywriter on Madison Avenue before I even graduated, and pushed me to go for many of the things I accomplished in my life.

But I took it a little too far. I was so afraid of coasting, I never got to take a spin on any of my wins. Not only didn’t I rest on my laurels, I stomped on them. I didn’t even get to see them. In my mind, celebration equaled stagnation that would quickly lead to ruin. Finished a screenplay? Well, you need more than one, you know. Get back to your computer! In any of my talents, the question never was “what great things have you done?”, but “what have you done for me lately”? I found I was chronically dissatisfied, self-critical, and everything seemed too hard, so getting started and sticking with projects was a chore.

So if you’re struggling with motivation despite your many talents, it may be because it’s really hard to be motivated when there’s never a reward. Life is all one big long stick and a very distant carrot on the end that never arrives; jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today. No wonder it seems like more fun to clean out your garage than write your novel.

Why reward yourself?

  1. To stay motivated. There’s an idea I and many DaVinci types I know have that if we give ourselves too much credit or praise, we’ll lose our motivation and drive. While logical, I have found this to be totally untrue. I am much more motivated to do more when I’ve savored the pleasure of victory, rather than only the drudgery of work and the longing of far-off goals yet to be realized. In fact, in the dark times of a creative project, it’s vital to have memories of success and praise to draw on as proof that yes, you can do this, and do a great job. But how can you remember something you haven’t  allowed yourself to experience?
  2. Because you’re worth It. Also, when you don’t give yourself credit, you’re devaluing yourself and your work. We all tend to take our talents and accomplishments for granted to some degree, but when you never acknowledge what you’ve done, especially something you’ve put your heart and soul into, you essentially take something that belongs on a pedestal and plop it into the 99-cent bin.  And if that’s how you view it, why should anyone else see it differently?  A BIG hint that you are doing this is an inability to accept compliments. Catch yourself saying things like “It was nothing,” or “anyone could have done that” or “yes, but I’m not done, I still have to do this other thing,” or pointing out the flaws in your creation.  Don’t worry that you’ll look immodest. Practice saying “Thank you,” and then smiling as you bite your tongue in half if you have to.
  3. Because it feels good. If part of the point of life is to be happy, why would you deprive yourself of this great and well-earned opportunity just to feel good about something you’ve done? If pleasure isn’t a big enough incentive, how about the fact that when you feel good about yourself, you’re nicer to be around, people are nicer to you, and you therefore attract more opportunities than you would if you were sitting in a corner in a hair shirt flagellating yourself? Unless, of course, you feel you don’t deserve to be happy. That’s a can of worms we’ll open in another blog post or two.

So I hope you see by now that to enjoy your talents and your life more,  and to take your talents to greater heights in future, resting on your laurels a little is essential. Here’s how:

Catch yourself doing things right. We’re great at berating ourselves for every mistake, so we already have this skill down pat. Just notice different things — a witty turn of phrase in an email you just wrote, the fact that you got four pages of your book or script done this morning, how that photo you took of your dog is a masterpiece of composition.

Create a “ta-dah” List. This is not to be confused with the very helpful tadalist.com site where you can make lists for everything you want to do. The list I’m talking about looks back, not forward: a  document, journal and/or a file folder where you can record all your accomplishments, kudos, wins and triumphs, large and small.  You can capture daily wins like the ones mentioned above, and also go back in your memory and write down every one you can think of from the past. If you’ve got a scrapbooking bent, you can make an album out of it and devote a whole page to an event you want to highlight. Also, start collecting any and all compliments from others — emails, letters, things people say that you can write down. Trust me, this collection will be a treasure on some gray day down the road. It’s hard not to be a little impressed with yourself when you have an aggregate of evidence of your magnificence.

Activity: Start your own “Ta-Dah List” and find at least ten things you can be proud of, either today or from the past, that you have not taken ample time to acknowledge yourself for.

What have you done that deserves some laurels? Share it here and let your fellow DaVincis applaud you!
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