Compliment Negation Fixation

Steve MerrymanAttitude2 Comments

I believe in recycling, but only if it suits me. When I find myself buried in panicked clients and have no time to write a new blog post, recycling an old blog post suits me just fine. So here is an old post that I've enhanced with images and (mostly) proper grammar. Enjoy!

The inability to accept compliments is part of my character. It was bestowed on me by my father, who always assumed a compliment was the prelude to a request for money, or an inconvenient favor.

This inability was often demonstrated to me. When I graduated high school, the principal, noting how involved I had been in school activities, offered his compliments to my parents for raising such a fine son.

Dad's reaction was typical

"He's a dink," he said.

This family trait of negating positive comments came out when I attended a couple days of activities at Central Washington University, including being honored as the Art Department's Distinguished Alumni for the year.

I was honestly confused by the honor, though I did my best to maintain a gracious attitude towards all the genuinely nice people who, for reasons that escape me, seemed to think I was pretty awesome.

Obviously, they didn't really know me.

My biggest fear in such situations is that things will get out of hand and I will let the compliments go to my head and start offering opinions on things with which I have no knowledge or expertise:

  • "Nilla® wafers are the key to long life."
  • "The moon landings were real, but just on the wrong moon."
  • "Never store important data in The Cloud because clouds are made of water and water is bad for electronics."
  • "There's really no way to tell if someone ate asparagus."
  • "If one whiskey is good, just think how good the whole bottle would be."

So it was with some trepidation that I participated in an alumni panel in which we would potentially be asked open-ended questions. Sure enough, one of the questions asked of all the panelists was (roughly), "What can you say to a student that is graduating into a tough market? What can they do to help start their career?"

I kept my mouth shut. Why? Because all day I had been treated like some kind of expert when really all I was doing was reacting as I would normally react and trying not to let on how arbitrary were my opinions. Sure, I can give advice on font choices, colors, and maybe a few headline ideas because that's what I do all day, and those opinions will be colored by my biases and predilections. But just because I'm good at those little things doesn't really qualify me to pronounce, like some swami on a hilltop, life advice to twenty-somethings venturing out into a market that bears little relationship to the one I entered over thirty years ago.

That's the danger of compliments. They make you feel smarter than you probably are, and if you take them seriously, they can get you and others in a lot of trouble.

Earlier in the day, I was told by a nice, elderly lady what an honor it was for me to be selected as a Distinguished Alumni. Immediately alarms went off in my head and I switched into Compliment-Negation Mode. "I think they were at the bottom of the barrel when they got to my name," I told her. "A lot of folks must have said no before they got to me."

Of course, I was kidding. But Compliment-Negation is just the way my mind works. If occasionally I sometimes find myself agreeing that I'm super awesome, I knock that opinion over the head, tie it up and keep it prisoner deep down in a cellar well. Every once in a while I toss it some food, but most of the time it gets the hose.

And I never let it out in public.

Is this Compliment-Negation fixation a bad thing? I don't really know, but it's a large part of the engine that drives my creativity.

Reminding myself how far short I am in talent and ability is how I fuel that engine. Creative insecurity is the name of my driving force. It's weird and sad and, strangely enough, it seems to work. It's got me this far, which isn't all that bad.

In the end, I'm grateful to those at CWU who thought to honor me. Hopefully I can rise to the level such an honor implies.

Now I'm back home in the woods. Hiding from human contact and keeping my raging ego in check.

PS. I do have an answer of sorts to the question posed during the panel. "What can you say to a student that is graduating into a tough market? What can they do to help start their career?"

There is no Recipe For Success. Everyone must eventually find their way on their own. It's scary and exciting, and that's what makes it so rewarding in the end.

While there is no obvious answer, there are, however, some general principles I believe led me to find success in my career. Those principles are:

  • Dedication - I was dedicated to my craft.
  • Obsession - I was obsessed with every detail of the business and art of design.
  • Curiosity - I was interested in learning new things and gaining information.
  • Kindness - I was friendly and helpful to the people I met.

Those four qualities helped me find success in my career. Note I did not list "Talent" because I don't think I'm particularly talented, but I've compensated for it with other qualities.


Steve Merryman is a cranky old fart. He writes about things that make him tick, and things that tick him off. You may object to his views; you may think he's a moron; and you might wish to tell him so. In return he would remind you that his lack of concern for your feelings is only exceeded by his indifference to your opinions. Good day, Sir!

2 Comments on “Compliment Negation Fixation”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Protected by WP-SpamShield Anti-Spam