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We all enjoy praise. Yet, living for praise leads to a life of striving to satisfy other people’s values. To focus on realising our own values we need to overcome our sensitivity to praise.

The desire for praise and the elation it evokes is often tied to our identity. How do we overcome this desire?

Paul Graham (in a different context) argues that it is important to keep our identities small. We shouldn’t expand what we stand for and what we believe in too much. Graham gives the example of arguments over religion and politics which become entrenched because people cannot separate their identity from the topic.

Our reaction to praise is also part of our identity. When identity is defined by particular skills, goals or people then praise speaks directly to that part of our identity. We are more likely to be seek out and be swayed by praise which targets core parts of our identity.

By keeping our identities small we take away the focal point upon which praise launches its assault. A small identity is one that is less likely to become elated because of some well crafted praise.

The necessary opposite of a small identity is developed by Paul Saffo: outside of the zone of our identity we should all have ‘strong opinions, weakly held’.

‘Strong opinions, weakly held” is a twofold approach. First you determine the prevailing theory based on the current core information. These are the required ‘strong opinions’.

Secondly you seek out new information and assess if it challenges the prevailing theory. When there is sufficient new evidence to destroy the prevailing theory you start creating a new prevailing theory.

This is true of praise. Once the thing praised is outside your core identity it becomes an aspect of a wider discussion of preferences and the state of our current information. Sometimes, the prevailing theory suggests a particular approach. Praise is a third party’s belief that our prevailing theory is correct. That belief has no relation to our identity. It is an expression of someone else’s preference. At the same time, praise is not evidence that can cause us to alter a prevailing theory. It is a comment on the existing theory uninvolved with its formation or destruction.

This evokes a core notion of personal equanimity best expressed by Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He reminds us that “[a]nything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.” If we want to become something beautiful, we must internalise that praise will do nothing – neither help nor hinder – on that journey.

We overcome our sensitivity to praise by realising that it is impossible for anyone to actually praise either our work or our character. At the same time, we diminish our inherent sensitivity by shrinking our identity until it includes only those things truly necessary. Together they can transform our fickle relationship with praise.

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