I know very few artists (myself included) who do not have a deep need for affirmation. We create art from inside ourselves, and it’s natural to want people to appreciate it for what it is. But when affirmation turns to flattery, it can actually be dangerous for us, and can do us more harm than good. Part of growing as an artist means growing as a person, and that means learning to keep our natural need for affirmation in its proper place. It also means taking both the praise and the criticism of others with a grain of salt.
What do I mean when I say flattery can be dangerous? When people flatter you (and by that, I basically mean slather you with praise), there is usually some other agenda attached. In other words, flattery has more to do with what the other person wants from you than what that person wants to give to you. It can be dangerous simply because it strikes at one of our deepest inherent needs: the need to be affirmed. It disarms us, and makes us vulnerable to whatever that person’s agenda might be—whether or not it happens to be in our best interests.
How does this play out? Here are just two potential pitfalls for developing musicians when it comes to flattery (and this can apply to other artists, as well):
- When friends flatter us unnecessarily, it can stunt our artistic growth. Simply put, our friends often have a desire to encourage us, and sometimes that translates into saying things that aren’t really true about how “good” we are. I don’t know how many well-intended musicians think they are better than they really are, simply because they surround themselves with people who flatter them, and they don’t ever hear constructive feedback about their weak spots. If you think you’re better than you are, you’ll stop trying to improve. Even worse, you’ll be in for a shock when you encounter someone in the industry who is willing to offer a more honest opinion of where you are at as an artist—and you might even discount their criticism because it doesn’t line up with what your friends and family are saying. In short—flattery can distort your perspective.
- Industry “sharks” and con artists use flattery to exploit us to their advantage. This is probably even more dangerous than flattery from friends. There are people out there, even people within the music industry, who will flatter you simply to take advantage of your gifts, taking your money and leaving you little or nothing in return. Just make a point of being highly suspicious of anyone who promises to “give you the world,” or “make you a star.” Unless you already know that person by reputation, be very much on guard.
I’m reminded of a proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” Over the years, I have seen the truth in this. My true friends are the ones who will tell me the truth about my strengths and weaknesses as an artist; they’ll tell me when I write something that sucks, that should never be performed on stage. They’ll also offer me encouragement when it’s appropriate. Their words are not always comfortable, but I have come to trust this kind of feedback far more than lavish praise from someone who might have other reasons for wanting to get on my “good side.”
To balance this out, we should also be careful of words on the side of harsh criticism, as well. Don’t just take every word of criticism that comes your way at face value, either, because harsh words can pierce the heart and do unnecessary damage. It takes a measure of wisdom to discern between constructive and destructive criticism—just as it takes wisdom to know the difference between affirmation and flattery.
The bottom line here is simply to guard our own hearts, and not allow people to use our need for affirmation to their own advantage. Take both criticism and praise with a grain of salt. Be wary of the critic, and suspicious of the flatterer, and don’t allow either one to define you as an artist. True affirmation comes in the form of friends who believe in you enough to be honest about where you are strong, and where you need to improve. This is true affirmation because it affirms you as a person, not just for the music you make. This is the kind of affirmation we all need.
Flattery, on the other hand, will literally get you nowhere.