Why recognition or ‘success’ is sometimes humbling

Shouldn’t we feel pride when we do well? Isn’t that what’s expected of us? Aren’t we taught precisely that, with all the sticks and carrots in our lives? We do something well, it receives recognition and acclaim, and we swell with pride at our accomplishment. We did ‘good’ and the reward is that others acknowledge it. We get the trophies and the medals. Earn our allowance. And we are justified feeling pride at the acceptance of our peers, the adulation of our fans, and the worship of the aspiring masses. We got what we deserved because we earned it. Nothing wrong in taking pride in that.

Well, why is it that some people have the opposite response to their ‘success’? When others praise them they see it as a cause for humility, not pride? How do we make sense of that?

I had to think about this for a while, but I believe I understand it.

My sales this past weekend did fairly well, but the thing that affected me the most was hearing all the wonderful stories of how my pots have been enjoyed and seeing the affection that others have for what I’m doing. And that humbles me. That something I did can have an effect much bigger than me is something that inspires my humility. I am somewhat in awe that the things I make can go out in the world and have such an impact. How can that not be humbling?

My friend's son Alex enjoys a hot cocoa in his new mug

My friend’s son Alex enjoys a hot cocoa in his new mug

The difference as I see it is that we can be motivated to make our art either for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons. When what we do is aimed at getting outside confirmation of our value, then our ‘success’ merely reinforces this notion. Success and pride go hand in hand. You’ve earned the plaque for “Salesman of the month”, etc. But when we are doing the work as its own reward, because this is what we feel we need to be doing, we can also experience pride in a job well done, but that happens regardless of how other people respond to it. The intrinsic value of what we have done stands on its own. Our pride is in being good at what we do, not in being recognized by other people.

If we aim at others’ recognition, ‘success’ is simply getting what we aim at, the blue ribbons and the bonus check. But if we aim at our own intrinsic sense of quality, ‘success’ is also getting what we aim at, but it comes without the bells and whistles. It happens in the quiet spaces of our own heart. The pride of intrinsic success is a direct relationship between the doer and what was done.

So it matters where one starts from and what is being aimed at: One person takes pride in how other people appreciate what they’ve done, the other in how they themselves appreciate what they’ve done. Think of it as the difference between taking classes to get the grade and taking classes to learn what is being taught. We measure ‘success’ by different criteria.

But shouldn’t we feel good when others praise what we’ve done? Isn’t that ‘good feeling’ a manifestation of pride? Asked another way, “Is public acclaim or recognition something we should always take ‘pride’ in?” Well, what about when its not something we were specifically trying for? It might be like aiming a rock at a tree, and when you hit it a nice ripe apple falls down. A great byproduct of getting what we aimed at, but not the thing we were trying to do. We can receive praise for things that were done without consideration of the appreciation they would have. Recognition can sometimes come as a strange coincidence, an accident even…

Intentions do seem to matter, regardless of how our own hands were involved in the outcome. Taking credit and being responsible are not the same things, obviously. And sometimes our responsibility is only a small part of the picture. Especially when its a matter of how other people perceive things. That other people actually get our art is not always a thing we can take credit for. Rather, the credit often goes to these others as well. They got it. And if that’s the case, on what grounds does our pride stand?

When I say I feel humbled that my pottery is given such outstanding appreciation in other people’s homes, its because that appreciation is so much bigger than what I was aiming at. To have my small contribution to the quality of the world find its place in others’ lives IS humbling. Because it means that what I’ve done has far greater power than what I intended. Its humbling because its a gift that was not anticipated. Its humbling because however it was earned that was never its due. It wasn’t asking to be recognized. Rather, its by the grace of other people’s perception that it makes a difference. Its an honor not an award. It didn’t have to be. It wasn’t calculated out for that purpose. We can feel grateful that others see the value in what we do…..

When we make things that try to be liked, its part of the equation that other people will get it. So why not take pride in doing that well? That was earned. We jumped the hoop and met the public expectations with efficiency and dignity. But when we make things that try to be good, it can often be a surprise that other people see that too. ‘Good’ and ‘popular’ can be oil and water. If we aim at things other than the lowest common denominator or specific niche standards how others see what we do is sometimes unpredictable.

And, sure, we can be indifferent. But why not be humbled when those things find fertile soil in other people’s lives? The small things we did for our own reasons can actually have far greater impact in the wider world. The bigger picture simply shows us how small our own ambition was. Its not just our own sense of value and beauty that was met. Our art reached beyond our own motivations for making it. And isn’t that just amazing? And how improbable! That our own sense of ‘good’ also matters to other people is not a thing we can always count on. And its not something we should necessarily take pride in….

I’m rambling…..

Something to think about, at least….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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4 Responses to Why recognition or ‘success’ is sometimes humbling

  1. Lee Love says:

    I originally, I came to pottery to make cremation urns. For years, being active on Akita dog email lists, I have made them for these dogs. Even after a 3 year apprenticeship, and 10 years working in Mashiko, I was not ready to make them for people.. With 23 years of pottery making under my belt, I just started making them for people. A couple years ago, our neighbor passed away (a retired minister), when his wife heard I made pottery urns said, She wish she knew it, because the funeral home charged $1,000.00 for her husband’s urn. I charge $100 to $150 .
    A friend, who was the director of a Masonic Museum that I volunteer at, came to my booth at Art at St. Kate’s last year (it is a one day Art Fair in St. Paul that I also volunteer at.) He picked two covered jars that were good candidates for “people urns.” They were glazed with Val Cushing Blue/Green/Red. (My variation on this V.C. glaze, is that I also use it with cobalt, instead of copper and then layer the two glazes. This keeps the copper from turning an ugly liver red in reduction and adds in the variation of color. First cobalt, then copper over it.) He told me, “Picking my urn isn’t something I want to leave up to someone else.” So, his first and only purchase from me was an urn for himself and one for his wife.
    Unexpectedly, he died a couple months ago. He wasn’t a Mason, but I and other Masons attended his wake. It is hard to describe the feelings I had, when I saw the blue jar, sitting on a small table, surrounded by flowers. It was beautifully humbling. When I spoke with his wife, she thanked me. Said the urn was perfect. Everybody agreed, and when folks commented on the beautiful urn, she told them I made it. And thanked me profusely again. Supremely humbling! And she added that her urn was safely packed in a box in her closet.
    It really is rewarding to be able to give someone some real comfort at a time of loss. And I must add, at a fraction of what a funeral home charges.

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Once again, you nailed it.

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