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What’s more effective for improving ourselves?

Everyone wants to be better. Whether that’s building essential skills, acquiring a new language, looking more attractive, being smarter, or even being more aware of what’s going on in our world, we all want to improve ourselves and be better than who we were yesterday.

The reasons vary for why we want to improve. It could be,

  • to challenge ourselves and see how far we can push ourselves
  • to compete with others and surpass their abilities
  • to gain the respect of others
  • to impress someone and get them to like us more
  • out of a natural habit (which is rare in most cases)

Now, people have always been curious to know what the more effective motivator is — praising or criticizing.

Being born as an American, I’ve been raised in what you’d say is a praising society. If you get a good grade, the teacher gives you a rewarding pat on the back. If you make a stupid mistake, the teacher gives you a forgiving smile and tells you, better luck next time. But it’s not just school — even my friends and co-buddies praise me as if I were the most perfect person in the world.

However, being raised in a Chinese family, I also had my fair share of criticism. Here are some I distinctly remember:

“Your hairstyle is so boring. Why can’t you make your hair more stylish like your sisters?”

“You don’t study enough. How can you get into Harvard or Stanford if you’re getting straight Bs?”

“You never have enough sauce, because you keep boiling it away. You need more water to make it better.”

And just so you know, I was making teriyaki sauce (which SHOULD be thick like gravy, not watery).

But looking back and seeing how much I’ve accomplished in my 27 years of life, I understand both the goods and the bads of being praised and being criticized. Let’s go over these two completely opposite methods, and see which one works better to push yourself to be better.


Being praised is one of the most wonderful feelings to ever experience. I’d say it’s almost on par as making a new friend or getting a huge promotion at work. You see, when you get praised for doing something well, it energizes your eagerness to be better, which corresponds to you trying harder. That explains why overachievers get As, why cooperative teams get 1st place, and why happy employees bring more money to the table.

While praising is positively reinforcing and gives people a good feeling, it should be used sparingly. Too much, and it no longer has much of an effect. Think about someone who always compliments you — you’d start believing that you’re the best and don’t need to change. In the end, you stop trying and that prevents you from progressing. Ideally, praises work best when you feel like you’ve truly earned it based on your hard work.


As much as you may hate this, criticism is a HUGE essential to improving yourself. Without it, you’d end up as the same person — not better, but possibly worse. That’s not something to be proud of.

Let’s say you’re 5’6 and weigh 180 lbs, which is EXTREMELY overweight. Your good friend notices and tells you that you’re fat and really need to hit the gym and cut down on your meals. If your first reaction is getting pissed off, because your friend dissed you, you’re not looking at the big picture. Your friend only wants the best for you, and if you can’t accept what helps you, you won’t get better (skinnier in this case).

This kind of attitude will slow you down if you’re trying to achieve big goals — becoming an executive at your company, learning how to write better, mastering how to talk to people. So if you want to get anywhere in life, you need to accept criticism (not just from others but from yourself as well) in order to push yourself to the limits. It’ll hurt, a LOT, but remember, it’s all for you to gain, not to lose.

So which one is better?

I can’t exactly put a finger on which method is better. I mean, you can’t have all praises, otherwise you have no guide to know what you’re doing wrong. On the flipside, it can’t be all criticism or else you’ll feel more discouraged, and that would hold you back from taking the next step to improving yourself.

So to be the best of what you can possibly be, you need both. I’d recommend a ratio of 40–60, praises to criticism. The reason why I’m leaning more towards criticism is because criticism makes you try harder than praise alone could do. That’s why Asians are the most studious and hard-working people in the world (that I’m proud to be). But yes, keep a good balance of praises and criticism, and trust me, you’ll be amazed at what you can be.

I’m rebuilding my life by discovering who I am, learning what I’m capable of after a 9 year heartbreak that left me stranded in China.

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