On Appreciation

“A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” –Jesus, Matthew 13:57

A while back, I was judging high schoolers debating over modern threats to the United States. And one of the girls brought up the economic risk of another nation — like China — being able to dump a whole lot of our debt on the open market while we’re trying to borrow more money from the open market (which could result in a freeze of government transactions and subsequent currency failure). I was keen on that line of argumentation so later that day I mentioned to the student that a threat of debt-dumping was used by the United States to force the UK out of the Suez Crisis, ergo her argument had historical precedent. She did not thank me for this information. Instead, she thought about what I told her and then — with the particular petulance practiced by teenage girls — asked, “Why can’t you be my debate partner?”

A different girl, a different debate: she managed to drag her opponents off of their case and into the evolutionary potential of sharks and cows. My commentary on the ballot extended this line of analysis into the amusingly absurd — for science! — while noting that it was a cunning distraction from her more-relevant attacks on the dubious claims of her opponents. It was light and fun — especially for a bunch of novices — and I left it at that. But after she got the ballot, her friends said they had to restrain her from enthusiastically hugging me as hugging judges is probably bad form. Still, her initial response was to be unabashedly grateful for the validation of her analytical skills.

The second girl was a rare display of actual gratitude: I made her feel good about her capabilities in a general way such that she was quite glad that I’d been there listening for the duration of the debate despite having no clue as to who I was or how I’d gotten there. But the first girl was actually appreciative of the advice: when she thought about what I told her, she realized the value of what I said, and how it worked with the ideas she already had, and her unusual verbal response distinctly indicated that she’d ingrained the idea into her thinking on the subject. This is the difference between gratitude and appreciation: gratitude is thankfulness from a position of ignorance, appreciation is thankfulness due to understanding.

It is easy to toss off insincere gratitude: kids these days are quite practiced at saying “thank you for [whatever]” in a tone that implies “person who, as a morally free agent, can presumably do whatever you want, ergo your behavior is merely indicative of your autonomy and does not create an obligation on my part.” (This is presumably still an advance for politeness over my generation when, given the latter partial-truth, we skipped the former entirely.) But when a person starts feeling actual gratitude, they should also feel a bit uncomfortable with the ignorance involved. It is the fine difference between the polite “This is great coffee” and drinking it, and “This is great coffee — where did you get it?” to relieve the ignorance of mere gratitude and move into a fuller appreciation of the situation. Conversely, the lack of follow-up shows a lack of appreciation.

This isn’t to say that gratitude is bad. Sometimes I just want to seem totally magical, and evoking the “I don’t know how” aspect of gratitude in other people makes me feel magical. Sometimes there’s no way for something to be fully appreciated, so we just let it go and enjoy what appears to be magic. Gratitude for specialization is a necessary aspect of capitalism: we should be thankful for what other people have cultivated competence in that is offered to us as a service.

But I’m usually more interested in appreciation. I want what I have to offer to be picked up by people who can turn it into something more valuable. This is another part of specialization within capitalism: by focusing on my core work, I leave room for other people to have their core work, too. Tim O’Reilly has a very simple mantra: create more value than you capture. Appreciation is when people take the value you explicitly left for them and make something of it for themselves.

With this in mind it is entirely possible to have people that are eternally grateful to you, but also fail to appreciate you. And the problem isn’t a lack of gratitude for your work, but a lack of change: they accept what is offered, but ignorantly refuse to capitalize on it. And while it would be vaingloriously naive to expect full and consistent appreciation, accepting chronic gratitude from people who should instead be realizing their aspirations by your efforts is Sisyphean self-abuse. It would almost be better to serve people who stupidly don’t understand in the ongoing hope that maybe they’ll suddenly Get It and be able to appreciate the work being done because gratitude is a trap: it externalizes and compartmentalizes the service offered to preclude further consideration.

When people get used to being grateful for what you do, they’re less likely to ever appreciate what you’re offering them.