Never underestimate the power of encouragement. Applied in the proper form at the right moment, it can accomplish remarkable transformations in both people and economies.
Sometimes the best encouragement is a kick in the rear end. It might be what’s required to stop bad behavior or to get a fool to use his brain for a change. However, the form of encouragement I prefer as a first resort, whether I am its recipient or its administrator, is illustrated in a true story involving a high school football game in late 2008. Sportswriter David Thomas recounts it in his book, Remember Why You Play. Here’s a summary:
The Lions of Faith Christian High School in Grapevine, Texas were set to play the Gainesville State School Tornadoes. The Faith Christian players had everything in their favor, including a guaranteed slot in upcoming state playoffs.
The Gainesville players, by contrast, were teenage prisoners of a maximum-security correctional facility; they had won no games and scored only two touchdowns all season. To date, they were losers in both life and football. They boarded the bus for the one-hour drive to Grapevine with the lowest of expectations.
Thomas writes, “The game was supposed to mean nothing. The game turned out to mean everything.” With no fans except for prison personnel, the Gainesville team members were accustomed to being “outnumbered, outplayed, and outcheered”—until encouragement worked its magic.
Faith Christian’s coach, Kris Hogan, saw an opportunity to make a statement. With his guidance, the school treated the visiting team as if it was the home team. As Gainesville players entered the field, Faith parents and students waved a Tornadoes banner to welcome them. “Then about half of the Faith fans and cheerleaders,” Thomas reveals, “moved over to the visitors’ side of the stadium and cheered the Gainesville players throughout the game.” Parents of Faith players were “encouraging kids they did not know to tackle their own sons.” Though the prison team did not win the game, its players scored two touchdowns and played their best of the season. Guess what happened next:
After the game, the teams met at midfield for prayer with Faith fans standing all around. Mark Williams, the Tornadoes’ coach, asked if his quarterback could pray. In a simple manner but with heartfelt depth, the player thanked God for things easily taken for granted, from the sun coming up that morning to the opportunity to play football that night. There was one thing, however, for which he said he did not know how to express thanks, because he never knew that so many people cared for him and his teammates.
In a small Grapevine, Texas stadium that evening, tears flowed freely. Nobody felt he was a loser. Life-long friends and memories were made. Spirits and standards were lifted. Effects of that moment will resonate in many lives for years to come. Word of what happened quickly traveled across the globe. For months, stories of it appeared in papers from Britain to Australia, likely inspiring millions.
All from a little unexpected encouragement that didn’t cost anyone so much as a penny.
The late author Leo Buscaglia was right when he said, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
As an economist, it’s natural for me to find connections between what works on a micro level and what works for society at large. If you want to know what produces a healthy, growing economy, think back to what motivates the individuals who comprise it. Encouragement looms large at every level because we humans respond positively to incentives; we react negatively to disincentives. If we encourage something, we will get more of it. If we discourage something, we will get less of it.
An economy produces no wealth on its own. Only real, individual people produce wealth (if they didn’t, there would be no “economy” to talk about). They do it through the acts of working, risking, investing, inventing, innovating, employing, building, and serving customers. So, if we want a wealthier society, it follows that we must encourage people to work, to risk, to invest, to invent, to innovate, to employ, to build, and to serve.
To those football players on the prison team from Gainesville, encouragement showed up in the form of other people cheering them on. The message they heard was, “Go for it! You can do it! We love you and we wish you the best!” How well would they have performed on the field if, instead, the message was, “Losers! You’re no good! Go back to prison!”
Now you know why more than a few American entrepreneurs found it demoralizing a few years ago when President Obama denigrated them with the thoughtless sneer, “You didn’t build that!”
In so many tragic ways all over the world, governments smother wealth creators in discouragement. They denounce them as “greedy” and punish them with high taxes. They drive them off the playing field. In socialist Venezuela, for instance, every conceivable discouragement crushes those who work, take risks, invest, invent, innovate, employ, build and serve. Freedom to do those amazing things is replaced by politicians barking orders. Only a moron should be surprised at the disastrous results.
If you can see how encouragement made a difference in that Texas football game, you can surely understand how vital it is in our economic lives too. When the world finally embraces this truth, poverty will become something you have to learn about from history books.