I read an interesting quotation the other day:
It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
Harry S. Truman
At first glance, the sentiment here is straightforward: ego and the pursuit of grateful attribution hinder accomplishment. Probably true, in most cases.
My first response when reading that quote was a grin: yes, that’s pretty good. My second response, a moment later, was a sort of vague, directionless sense of shame. Do I live the way that the remark seems to implicitly advise? Well… no, not at all.
There’s more to it, though. Putting aside the fact that there’s no such thing as a selfless act (you know you did it), I’m not convinced it’s healthy to advocate1 that kind of thinking.
The thing is, attribution can also mean responsibility. Putting your name on something (or allowing that to happen) isn’t just an endorsement, but also an admission that the buck stops with you. If there’s a problem with this, it’s my fault.
Equally, anonymity isn’t just a silent badge of nobility and altruism. It can also be a shield. We see it on the internet every day. I think that’s what made the quote stick in my mind enough to prompt this brief essay.
Active pursuit of laurels is one thing: it’s natural, and it probably becomes corrosive after a while. It’s presumably best kept under control, for your own psychological wellbeing (particularly if you start to see yourself through the imagined eyes of others, which is a route to despair).
But there’s nothing wrong with caring about attribution, as long as you care in the right way. If it’s in the context of praise, then great - accept it as gracefully as any of us ever can. It might, however, be (negative) criticism. How you deal with it is the real measure - and a hell of a valuable one.
I still struggle with that type of feedback, and anyone who says they don’t is deceiving themselves. It’s all too easy to take it to heart, without trying to assess the validity of the remarks first. You have to cultivate an attitude of being open to pushback, without letting yourself be destroyed by it. The assessment itself must be assessed. If you can manage to do that, you’ll live longer, and you’re a wiser person than I am.
And if you can’t, well, it’s still important to sign your name.
You deserve it, for one thing. You created the work, and your name should be on it. That part is for you. There’s also another part, though, for those who encounter your work, and it’s more important than yours. Your signature is an audit trail, which is the mother of all double-edged swords. It’s an exposure of yourself, and because of it, your writing (or artwork, or code, or whatever) gains weight. You’ve invested your identity in it. You’re standing by it.
The downside is the vulnerability and culpability, which is what makes people run for the anonymity of pseudonyms, online nicknames, or no names at all. I understand that; truly. I’m a little bit afraid every time I publish an article, and I vividly remember when I was a big bit afraid.
But what’s the alternative? The weakness of a readily-dismissed anonymous voice, whether your motivation was altruism or not.
Publicly, I’m in favour of taking credit, both in the sense of due attribution and praise.
Privately, I’m enormously in favour of it, and the demon of my ego (which is a mask worn by my insecurities, of course) lives and thrives on it.
But in every context, I’m all for responsibility.
My writing is supported by readers like you. Any contribution helps enormously.
Not that I’m saying Truman was doing so either. The quote is taken entirely out of context, and at face value. ↩