“Nine-tenths of education is encouragement.” (Anatole France)


Anatole France, the pen name of Jacques-Anatole-Francois Thibault, was a French writer between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was elected to the French Academy in 1896, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921.

France was a prolific writer, and his writings covered an array of genres. He died in France on October 12, 1924 at the age of 80.

Encouragement plays a key role

Nine-tenths may seem like a large portion of the educational process to attribute to encouragement. But the point is not the fraction or percentage, the point is that encouragement plays an important role in education.

Why does encouragement play such a key role in education? What is it about encouragement that enhances the educational journey? I would cite three major reasons.

Encouragement builds our confidence

You probably know that essentially all future learning stems from what we’ve already learned. It begins soon after we’re born with our insatiable curiosity as infants and toddlers. We have a relentless fascination with the world around us, and every day becomes a learning adventure.

Before long, we acquire a foundation of knowledge. It’s upon this foundation that the rest of our knowledge is built. It’s upon what we already know that our education now continues.

Those who stop learning early in their life journey are usually those who simply stop building on their foundation. Like a building with a firm foundation and a solid frame, that for some reason the builder stops building.

They may have run out of money. They may have run into zoning obstacles. They may have simply lost interest. Whatever the reason, the potential was always there, but the building process stopped.

Nearly anyone can continue to build on the knowledge and understanding they’ve already acquired. Like laying one brick upon another—the process seems to take forever. But eventually the entire wall is built one brick at a time.

But what does this have to do with encouragement building our confidence? And what does this have to do with advancing our education? Well, encouragement builds our confidence. And confidence motivates us to learn more.

No doubt you’ve gone to the ocean or to a lake, and first tested the water with your toe or foot. If the water was an acceptable temperature, you followed up with the rest of your body. But if the water was too cold, you just took a seat on the shore.

When we believe we’re capable of learning more because we’ve been encouraged by what we’ve already learned—we’re motivated to pursue more. This is a common aspect of life. One bite of a delectable chocolate chip cookie invites us to take another bite. A successful acquisition of a technical skill invites us to learn another one. A pleasant and memorable trip to a new place motivates us to travel again.

Encouragement announces to us that we can do this. That we’re realizing some success in it. So we have confidence to try more. Without encouragement, we may not be sure how successful we’ve been. Just as when we’re untested, we can never be certain that we’ve mastered the information or the skill.

Likewise, encouragement tells us “so far, so good.” This builds our confidence to go further. And with it the hope and expectation that this too will go well.

Encouragement affirms our progress

Similar to confidence building, encouragement is progress affirming. Of course, not all encouragement is about what we’ve excelled at. Sometimes encouragement simply calls us to try again. Even if we’ve failed or had little success so far. We’re nonetheless challenged to get up and try again. That we may have success the next time.

Either scenario can affirm our progress. If for no other reason than to say that it’s good that we’ve tried—even if with limited or no success. Encouragement can either affirm what we’ve done well so far, or it can affirm that we can safely and confidently continue on.

This is the spirit of Thomas Edison’s famous remark after he had failed so many times to find a suitable filament for his new incandescent light. He said:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Edison didn’t see his 10,000 misses as failures. He saw them as progress toward the solution he sought. Where did the encouragement come from? It came from himself. He took his findings, and seeing them as steady movement toward the answer—he was encouraged. His encouragement then affirmed his progress.

Most of us would have given up long before 10,000 failures. But not Edison. He simply took his “failures” and built upon them. Moving him ever closer to one of the most important inventions in human history—the electric light.

Encouragement can affirm our progress. Whether it comes from without or from within. Keep this in mind when you’re helping someone else move forward, or you’re in need of moving forward yourself.

Encouragement boosts our courage

Have you ever known someone who tried something new, only to soon abandon its pursuit because of a perceived failure? Or a missing aptitude? Or sense that the cost of moving forward would be too high?

Maybe this describes you.

No doubt there are things we try we SHOULD ABANDON. We discover something about ourselves that will simply not serve us in our new pursuit.

  • We decide we want to travel the world and see all of the great sites. Only to discover when we take our first airplane flight we become violently ill. We vow never to enter another airplane as long as we live.
  • Or we may set our sights on becoming a mechanical engineer. But in our first advanced math course, we get a 40% on the first exam. And a 35% on the second exam. It’s not because of a bad night’s sleep, or because we didn’t study. It’s because we have no mathematical aptitude whatsoever. That’s not a crime or a character flaw. But it’s good reason not to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.

But not all pursuits should be abandoned at the first sign of failure. Some things take time to learn. Some skills take time to sharpen. Some courses require a lot of study and focus to master.

Encouragement can boost our courage. Encouragement can embolden us to try again. To try harder. Or to consider an alternate route to the same destination. Most worthwhile pursuits require a measure of courage. We need courage to invest time. Possibly money. We may risk embarrassment. Possibly invest a lot of hard work for a long time. We may risk eventual failure.

All of these things are possible when we pursue something meaningful. But encouragement along the way can give us courage for the rest of the way. Again, it may come from someone who wants to motivate us not to give up. Or it may come as a kind of personal pep talk that convinces us to get back in the fray and tackle another day.


Encouragement really is a huge factor in our education. It can make all the difference. It can help build our confidence. It can help affirm our progress. And it can boost our courage. All are significant contributors on our journey to education. Whether it’s formal or informal. Practical or theoretical. For profit or just for the sheer enjoyment of learning.

Never underestimate the power of encouragement. For yourself. Or for others.

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Copyright © 2019 by Samuel Rodenhizer
All Rights Reserved

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