In grad school, I remember reading an article that seemed to encapsulate my whole life.
It described how we judge what we know relative to what we think there is to know. Thus if I think that music theory is just about knowing how to read music and understand that major and minor chords feel different, I'm going to think I know quite a bit of music theory. As I study it more, and become aware of its complexity, I realize that I know very little of what there is to know. And as I start to learn more, my understanding of what there is to know seems to flit ahead of me much faster than my ability to learn. The more I know, the stupider I feel.
Big frog in small pond syndrome is similar. As I am sure I will tell some of my incredibly competent incoming students in just a few weeks: everyone can't be the best. The very top performing high school students go to elite colleges. Half of them are now in the bottom half of their class. The very best students from top colleges go on to grad school. Half of them are again at the bottom of their class and probably a greater proportion of those will not get academic jobs or tenure. Every time we up our game, we change our comparison group. Often, that means that as we get better, we feel worse about our achievement.
People who never move on—who are satisfied with where they are and don't continue to challenge themselves tend to feel much better about their abilities.
The Zone of Proximal Development
According to the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky, development and growth occurs in the Zone of Proximal Development (the ZPD). He argued that we develop new skills primarily by doing them with others. The growing edge is between what we can do now comfortably and what we can accomplish with the help of others.
For example, my son can play a piece on his violin, but may be challenged by a new piece. If I work with him and help him count, he can play more advanced pieces. The area between what he can do alone and what he can do with me is the ZPD. Doing that a few times, he will develop new skills and then be able to play that more difficult piece by himself.
The same thing can also happen when he works on his own, although the process may be slower than working with a challenging and supportive teacher. Often, effective solo learning happens because we have internalized a way of learning to do new, harder things that may be built upon doing them jointly with others. For example, we know to slow down, to stop and redo things, or to think through new strategies after our first attempts have failed. We talk to ourselves—sometimes in the voices of teachers or peers from the past.
Self-esteem is relative
Susan Harter, in developing her early work on self-esteem, talked about our own appraisal of our self-worth as being dependent upon
1) how well we thought we were doing relative to
2) our ideals or standards, in areas that are
3) important to us
Thus I may think I'm a terrible salesman, but it will have little effect on my self-worth, because it is not an area that I think is important to me. If I thought I was terrible at my job (which is not sales), it would have a much more profound effect on my self-esteem.
One of the things I learned when interviewing mothers about parenting is that the very best mothers often were the hardest on themselves. No matter what they did or how wonderful with their kids they obviously were, they always thought of other things that they didn't do.
They had high standards, so they saw themselves lacking. Again, our feeling of success is relative, not absolute. This process tends to be recursive, as we also de-value things that we're not good at. So if I think I'm a bad salesperson, I may both avoid situations where I need those skilsl and think they're not that important.
I was thinking about this issue again last night. I have been reading a lot this summer about weight and obesity. I have also been dealing with those issues in my personal life, and had acheived a goal I've been working towards for a few months.
I felt good for around 10 minutes. And then I started to feel inadequate.
Why? Because I thought of all the other things I HADN'T yet accomplished. After reaching my goal I immediately upped my standards and realized I hadn't yet reached those new ones. It is a fairly common pattern in my life.
On the negative side, this means I am always aware of more work I need to do. I would also note that as we work hard at something, its importance to us increases, and thus its relative effect on our self-esteem. Before I started to think about my weight, it didn't have much of an effect on me. Now, it does.
On the postive side, it means I am always striving to improve myself. It is especially good for my teaching and my research, because it means I'm always trying something new and pushing myself a little further.
I am fortunate in that I don't really beat myself up about it. I just constantly feel like I should be doing a little more. The good thing is that I happen to LIKE challenging myself. It makes me feel like I'm growing—and that is a key element of who I am and what I like in life.
Carol Dweck, whose wonderful work on cognitive models of intelligence have taught us so much about who learns, who excels, and who quits, would applaud. (You can find several pieces on her work below.) Her research suggests that people who see their abilities as maleable and the product of hard work, self-challenge, and experience learn better and work hard to overcome obstacles, rather than quit.
She has argued that praising kids too much focuses them on achievement rather than the process of acheivement. Long term, this may make them quit when they don't reach goals quickly and easily. Focusing children on their GROWTH and IMPROVEMENT rather than where they are now (especially relative to other people) is central to continued positive growth in the face of obstacles. Especially at tasks we're not naturally good at.
Since I first read her work in 1990, I have always wondered about the implcations of that for self-esteem. I am still convinced it means that long term, judging ourselves as not quite good enough but seeking out a challenge may mean we're never as self-satisfied as those who think they're naturally smart and not just hard workers who succeed through effort.
It may also mean that, because we always up our games and seek out new challenges, we never feel we've made it.
I really believe that people who do this their whole life will show a better long term trajectory of growth.
But it could also be that Susan Harter has something important to tell us too. We can build part of our sense of self-worth on being someone who is resilient, who keeps growing, and who doesn't give up.
As Dory in Finding Nemo says: Keep on swimming. Keep on swimming. Keep on swimming.
And feel good about the fact that you're still moving forward.
Further reading on Carol Dweck: