Clear-Eyed Self-Assessment, Not Inflated Self-Esteem

A now under-valued value.

Posted Oct 09, 2019

MaxPixels, Public Domain
Source: MaxPixels, Public Domain

It wasn’t so long ago when being hard on yourself was seen as an asset. But now, many gurus urge self-acceptance: Your self-esteem should derive not from your achievements but just from being. Hence we now mouth such mantras as, “I’m not a human doing; I’m a human being," and sayings that encourage self-esteem derived from being in a demographic group: “I'm female and I'm proud!” “I'm Italian and I'm proud!"

That is inimical to success and contentment. I’ve had the privilege of being a career and personal advisor to many high-achieving, contented people as well as to some people who struggle. The achievers are far more likely to have modest (although not paralyzingly low) self-esteem and are more likely to focus not on self-acceptance but on improving themselves.

Indeed some of our most revered icons suffered from self-doubt: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci, Vincent Van Gogh, George Eliot, John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, and modern-day superstars like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.

How can you clearly assess yourself rather than succumb to complacency-causing, anesthetizing high self-esteem?

With regard to the level of work to which you should aspire, the best predictor of future performance is past performance: At what level of mental challenge have you thrived? Hard classes in high school? Problems at or outside of work that few could solve?

Supplement your real-world self-assessment with an objective yardstick: your score on an intelligence test or its strong correlates: the SAT, GRE, etc. Such tests are the most predictive quantitative measures of academic and career success.

Of course, we all know highly intelligent people who fail because of emotional or social deficits. So, it’s important to fair-mindedly assess your drive, resilience in the face of stress and setbacks, and ability to play well with others.

Introspection may be sufficiently revealing but many people get a more accurate assessment by querying respected friends, colleagues, or family. Asking, even in writing, may feel awkward but you’ll probably gain respect if you use such phrasing as, “Like anyone, I’m trying to grow: build on strengths, remediate or accept weaknesses. As you know I respect your opinion. So would you offer me your honest opinion of my strengths and weaknesses?”

Of course, you needn’t agree with all feedback, but as any wise leader would, listen and then accept or reject each statement as you deem wise.

It’s difficult to look squarely at oneself and even harder to adjust your behavior and goals accordingly, but it’s a tough task worth doing. This project is more likely to be beneficial and to provide hope for a better tomorrow than is propping yourself up with empty, complacency-inducing self-esteem mantras.

I ad lib on this topic on YouTube.

This is part of a series on undervalued values.