A short-short story on the perils of high self-esteem.

Posted Mar 18, 2017

Cornfed72, CC 3.0
Source: Cornfed72, CC 3.0

Here is the latest of my short-short stories that are composites of real-life events with psychological or practical implications.

Gerald’s mother sowed the seeds of her son’s inflated self-confidence. “Gerald, you’re so smart.” “Gerald, you draw so well.” “Gerald, you’re so handsome.” When a friend  of hers asked, “How are you?” Her typical answer might be, “Fine. You should see my Gerald’s latest drawing!”

For a long time, other adults reinforced Gerald’s high self-esteem. He got mainly A’s (grade-inflated.) He suppressed thoughts about the B’s and the tactfully offered “areas for growth.” After school, Gerald took art lessons but his first art tutor was tough on his work so Gerald’s mother replaced him with a tutor whose philosophy was “three praises for every suggestion.”

Gerald wouldn’t take in the less laudatory messages the world was sending him. For example, his classmates were polite to him but he got Valentine’s Day cards mainly from the kids whose parents said, “Give a valentine to every child in your class.” Teachers paid little attention to Gerald. When he submitted his artwork to even minor local student art contests, he usually got “honorable mention” or no response. He always managed to not let the world’s indifference or negativity to him penetrate.

When Gerald applied to three art colleges and all admitted him with a “scholarship”—a one-year/no-renewal-guaranteed few thousand dollars off the $40,000 sticker price—he interpreted the admissions and "scholarship" as validation he could become a professional artist. He never realized that feedback is more credible when based not on people you’re paying (like teachers) but on people who’d be paying you: customers, art galleries, etc.

Indeed, in art college, Gerald's instructors bestowed much more praise than criticism, and buoyed by that, he stayed the five years it took to finish his BFA. Now with $100,000 in student loans to pay back plus interest, he tried to sell his art, sending his online portfolio to galleries and having a booth at art fairs—Juried ones usually rejected him. Living back with his parents motivated him to “lower myself’ to apply for graphic design jobs. But the best he could get was some project work, which didn’t pay enough and consistently enough to afford his own apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area. So he drove a limo and worked at an art supply store near his art college, selling expensive paraphernalia to other students who dreamed of becoming professional artists, not of being deeply indebted, permanent “entry-level” workers.

Gerald’s romantic endeavors were equally lackluster. He dated but the most desirable relationships never lasted. His longest one was with Brandy who “has lots of issues.” For a long time, he believed he deserved better but finally returned to Brandy and married her.

At age 40,  Gerald still believed "I'm exceptional" as-is. Then he read a high school graduation speech by preeminent biographer, David McCullough. Here are the key excerpts:

None of you is special. You’re not special. You're not exceptional.

Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing 7th grade report card, despite every assurance of that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, you’re nothing special.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you, and encouraged you again. You have been nudged, cajoled, wheedled, and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called "sweetie pie." Yes, you have. And certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs...

And now you’ve conquered high school; and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you. But do not get the idea you’re anything special -- because you’re not. Across the country, no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians; that’s 37,000 class presidents, 92,000 harmonizing altos, 340,000 swaggering jocks, 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs.

"But Dave," you cry, "Walt Whitman tells me, I’m my own version of perfect." "Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus." And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus…

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer.

Gerald’s eyes welled up but then turned to his easel.

Is your self-esteem accurate? Is it helpful to have high self-esteem?

HERE is a video of me reading aloud this short-short story.

 Dr. Nemko’s nine books, including his just-published Modern Fables: short-short stories with life lessons, are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net

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