The Key to Self-Esteem? Accomplishment.
A fisherman wants to catch his own fish, not be handed one.
Posted Jan 20, 2012
Though well intended, research shows that the self-esteem movement has hobbled the millennial generation. The habit of unearned praise interferes with learning, and giving an "A for effort" only succeeds in giving students an inflated sense of their abilities. A 2007 Los Angeles Times report on international student assessments across 30 countries, titled "F in Science, A in Self-Esteem,"showed thatAmerican students ranked 21st in science and 25th in math, prompting experts to declare that "Americans are unprepared to compete in the global economy." Despite their dismal performance, American youths aren't bothered by their ignorance. In fact, they don't recognize their mistakes or get that they don't know nearly as much as their peers in Finland, Canada, New Zealand, or Great Britain even though they think they do. They are hooked on praise instead. According to a recent paper in the Journal of Personality, young adults "prefer a boost to self-esteem over sex, food, drinking, and pretty much any other pleasurable outlet." Should they need a pat on the back there is a smartphone app called iFlatter that will "brighten your day, make you laugh, and boost your confidence" regardless of your actual knowledge and skill set.
Competition is a fact of life, and yet the fear of making anyone feel bad has crept up the ladder to adult concerns. It is seen for instance in the Academy Awards in which the timeworn phrase, "And the winner is!" has given way to the bland but political correct, "And the Award goes to." The zero-sum premise is that every winner demands a loser and that personal accomplishment only comes at the expense of someone else. This is rubbish. But the thinking persists and would be merely annoying if its effects weren't so corrosive.
Recently reviewer Kay Hymowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the 15,000 studies that the movement has generated. "And what do they show?" she asks. "That high self-esteem doesn't improve grades, reduce antisocial behavior, deter alcohol drinking, or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly."
The solution to this muddle is actually simple: If you want self-esteem, then do estimable things. Accomplishments and know-how can't be handed out or downloaded into someone's brain like they are for the characters in The Matrix. They must be earned through individual effort. It is the endeavor that generates a sense of pride and inward esteem. Imagine handing a fisherman a prize catch. You may think you're doing him a favor and saving him the trouble, but you are robbing him of the pleasure instead. A fisherman wants to catch his own fish, not be given one.
Self-esteem feels good because it calls on the emotion of pride. Pride in turn arises from one's sense of confidence and capability. Esteem and related emotions instill a sense of success and the confidence that you can accomplish whatever you set out to do. In addition the feeling is fun. "She always seems to enjoy whatever she's doing," people say. Achieving such a state, however, is not possible without discipline.