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September 17th, 2018
In the late 60’s and 70’s some studies hailed a correlation between high self-esteem and a successful life. The resulting thinking from this followed as such: if we generate high self-esteem in kids, then they will be more successful. And thus was born the precarious and doomed self-esteem movement where everyone is special. The results of this experiment surely fall very short of the expectations incased in the good intentions that wrought such fanfare.
The whole debacle could have been avoided and redirected towards a more productive message if only the actual words comprising the idea had been more closely examined.
Mainly in this case, the word ‘esteem’ is problematic.
In the cultural milieu, the term self-esteem has a meaning akin to confidence. The connotation evokes some sort of magical positive attitude that is somehow expected to manifest all the necessary thinking and skills to achieve things without any disruption in that positive attitude. Unfortunately, such a connotative definition betrays the real definition of both confidence and esteem.
Just as Confidence 2.0 is something that we must systematically build, esteem is something that applies to the exact same situation, albeit viewing that situation from a different perspective.
Esteem derives from the Latin meaning ‘to estimate’.
How much different would the self-esteem movement have been if it was titled the ‘Self-Estimation Movement’?
If we are asked to estimate our own worth of character and individual, would we focus so much on how we generally feel on a moment to moment basis, or would we look at other evidence? How we act and what we do is a far more meaningful metric for getting a sense of what kind of value we offer other people.
The self-esteem movement was the equivalent of asking kids to estimate themselves when they had done little to nothing in life.
Perhaps those studies have it backwards. The conclusion was that self-esteem produces a successful life. Perhaps the more accurate conclusion would have been: A successful life produces a person with high-self esteem. And this makes more sense with regards to the actual meanings of the words. A person who has been successful in life (regardless of how they define it) is going to estimate themselves to be of higher value than a person who does not think they have been successful.
Phrased in such a spelled-out-way makes it seem blatantly obvious. But to do so elicits just how misguided our thinking and actions can become when we tack on a meaning to a word that doesn’t fit so well with our aims and goals. Moving the meaning of the phrase ‘self-esteem’ closer to something like positive mental attitude, instead of something that would come after the experience of accomplishment and overcoming obstacles is like trying to get a chicken without the whole process of INCUBATING an egg. Or like having the cart before the horse.
We gain more self-esteem when we are forced to make a larger estimate of ourselves based on the behavior, the acts, and the accomplishments that we have worked hard to make happen.
Self-esteem is not free. But this is what the self-esteem movement attempted to do. It was an experiment lacking thoughtfulness that asked the question: if we just hand out fake self-esteem for free, maybe it will trick kids into becoming the sort of people who become successful.
This begins to sound like: fake it till you make it. But in the case of the self-esteem movement, the kids were not being told about the faking part. The important difference is that someone who if faking it till they make it knows they are faking it. Whereas kids influenced by the self-esteem movement risk being confused and even betrayed by the identity given to them when things don’t work out the way they want.
When it comes to self-esteem, we want to make estimates that are as close to accurate as possible. Like a carpenter or painter making a cost estimate for a given project. If the estimate is wildly off from the final cost, word will spread about their lack of accuracy and they will find less and less work.
As with self-esteem, we would do ourselves much good to be honest in our estimates. Doing so provides valuable information and a clue about how to level ourselves up, so that the next estimate we make is much bigger, and such is the way that we
increase our self-esteem.
This episode references Episode 38: Confidence 2.0, Episode 129: Positive Mental Attitude is just First Gear, Episode 5: Incubation, and Episode 42: Level-Up.