Q: I recently heard you speak in San Diego and need some clarification. While I understand that researchers have found that high self-esteem is not what it was cracked up to be, I want my kids to approach the challenges of life with confidence in their abilities. There’s got to be a reconciliation point here. What is it?
A: Excellent question! First, researchers have indeed found that high self-esteem doesn’t live up to its hype. In fact, it’s not a desirable characteristic at all. The general finding has been that people with high regard for themselves have equally low regard for others. Yes, they feel really good about themselves (the sales pitch), but they tend to be seriously lacking in sensitivity to anyone else.
The desirable attribute is humility. That was known thousands of years ago, proving once again that there is nothing new under the sun. Humble people pay attention to others, look for opportunities to serve, and are modest when it comes to their accomplishments. People with high self-esteem want attention, expect others to do things for them, and tend to crow about their achievements.
Where confidence is concerned, there is no evidence to suggest that humble and confident are incompatible. By all accounts, George Washington was a very humble man who was more than a tad uncomfortable in the spotlight he’d been thrust into. Yet without the unwavering confidence he brought to his mission, the United States of America might not exist.
Researchers have discovered that people with high self-esteem tend to overestimate their abilities. If anything, they are overconfident. As a result, they don’t cope well when life deals them a bad hand or their performance doesn’t live up to their self-expectations. For those reasons, they are highly prone to depression. Because they believe anything they do is deserving of reward, they also tend to underperform. Ironic, since high self-esteem was promoted as the key to happiness and academic success.
As has been known for millennia, the key to a sense of personal satisfaction (not the same as happiness, by the way) and the feeling that one has made and is making an important contribution (not the same as the contemporary concept of success, by the way) is hard work and a solid platform of good values — the centerpiece of which is high regard for others. Note that the primary beneficiary in that equation is one’s fellow traveler, not oneself. In short, the key to the good life is putting others first. Call that the Good Neighbor Principle.
Society is strengthened and culture is moved forward by the efforts of people who think of others before they think of themselves, not by people who think they are the cat’s meow. In that regard, one of the most foreboding things about contemporary American culture is that today’s young people regard the narcissistic, self-promoting celebrity as more of a role model than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.
That, in fact, may be our ultimate undoing.