The self-esteem generation

Couple days ago Peggy Noonan penned a smart piece on Sarah Palin’s downfall. I guess it’s a little unnecessary (she’s not fit for high office, we get it), but Noonan has been on Palin’s case for a while, so to the winner the spoils. Anyway, not the point. In the middle of the article, Noonan sneaks in a pretty broad bit of social critique:

Her lack of any appropriate modesty did her in. Actually, it’s arguable that membership in the self-esteem generation harmed her. For 30 years the self-esteem movement told the young they’re perfect in every way. It’s yielding something new in history: an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.

You can almost hear Noonan trying to keep herself from going into length on some bit of pseudo-sociology. I bet if you left her in a room with your kids she’d probably call one of them fat just to teach them a lesson.

And she’s obviously not alone in having a negative reaction to perma-coddled youth. The idea that kids might do better with a few well-placed smackings is often given semi-ironic support in close company, and it’s kind of hip to say “Oh, well, you’d get spanked for that in my home when I was child.” (Psychologist Albert Ellis has apparently done some more rigorous work in bashing self-esteem, but then again, at 19, Albert Ellis forced himself to talk to 100 women over the course of a month in a zoo just to desensitize his fear of rejection, so he’s kind of a badass).

So have we in fact created a generation running amok, assuming everything they do is right and unwilling to fathom that anything they’ve done could possibly be “inadequate”? To an extent, maybe, but I think to say that coddling creates a cohort of individuals who see themselves as perfect is to miss a lot of the issue.

Confidence is a very difficult trait to instill. Looking at myself and the people I know closely, I know that confidence, in a true, distilled form, is much, much rarer than a lack of it. Doubt is very natural, and even people who are both very successful and can strike a confident pose (or maybe especially those people) harbor strong insecurities, if not about whatever field they excel in then in fields that they aim to cover up their weakness in.

In the end, I don’t think any amount of insulation from failure can really foster an unassailable confidence of the sort Noonan describes. What I think our culture of constant praise does do is weaken our paradigms for judging success and failure.

It’s been said that madness is performing the same act and expecting a different outcome, but what happens when we perform different acts but receive the same outcome? When we offer nothing but praise, that’s exactly the scenario we’re creating. If we tell someone that everything they do is good, how can we expect them to tell between what’s actually good and what we’d in reality prefer them to avoid? It becomes extremely difficult for someone habituated to praise to figure out what is praiseworthy, as they have no framework in which to do so.

Now, this alone might lead to the sort of issues of overconfidence that Noonan discusses. In reality, however, there are two confounding factors, each which create problems: failure is a very real possibility, and everyone is aware that they are at risk of failure, even if “failure” is a vague idea in their minds.

With the first confounding factor, we set people up for situations where when they do fail, they fail hard. If you don’t receive much criticism at work, and then one day you’re fired because you finally pushed the envelope too far, it’s going be a rude awakening. It sucks to place the straw that breaks the camel’s back when you don’t even know there were straws there in the first place. It’s like being dumped by someone who never told you there were problems in the relationship.

The much more prevalent effect, however, is created by the second confounded factor. Everyone is aware that failure exists. Even if (or maybe especially if) our parents don’t inform us when we fail, we are exposed to other people failing, and I think most of us harbor some fear that this could happen to us as well.

If, however, we have no method for determining what will lead us to failure and what will lead us to success, because our own actions have never been judged in such a paradigm, then there’s no rational way to tackle that fear. By a bit of a stretched analogy, if you’re dropped in a minefield, and you have a method for finding mines and avoiding them, then you can work your way out. If you’re dropped in a minefield and have no idea how to navigate it, you’ll just be thankful that you weren’t dropped on a mine, and you’ll probably just sit there.

What this implies for the self-esteem generation is that we create people who are very satisfied being where they are,  but have a much weaker practical sense for how success and failure actually work. And these people are much less likely to take risks, because they have no idea how to judge their risk of failure. So for every Sarah Palin, a product that does not even acknowledge the existence of mines and starts running through the field (to disastrous effect), we have a generation of individuals who have spoon-fed so much praise that they cannot take the intelligent risks necessary to create something actually praiseworthy.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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