Friday, June 08, 2012

A special piece

I don’t get this whole movement against self-esteem and telling young people they’re special. It seems to revel in the idea that life is a bloodsport where everyone isn’t going to win, many will lose and losing comes specifically from thinking positively.

I get that you don’t want someone to develop an inflated sense of self-importance or otherwise feel like the world owes them the universe. Selfishness is what drives greed and, consequently, the reckless behavior that shoulders a lot of the blame for our nation’s woes. (And inspires insufferable Ayn Rand disciples.) But I don’t think those repellent attributes arise from encouraging a kid. In fact, they seem to coexist with the same competitive, winner-loser mindset that worries about them in the first place.

There’s a difference between rightfully curbing arrogance and beating down an individual. This is a staple of many religions: that you’re insignificant and must not think otherwise for the good of the whole. It’s also true in the military and many tougher workplaces, where workers grovel to please (or not piss off) the big, stern boss. There are times when a hierarchy is essential to function. But insisting that we need to treat students this way is mean.

There has to be a middle ground where a kid can feel confident about themselves, while understanding their place in the vastness of the world around them.

Whenever I hear someone bemoan participation trophies or complain about possession of specialness with intent to distribute, the word that usually comes to my mind is “pushy.” These are the people who want to be No. 1 for its own sake. Their happiness is predicated on how high they (or their kids) can rise above the competition. So when they win a trophy, they don’t want anyone else to have one. If everyone else is happy, they are not. When they win the Olympic gold, it burns their asses that others have silver and bronze on their walls. Even when it comes to graduations and other non-competitive achievements, they want to be able to come out on top. It’s not about being the best one can be; it’s about being the best to shove it in others’ faces. It speaks to a profound insecurity.

I don’t think it’s coddling someone to show them support. Most people, children and adults alike, are naturally critical of themselves. Encouragement from others can make all the difference in how confident they become to pursue their potential. Negative influences abound, because it’s easier to tear someone down than it is to bring them up. We need all of the counteracting forces we can muster to marginalize that negativity.

Whenever someone says, “You’re not special,” what they really mean is, “Give up on your unique hopes and dreams. Either you’re Bill Gates or you’re working for him. There is a workaday world out there and it won’t work itself. Get in line, pay your dues and wait your turn.” It’s no surprise that these are the same people who ask Liberal Arts graduates what they plan to do with their degrees. And the same people who relish in telling all graduates, “You’re on your own, cog. I got mine. Life is hard. Enjoy this economy.”

That’s the last thing creative people ever want or need to hear. Because that workaday world is always going to be there. Despite the high unemployment rate, it’s harder to avoid getting sucked in than it is to get in. It will always be there. Your special opportunity might not be. So if that describes you, go for it. Don’t feel like you have to concede right away. Bitterness is a bitch.

Yes, you’re special. Don’t let people who aren’t bring you down.


Michael said...

Maybe you have to have worked in academe to get why that commencement address has gone viral. It really isn't about being bitter, or beating people back into mediocrity. It's about combatting the ludicrous notion that showing up is good enough to be considered outstanding. While there are certainly students willing--and eager--to show up and do the work needed to get really good grades, there are a lot of them (maybe even more of them than the really good ones) who seem to feel that they're somehow entitled to get straight A's just because they've paid their tuition and (mostly) showed up for class and (mostly) done the assignments. And there are parents who reinforce those attitudes, thinking, apparently, that school (whether elementary, secondary, or post-secondary) is like Wal-Mart: you pay your money and you walk out with what you want. The correct analogy, however, is the country club: you pay your money for the privilege to be there at all, with no guarantee of any kind of success at what you do once you're inside. Unless, of course, you apply yourself and practice your sport or other activity and put in the amount of work needed to excel at it.

And when you reinforce those idiotic notions for years, they stick. When those students graduate and go out into the workaday world, they expect things to be the way they've gotten used to--and they aren't. There are no extensions when the boss says "I need this by this time." You don't (usually) get lengthy breaks from work for Christmas, and certainly not for the whole summer. And simply showing up isn't even likely to guarantee you'll keep your job, much less get promotions, bonuses, or raises. That's the mindset we need to inculcate in our students--but aren't, for the most part.

Ian McGibboney said...

I don’t get these speeches from academics; I get them from people who by and large don’t have a college education, so I don’t think they’re sharing your (valid) perspective. Their vindictiveness in other things they share makes these feel like this is just one more avenue for why we should make life electively harder for others.

I have a master’s degree, so I’ve known plenty of college students who phoned it in, and/or thought they deserved a diploma just because they paid for it. Those students made my blood boil, but the upshot was that they rarely kept up. My favorite thing about college was, in fact, that it was entirely up to me to succeed. That gave me a sense of control and allowed me to carve something for myself. That’s probably what motivated me to do it twice. (Also, the realization that this was the last time anyone would invest in or care about how I turned out.)

What I see in the anti-self-esteem movement has little do with those slacking students, or even with college at all. I see it as people who think that encouraging a small child is tantamount to spoiling him. As someone who struggled mightily with math my whole life, I can show you a direct correlation between how well I did in a class and how my teacher treated me. I had teachers who tried to work with me and teachers who literally yelled in my face that I was dumb. The ones who yelled at me probably thought they were helping, but they weren’t. What they were doing was kicking down a child who was already beating himself up inside for struggling. I’m sure some of them thought I was lazy or entitled, and went home and bitched about it, but I was just bad at math. Later, I had math teachers who, if they weren’t Tony Robbins, at least understood that not everyone grasps things at the same level. Those teachers were much easier to deal with, and I learned a lot more from them. And it doesn’t take any more energy to be that kind of educator than it does to be a jerk.

So when I hear people say “self-esteem” with a sneer, most of the time that’s what they’re talking about. It’s not about coddling entitled brats — it’s about encouraging someone within their abilities and expectations. Maybe that’s not how the real world works (hell, I know it isn’t), but that doesn’t mean young minds need to be confronted from the get-go. That simply doesn’t work on everyone.