Most people don't have a clear idea of where self-esteem comes from. The "self-esteem movement" that millennials grew up with told us that we were awesome, regardless of reality: everyone gets a trophy, because everyone is special! But self-esteem doesn't come from participation trophies or self-affirmations, and this practice indicates that neither millennials nor the baby-boomers that raised them have any idea of how to achieve self-esteem -- and that's a problem. Because of the nature of our modern economy, the demand for high self-esteem individuals has never been higher. In fact, to be successful, it is a basic requirement.
In an increasingly information-based and creative economy, the demand for people with entrepreneurial skills is high. The days of high demand for obedient factory workers are over. Jobs that can be automated or replaced with artificial intelligence are starting to be (i.e., cashiers replaced with kiosks, drivers replaced with self driving cars, and even lawyers replaced with AI), meaning the demand for creative, innovative, and flexible workers will only increase. People can't work in one job for their whole life anymore, and they can't get by on doing mindless labor, either. A study from McKinsey & Co. on automation described this trend and its effect:
While these findings might be lamented as reflecting the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work. This could occur as automation replaces more routine or repetitive tasks, allowing employees to focus more on tasks that utilize creativity and emotion. Financial advisors, for example, might spend less time analyzing clients’ financial situations, and more time understanding their needs and explaining creative options. Interior designers could spend less time taking measurements, developing illustrations, and ordering materials, and more time developing innovative design concepts based on clients’ desires.
Automation is good news for human beings -- we get to do more work that lets us flex our creativity and intelligence, and less work that dulls our minds and our senses. But, this means that the economy needs independent, self-reliant people who can take risks and solve problems. In order to be any of those things, a person needs sufficient self-esteem.
People who lack self-esteem lack the ability to trust their own mind and the decisions that stem from it. This causes great stress when they need to take a risk and think for themselves, because if their idea fails, the responsibility is fully their own. Anyone can take orders from a higher authority -- if you fail in that case, it is at most a failure of execution and implementation, but not a failure of your own idea. Creating and implementing one's own vision or idea requires a trust of oneself and a willingness to fail. Those with high self-esteem are more willing to fail and more likely to persevere in the face of failure, because they know that it is not a reflection on them personally but rather a part of a process that leads to creation and success. This is a necessary skill for someone in working in a modern company -- the most valuable employees are those who can create value and solve problems with minimal hand-holding.
So how do we get self-esteem? The conventional ways millennials have been taught to achieve self-esteem -- false accolades and external validation -- are wrong: the least hard-working child on the soccer team gets the same trophy as the hardest-working child on the soccer team, and someone who eats donuts and never works out is taking care of their body as much as someone who wakes up early to go to the gym every day. While that mentality sounds nice, it is actually harmful. Psychological studies have shown that hollow accolades and self-congratulatory affirmations do nothing to increase self-esteem in the long term. Professor of neurology Richard E. Cytowic, M.D. writes:
While it feels nice to be rewarded, the glow of the dopamine rush is short lived and doesn't produce lasting change in mood or behavior. After the thrill of winning, for example, lottery winners and Nobel laureates revert to their previous temperaments. A look at accomplished individuals who regularly win awards and medals shows that they are driven by the effort rather than the result. It is the striving rather than the reward that is long-lived. Furthermore, the knowledge of one's capability is continually satisfying throughout one's life.
While someone may smile and rejoice that they got a participation award, they know it wasn't a real award, and so they quickly forget about it. If a someone earns an award, however, the knowledge that they worked to achieve it stays with them and boosts their own view of their personal competence and ability. Someone with a healthy self-esteem should be able to put their full effort into things that they care about, and know that sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail, but they always work hard and that their failures contribute as much to their success as anything else. This is in opposition with a weak self-esteem, to which any failure is not a speed bump but a dead end, because a failure is fully representative of them as a human being since they have no prior substantive proof of their own competence -- only meaningless ribbons and trophies. I always recall Mindy Kaling's story about basketball camp in her fantastic essay Mindy Kaling's Guide to Killer Confidence:
In the summer after fourth grade, my parents enrolled me in a two-week-long basketball camp. If it surprises you that a girl with my build was interested in basketball, it should. But I was, because I had a fantasy that I was in Hang Time. And I was terrible. I could've gotten better, but I didn't want to do drills. I just wanted to play pickup games, socialize, and drink Gatorade. I never wanted to practice. At the end of the two-week camp, I was no better at basketball. But at the farewell ceremony, trophies were handed out and I got one for "Coolest Clothes." I ran home, delighted, and placed it proudly on top of our TV for all to see.
Weeks later, I went to the TV room to find that it was gone. My beautiful trophy! Was it stolen by a gang of criminals jealous of my peach denim shorts from the Limited Too?! Mom told me she had "put it away." I didn't understand. Someone had singled me out for praise and the trophy deserved to be seen. Then my mom said something to me, slowly and carefully, like she always did to make sure I was really listening: "They gave you that trophy so you wouldn't feel bad, not because you deserved it. You should know the difference."
I was of course incredibly hurt and thought Mom was nuts. I thought, There's a great deal of value in being well dressed at basketball day camp. It keeps morale up and adds a sense of cheeky fun to the whole day. Later, I realized what she had said was true. A bunch of unearned trophies around the house would make me hooked on awards, which is bad in general, but especially bad if you don't deserve them. The whole experience made me want to win another trophy, but win it for actually doing something great.
This is how we need to teach self-esteem. Mindy Kaling teaches us that the important thing is not to have immediate gratification, but a long struggle that leads fulfillment and lasting gratification. Millennials legitimately think that the way to gain self-esteem is through external validation and self-affirmations: I'm pretty, I'm smart, I'm in shape, no matter what. That's a problem for our economy -- employers need employees who can do work without hand-holding, who can add value without being micro-managed, and who can take risks and responsibility in the company.
The solution to this problem is simple, but requires effort and action. We need reality-based and achievement-based self-esteem. No more participation trophies, no more meaningless affirmations. Those things are like drugs -- short term gratification that harm you in the long-run. Once we give up the attitude that self-esteem comes from anything besides sweat equity, we will be able to thrive in our lives and the creative economy.