Everyone Gets A Trophy?

Is our over-emphasis on self-esteem detrimental to creativity, risk and innovation?

A few years ago my children started playing organized sports. It’s a kind of unsettling awakening, especially with the first child. You suddenly become aware of the gaps in your parental instruction. (Wait! My kid doesn’t know to put his glove in the air when the other kid throws the…ooh…bloody nose. Yikes.)

One of the other surprises came with the first game. Much to our son’s dismay, the authorities-that-be weren’t keeping score. (Funny how the kids always do, even when the grown-ups don’t. He knew that his team was 5-5 that year.) I’m not arguing that beginner sports leagues should be keeping score, it’s just one data point for me in a larger dynamic that’s I’ve noticed over the past few decades.

Beginning in the 1960’s, there was a concerted social effort to increase the level of self-esteem in children. Our kids, it was believed, would perform much better if they only felt better about themselves. The grading system was re-considered, with some classrooms getting rid of failing grades. Children (like me!) were told things like “you can be anything you want to be”, and “if you just believe in yourself, you can move mountains.” In sports, everyone got a trophy just for showing up. Even for mostly showing up.

Here’s the problem with much of this: it’s not true. It doesn’t reflect reality. Truth is, I can’t be anything I want to be, and neither can you. We all have limitations – yes, flexible ones, but limitations nonetheless. We have specific strengths and specific weaknesses. We have things we are innately great at, and things we’d be better off shying away from. Even running away from.

I believe that, contrary to its intent, this self-esteem push can be significantly detrimental to creativity. (NOTE: this is not scientific, just observational. For a more detailed analysis of the studies related to optimism, self-esteem and depression read The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman.)

Here are a few thoughts:

It has de-emphasized the value of contribution and has emphasized the importance of recognition. If I can be anything I want to be, then I’m going to gravitate toward the things that will make me famous, no? Rather than zeroing in on the activities and contributions that might allow me to offer something of value to society, I’m going to focus more on how I can get what I feel is owed to me by right of existence. I need regular feedback in order to know where I “stand”. Social media is important because it allows near immediate feedback regarding whatever feeds this need.

Truth is, I can’t be anything I want to be, and neither can you. We all have limitations – yes, flexible ones, but limitations nonetheless.

It has cultivated a fear of failure. Contrary to the thought that a belief that I’m “special” will encourage fearlessness, this notion that I’m truly capable of anything might make me less likely to do something that will violate this self-perception. I will take calculated risks that allow me to prove what I believe I already know. I sell out my true giftedness for the sake of re-affirming my belief that I’m “special”.

It sets unrealistic expectations about life, and what it takes to succeed. Life is unfair. Some people are born with opportunities and privileges that others aren’t. Creating is very hard, and failure is inevitable. Some people toil away at brilliant work for a lifetime and receive little recognition, while others back into opportunities and are widely acclaimed. Recognition and feeling good about yourself are fine, but I believe it should be sourced in doing the work rather than in the recognition of others. Recent studies have shown a hockey-stick-like elevation in the rates of reported depressive episodes since the 1960’s. Some are attributing this to the incongruity between our expectations of what life should be and the reality of what life is. Hmm.

It’s something to consider. In our attempts to encourage risk-taking and adventure, are we actually accomplishing the opposite?

have you seen any of these dynamics, and…
…have they affected you or your peers, and…
…if so, what do you do about it?

Comment here.



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