The link between achievement and self-esteem

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The jury is in but divided, but more about that later.

However, the jury is in on which comes first, self-esteem or achievement. Some scientists noticed that providing lots and lots of empty praise — giving every kid in the race, including the last one, a trophy — leads to inflated but baseless self-esteem. It can even have the opposite effect to what the providers of lots and lots of meaningless praise intend. The researchers found that kids with unrealistically high self-esteem might be more willing to enter dangerous territory, like cheating, experimenting with drugs and stealing.

It’s also been shown that telling kids they’re smart, whether they are or not, makes even the genuinely smart kids less willing to apply effort, preventing them for reaching their full potential. These genuinely smart kids end up thinking that putting in effort to learn means they aren’t smart and they become more concerned with protecting their reputation as smart, in looking smart then being smart.

So, to have the sort of high self-esteem that’s worth something, you need to achieve worthwhile goals first. To do that, you need three things:

  1. You need to put in effort and understand that trying hard does make a difference.
  2. You need willpower to keep putting in the effort. We’ve talked about the importance of willpower before and the good news that it’s just like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
  3. And you need something called self-compassion, which is different from self-esteem. While self-esteem often involves the need to be special and above average, when you have self-compassion you don’t compare yourself to others and you can cope realistically with mistakes and failure without them crushing your self-esteem—after all, everyone makes mistakes and falls short sometimes.People with self-compassion tend to look after themselves by exercising more and eating more healthily for instance. They have learning goals rather than performance goals and learn for it’s own sake, not for grades or to impress people.

These three qualities — effort, willpower and self-compassion — are what help you achieve and your achievements build genuine self-esteem. Once you’ve earned your self-esteem, you are likely to be happier, more optimistic and more motivated than people with low self-esteem, and less likely to be anxious, depressed and negative. You’re not going to be an obnoxious person with an over-sized ego based on nothing, either.

The bottom line is, earn your self-esteem through your achievements, not from just be ing handed a trophy for merely running in the race.

And as for the which came first, the chicken or the egg, well, that’s still a conundrum. Some scientists say the chicken did because two non-chickens mated and, via a genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. So the chicken came first. But other scientists say the egg came first because two non-chickens mated and via that same genetic mutation, produced the first chicken. But their logic is that since it was a chicken inside the egg, the egg came first.

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