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    Monday, January 02, 2006

    Self-Help's Big Lie

    By Steve Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless:

    Lost in the adulation is the downside of being uplifted. In truth, the overselling of personal empowerment — the hyping of hope — may be the great unsung irony of modern American life, destined to disappoint as surely as the pity party that it was meant to replace.

    In U.S. schools, the crusade to imbue kids with that most slippery of notions — self-esteem — has been unambiguously disastrous (and has recently been disavowed by a number of its loudest early voices). Self-esteem-based education presupposed that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness, even if the mechanisms necessary to instill self-esteem undercut scholarship. Over time, it became clear that what such policies promote is not academic greatness but a bizarre disconnect between perceived self-worth and provable skill. ...

    The larger point is that society has embraced such concepts as self-esteem and confidence despite scant evidence that they facilitate positive outcomes. The work of psychologists Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman suggests that often, high self-worth is actually a marker for negative behavior, as found in sociopaths and drug kingpins. Even in its less extreme manifestations, confidence may easily be expressed in the kind of braggadocio — "I'm fine just the way I am, thank you" — that stunts growth, yielding chronic failure. ...

    As top management consultant Jay Kurtz argues: "The most dangerous person in corporate America is the highly enthusiastic incompetent. He's running faster in the wrong direction, doing horribly counterproductive things with winning enthusiasm."

    You cannot have a life plan predicated on the belief that everything is equally achievable to you — especially if that same message has been sold indiscriminately to all comers. In the grand scheme of things, knowing one's limitations may be even more important than knowing one's talents.

    Interesting discussion on BrothersJudd connecting this self-help culture to a (supposed) lack of young people willing to enter vocations.

    Catch 63 responds to the whole book.

    I'm ambivalent about all this. I think I was certainly over-praised and over-valued and over-self-esteemed as a kid and I think this is a real problem for me as an adult. I have to be humbled again and again and it is difficult to get used to. I also find myself dismissing what is probably important and relevant criticism sometimes before I've even thought it through because it freaks me out. I think that, for me personally, it is also related to the Big Fish-Small Pond phenomenon. Growing up in small cities away from cultural centers, I was perhaps pretty special in some areas. Living now in NYC, I am a total bottom-feeder.

    On the other hand, my parents were really big on shooting down dreams they thought were unrealistic. And that bugged the hell out of me. I certainly never experienced that "You can do anything you put your mind to," thing coming from my own family, but I got it gangbusters from teachers and other adults, which just made me angry at my parents for not giving me this constant false hope that I craved at the time (and sadly, having become dependent upon it, still do).

    I really do think I would be a more capable and competent person, a less fragile person, a more practical person, if someone had steered me into being a "regular person". I disagree with what BrothersJudd are saying to some degree: that no one wants to work skilled trades anymore because they believe they deserve more prestige. In fact, lots of people want to work skilled trades and if you take a look at the waiting list for any major union apprenticeship program, you'll see that it is actually rather a competitive field. The difference now is that no one middle-class wants to take those jobs. Middle-class folks want white-collar desk jobs or better (freelance, etc). Middle-class now, as often as not, means at least somewhat college-educated. As such, GM and other major blue collar employers can cut benefits and not worry too much about it. They know that their jobs are looking mighty good to the low-income, uneducated people who are now looking to work there, even without the benefits, even with lower wages. It's better than fast food or maid service work, where wages are concerned. And I'd argue, also where prestige is concerned.

    And all this is related to a larger problem: the poor are disempowered, the self-esteem of low-income students is rarely a priority, these students are assumed to be the workforce supporting all the "special" people who are pursuing their dreams (middle-class on up). Self-esteem boosting, constant ego-stroking, are things that shore up the notion that some people deserve more money and more status than other people. If you've been told you're special your whole life, why not let other people cook for you and clean for you while you pursue your own prosperity? After all, you're special.


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