Beliefs about Ourselves Influence Mindset More Than Any Other Factors
Many people experience an inner voice, one that provides a running monologue throughout the day and into the night. This inner voice combines conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs and biases and provides an effective way for the brain to interpret and process daily experiences. Known as self-talk, this internal chatter can be positive or negative—and sometimes at the same time.
We find this voice useful when it cheers us on and supports our best efforts. It helps us regulate our fears and bolsters our confidence. This voice takes on the vocal quality of our parents, teachers, coaches, and loved ones who told us our entire lives “You can do this!” I’m reminded of the lyrics to the country/western song, “I Ain’t as Good as I Once Was”:
I used to be hell on wheels,
Back when I was a younger man
Now my body says “Oh, you can’t do this boy,”
But my pride says “Oh yes you can.”
I still throw a few back,
Talk a little smack,
When I’m feeling bullet proof,
So don’t double-dog dare me now,
Cause I’d have to call your bluff.
Although Toby Keith described positive self-talk in terms of being “bullet proof” and prideful, the average person’s inner dialogue would arguably more reasonably resemble talking “a little smack.” The greatest obstacle most face, therefore, doesn’t involve reigning in this voice; it’s silencing the negative one—the one that whispers, and sometimes yells—“You don’t deserve this.” Or “You can’t do this.” This same voice prevents us from taking prudent risks, even when the facts tell us we should.
When we suffer from weak self-esteem, low confidence, and lack of selfworth, we develop feelings of inadequacy that in turn trigger basic negative beliefs about ourselves. We begin to feel like imposters whom others will identify and humiliate. We begin to doubt ourselves, minimize our talents, and explain away our greatest accomplishments with “anyone could have done it” thoughts. These in turn lead to a fixed mindset that reminds us that we must assertively guard our accomplishments and arduously defend ourselves from any risk or threat. We cleave to the poverty mindset that seems safe and abandon an abundance mentality that would encourage us to innovate, grow, and change. Humans seem prone to negative self-talk, however, and to sweeping assertions like “I can’t do anything right” or “I’m a complete failure.”
Some people credit their inner critic with driving them to develop selfdiscipline and pushing them to recognize their weaknesses before others do. Over time, though, the negativity of a critical inner voice takes an emotional toll. Negative self-talk often does not reflect ones reality and can paralyze people into inaction and self-absorption.
Our negativity instinct also causes us to notice the bad more than the good. Three things are going on here: the misremembering of the past, often making it the “good old days” when it wasn’t; the feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say they are getting better; and we are bombarded by negative news. (When was the last time someone reported all the airline flights that didn’t crash?) Yet, when a plane does crash, it stays in the headlines for weeks and even months. Clearly, both inner and outer critics and negativity don’t help us.
But the inner votary who worships our every thought and champions self-absorption doesn’t do much better. Many leaders who hear this voice disproportionately function like victims of the so-called self-esteem movement that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. The movement quickly gained momentum, resulting in a 1990 decision of the California legislature to sponsor a report suggesting that self-esteem be taught in every classroom as a “vaccine” against social ills, such as alcohol abuse, drug addition, suicide, and teen pregnancy.
In 1986, former California state legislator John Vasconcellos established the “Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.” This prompted a three-year, 25-member investigation into the effect self-esteem has on society. The task force’s records consist of five and one-half cubic feet of textual material and five cubic feet of audiovisual material covering the years 1987-1990. (A cubic foot is the space occupied by a cube with one-foot width, length, and height.) Cartoonist Garry Trudeau lampooned the effort in his Doonesbury comic strip, calling it “the embodiment of California wackiness” (see Figure 4.1).
Not everyone got the joke. The task force, which operated from 1987 to 1990, was a serious, or at least expensive, enterprise. It looked at the role of self-esteem in various areas, from crime and violence to academic failure and responsible citizenship. The commissions final report, released
Doonesbury Cartoon DOONESBURY © 2017 G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with Permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All Rights Reserved.
in 1990, became the best-selling state document of all time, selling 60,000 copies.4
Even without finding causal links between self-esteem and success, proponents of this movement advocated abolishing IQ testing, tracking in public schools, and class ranking. The movement gave birth to the everybody-gets-a-trophy mindset that society must adopt in order, advocates said, to avoid scarring underperforming children. Without question, a correlation between self-esteem and success exists, but no one proved causality. In other words, people who do well in school, sports, or business often exhibit signs they possess high self-esteem, but no proof exists that the high self-esteem causes the success. In fact, evidence exists to the contrary.
In 1996, researcher Roy Baumeister and his colleagues killed this sacred task-force cow in their study of genocidal killers, hit men, gang leaders, and other violent criminals. These researchers found that perpetrators with unwarranted high self-esteem became violent, meaning these reprobates felt good about themselves without actually doing anything laudable.
These findings suggest that if you teach unwarrantedly high self-esteem to children, without demanding praiseworthy behavior in return, confusion ensues. When these children confront the real world, and it tells them they are not as great as they have been taught, they lash out with violence.5
Might we accurately conclude that violence stems from the misbegotten notion that valuing how children feel about themselves more highly than how we value how they behave causes problems? Is it also possible that this everybody-gets-a-trophy mindset might also keep leaders from taking risks that might threaten the childrens self-worth? Disruption becomes tougher when we confuse reality with what we think ought to be.
Rewarding smart risk-takers does not promote envy or enlarge the number of society’s losers. Rather, it provides support for ideas that have shaped past progress—ideas that will aid future advancements so society wins. In other words, we become better educated, more productive, and healthier when we have the self-confidence to take prudent risks and the self-esteem to leverage the gains and learn from the losses.
Americans have stubbornly clung to the myth of egalitarianism— supremacy of the individual average person. We created the everyone-gets-a-trophy culture among our young, then it morphed into Cuckooland, a place where we shield losers who lose based on consequences from thinking they deserve to lose—a place where we think we should bar winners who win fairly from feeling confidence and pride.
Organizational success, the economic recovery, and global resurgence depend on something better—better, not just different. Success depends on a shift back to the notion that self-fulfillment, seductive though it may appear, must march in lockstep with a commitment to achievement.
Let’s not totally disregard the importance of self-assuredness. Instead, let’s understand it better and dispassionately evaluate the role it plays in engendering success. To start, we need to rediscover the intellectual confidence it takes to sort out and rank competing values. Fairness does not equal equality. Equal opportunity at the starting gun does not and should not guarantee equality at the finish line. Those who run through the tape at the finish line offer our greatest hope for thriving in the new economy.
Dr. Martin Seligman, the vanguard in the arena of positive psychology, pointed out that we have become depressed with a disorder of the “I,” meaning we fail in our own eyes relative to the expectations we have for ourselves or that other people have for us. In a society in which individualism has become rampant, people too often believe they are the center of the universe. This dark side of self-esteem, therefore, makes individuals who fail inconsolable, and tough calls feel more threatening.
A second force, which Seligman called “the large we,” formerly served as a force to buffer failure. When our grandparents failed, they had comfortable spiritual furniture to rest on—a safe place to land. They had their relationships with God, with a nation, with communities, and with a large extended family. Our faith in religions, community, the nation, and each other has all eroded in the past 50 years. The spiritual furniture we used to sit on has become threadbare, and the self-esteem movement has not helped us recover what we’ve lost.6
I’ll call what we’ve lost “self-respect.” When we have feelings of selfworth, not just entitlement, we can resist feelings of inadequacy and the imposter syndrome that makes us fear we’ll be identified and humiliated— or fired. The greatest obstacle so many of my clients face involves the voice in their heads that murmurs—and sometimes screeches—words of discouragement. The reason? So many at the top don’t solicit objective feedback from trusted advisors, people who have no other agenda than helping them improve. They get confused and either don’t take the disruptive risks that would cause success, or they make imprudent ones only to rue them.