Legions of self-help books have propagated the idea that we each have it within us to achieve great things - we just need to be more confident.
Over 15,000 journal articles have examined the links between high self-esteem and measurable outcomes in real life, such as educational achievement, job opportunities, popularity, health, happiness and adherence to laws and social codes.
Yet there is very little evidence that raising self-esteem leads to tangible, positive outcomes.
"If there is any effect at all, it is quite small," says Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. He was the lead author of a 2003 paper that scrutinised dozens of self-esteem studies.
He found that although high self-esteem frequently had a positive correlation with success, the direction of causation was often unclear. For example, are high marks awarded to people with high self-esteem or does getting high marks engender high self-esteem?
I think this story is somewhat misleading. Confidence is certainly necessary to success. I’ve gotten a couple of jobs simply because I was confident that I could perform them, and I’ve gotten a couple of girls because I was confident I could handle them. But confidence is not the same as self-esteem.
In my book, the difference between confidence and self-esteem is thus: confidence is “I will” and self-esteem is “I deserve.” The former is active, and based on one’s own experience; the latter is passive, and is based on one’s own sheltered opinion. Confidence is essential to success because it puts one in a proactive state of mind. You know you can do something, and so you go out and do it. Self-esteem, in contrast, ultimately ends in failure because the underlying assumption of self-esteem is that you deserve something, and therefore you need not go out and get something, for it should come to you.
At any rate, it should not be surprising that the self-esteem movement has largely failed, at least in terms of leading to accomplishments, for it could only ever encourage passivity, which is generally a predictor of failure. High self-esteem is why the younger generation is mostly unemployed; they think they deserve certain jobs, and they tend to believe that people should come looking for them.* This is also seen in how many young people—males and females alike—approach relationships. Females tend to think that they automatically deserve prince charming, and that he’ll come in and sweep them off their feet by being witty, charming, handsome, buff, etc. and they won’t have to do a single thing to get him. Males aren’t much better, for they assume that Jessica Alba will suddenly start serving them sandwiches, wearing nothing but a smile and high heels, while they are playing Xbox and not looking for work, and they won’t ever have to do a single thing to deserve this. The underlying assumption is that the universe owes them something.
Of course, the kids aren’t really to blame for this mindset. They’ve basically been told this their whole life. They’ve been told that they are special, that they can do whatever they want. They’ve been told that if they simply show up, they will have a good life (I believe most people say that if you go to school, you’ll get a good job and have a house and a family as a result). The fact of the matter is, though, that anything worth having takes work. A good marriage takes work, well-behaved children take work, a good career takes work, a nice house takes work, fun vacations take work, and so on. Merely showing up simply is not enough.
Since confidence leads to success while self-esteem leads to failure, it’s obvious that the self-esteem movement needs to be replaced with a self-confidence movement. Attaining self-confidence is simple but difficult: master something. Learn how to play an instrument; learn a foreign language; learn how to build computers; learn how to repair cars; learn how to carry on a conversation; learn how to cook; etc. Become good at something, then you can be confident in yourself. You will no longer have to say “I deserve;” instead you can say “I will.”
* Yes, I realize that the current economic status is not helpful to employment opportunities, but that doesn’t preclude one from creating their own job, nor does it preclude one from creating their own opportunities.