Monday, January 17, 2011


I was reading an article in the NYTimes by Roni Rabin, which talks about an increasing trend towards young people valuing self esteem above other desires; it ends with the words:
“The idea has been that if we build their self-esteem, then they’ll do better in school and in relationships,” said Dr. Twenge, the “Narcissism Epidemic” author. “Well, that puts the cart before the horse. When you break down the research you see that kids who behave well and get high grades develop high self-esteem — not the other way around.”
Somehow, this rubbed me the wrong way. Setting aside the question of what it means for kids to "behave well", I can tell you that getting high grades does not always result in high self-esteem.

There is a well-known phenomenon known as the impostor syndrome, that affects many bright students in college and beyond, often precisely those that get high grades. It consists of a track of thought that loops continuously through these students' heads that says "I don't deserve to be here. All my grades and accomplishments to date were somehow a fluke. They will discover soon enough that I am a fake and an impostor, and then I'll be shamed and booted out."  It is a particularly insidious form of self-doubt, because it is precisely at moments of achievement, say doing well in a course or getting an award, that it raises their anxiety levels ("oh no! I've managed to fool them once more!").

The following article in Science Magazine describes the phenomenon well:

It notes:
Clinical psychologist Pauline Clance and colleague Suzanne Imes coined the term "impostor phenomenon" in a 1978 paper in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. They gave this name to high-performing but inwardly anxious women who were among the professionals attending Clance's group-therapy sessions. "These women do not experience an internal sense of success," wrote Clance. "They consider themselves to be 'impostors' ” despite scoring well on standardised tests, earning advanced degrees, and receiving professional awards. Early on, this phenomenon was associated with women, a belief that persists today. But subsequent studies, including another by Clance, have shown that men are affected in equal numbers.

I first heard of this term directly at a workshop on college teaching while I was a grad student at Cornell, organized by Prof. Richard Felder from NCSU. Felder is a well known educator, who wrote an article about this titled "Impostors everywhere" that is worth reading.

I remember heaving a sigh of relief when I heard him mention this phenomenon and thinking "Oh, so it's not just me."  Merely knowing that this unhelpful thought pattern had a name, and was not a burden I carried alone, made a big difference for me in ameliorating its impact, though it did not quell my voice of self-doubt completely. (For the record, I'm a lot better now. I still feel clueless at times, but am comforted that I'm not much more clueless than many of my peers.)

Having given the matter much thought over the years, I feel that what exacerbates the impostor syndrome, or perhaps even gives rise to it in the first place, is adopting the world view that ties one's sense of self-worth to one's achievements and treats achievement as the goal of one's efforts.

Conventional wisdom (as captured in the quote by Dr. Twenge I started this note with) propounds a chain of reasoning that goes as follows:   hard work => mastery => success and achievement => self-esteem. This achievement-driven philosophy of life sets success and achievement as the desirable ends of hard work, and asserts that self-esteem would be a natural product of such achievement.

In the academic world, where one's professional identity is formed entirely of one's achievements (just read the bio of any speaker's talk announcement), this is certainly the dominant discourse. And I do not deny there is some logic to it. We know from experience that there is a variation in quality, and such lists of achievements, particularly in the form of peer-reviewed awards and honors, provide a short-cut when forming a judgement about the quality of someone's work. Nevertheless, there is something fundamentally unhealthy about accepting this discourse uncritically.

There is a different way of viewing the world, that doesn't put achievement first.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna admonishes Arjuna:
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।  मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोस्त्वऽकर्मणि॥
To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.  (2:47)

This philosophy, referred to sometimes as Nishkam Karma (desireless action), has much in common with the practices of Zen Buddhism, as well as Stoicism. See, for instance, the following related quote from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations:
If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this. (3:12)
I think the deepest self-esteem arises naturally if one follows such a philosophy and consistently values learning, hard work, and service as meaningful  in themselves, and not merely as the means to achieving success or avoiding failure. It is challenging to adopt such a mindset in our competitive, achievement-driven world, but let that not stop us from striving.