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This blog post was inspired by a two-sentence exchange from a pair of nine-year old girls I overheard at the side of a pool.  The older girl asked the younger if she wanted to race.  The younger girl said “No. You’ll win.”

I may have said this before, mentioned it before, etc., but there’s something about American culture that really bothers me.

Well, I say American culture. I really mean Western culture.  Actually, it’s not even necessarily Western culture any more.

It’s an idea.  It’s a way of looking at things. And I rather strongly despise it.  As in, table-flipping levels of dislike.

But perhaps I should tell you what the heck I’m talking about.

When a kid learns something new, what do we tell them? Usually we call them a ‘good student.’  We say they’re a ‘great learner.’ Tell them that they’re awesome, and we can tell that because they learned that new thing so easily.  We bolster their self-esteem as a result of completing a task.  We affirm their worth as a human being each time they do something right, because it helps to build their self-esteem, right?  Well, not quite.

Kids are clever.

Invert it.

When a kid can’t learn something.  When someone doesn’t finish a task.  When someone does something wrong.  What’s the obvious implication in the inversion of this system?

Simple enough: The inversion of the system states simply that if you do something wrong, your value as a human being is diminished.  If you failed to learn, it’s because you’re a bad student.  If you failed a test, it’s because of your personal failings.

This is why people are ashamed of bad grades.  It’s why people don’t ask every question they have in class. It’s why there is a taboo against seeing a therapist, against ‘getting help,’ because getting help implies needing help which implies weakness (i.e. being unable to deal with it on your own).

Now this is by no means an all-encompassing cultural construct on the same level as gender roles or the concept of hugging.  But it is nonetheless a pervasive, unconscious force lurking under the surface of our society—affecting our actions far more than others’ perceptions of us.

Tying one’s self-image to failure is a well-documented phenomenon.  These people are often described as self-defeating, for they create excuse after excuse to explain their lack of success and then are unsurprised when nothing happens—because that’s just what they predicted in the first place. Their goals are far-reaching and not unreasonable, but are kept out of range by exterior forces.  The things they try to achieve are never quite possible, not right yet, but if they just had this much more money, this much more time, they could possibly pull it off, turn their life around, become famous, etc.  It can be frustrating to hear.

But again, invert it, and we can see the flip side of this: people who tie their self-image to success.  Just as much of a problem, but not, perhaps, as wildly condemned as the self-defeating person.  Because at least these people get stuff done, right?

They do, but that’s because they can’t afford to do anything else.  Just as the self-defeating individual can feel alienated from their self-image if they begin to succeed—if they are no longer a victim, according to some theories—so these people can crumble if they fail.  One failure is like a missile crashing into their armor, opening up a hole for all the world to see.  They can’t admit defeat, because to do so is to admit that they are fallible, and to put that into words gives it power.

These two sides are not mutually exclusive.  To a certain degree, everyone possesses these traits.  We all minimize our failures, because they link back to our worth as a person.  We’ve all made an excuse to avoid something we were scared of doing.

These two poles of behavior first came to my notice several years ago, but I never really paid attention until after my first year of college. Until I could see these forces at play not only in the people around me, but in myself, in the classes that went well and the classes that went not quite so well.  When I re-learned this stuff near or after the end of spring semester, I had a bit of a stare-into-space revelatory moment, because it’s always nice to crystallize your vague intuitions into hyperbole.

How does this tie back into the little exchange above?

Well, what’s the point of competition?  To win? No.  Watch the Olympics.  The reporters ask athletes about ‘defending’ their titles or ‘crushing’ the competition, and the athletes just don’t care.  They understand that the point of competition is to better yourself through the joy and drive of measuring your own skill against another.  This is why people compete.

The boost of good feeling we get from winning, that little outburst of “I’m awesome,” that bit of vanity, that exists to impel us towards competition.  The goal of vanity, in a sense, is to drive us onward to achieve things, so that we can feel good about ourselves and our achievements. As Montaigne rightly suggests (but never says in an easily-quotable form) in his aptly-named essay, (Of Vanity)—were we to be fully introspective, we would flounder beneath the weight of our own inadequacy.  Vanity exists to shield us from ourselves and spur us on to greater deeds than introspection.

In that little exchange, though, competition is not worth the trouble if victory is not assured.  The point of the competition is not competition itself, but victory—vanity, in a sense, has turned back upon itself, discouraging competition to preserve self-esteem.  The cycle has reversed, and rather than run the risk of success and great failure, the speaker will accept a little loss instead.

Which also ties into the concept of people with “low-self-esteem” who are self-defeating.  They don’t have low self-esteem.  Their self-esteem is just as high as anyone else.  It’s just that they defend it differently.

Rather than be praised and risk being criticized, they do not strive.  Rather than race and risk losing, they do not race at all.  Their sense of self is so strongly conflated with their achievements that to risk losing a race is to risk losing their self.

Which is all of course not a conscious truth. That is to say, it’s not a truth of which an individual must necessarily be cognizant of.  It’s not one of those ‘unconscious’ truths in a Freudian sense, either.  It is an emotional truth, a distinction I am making right now because I disagree with Freud on a lot of things. FREUUUUUUUD. *shakes fist*


Knowing this, I’ve decided to disintegrate this cultural force.  I’ve decided to turn the force of a thousand raging suns against it and put it in a blender, add some fruit and berries, and turn the resulting creamy drink into a giant smoothie of self-empowerment.  There’s plenty for everyone.

My academic success is not me as a person.  Rather, I expect myself to do well because I know as a person that I can do well at such things.

Asking a question in class doesn’t mean you’re a mindless, gibbering idiot who wasn’t paying attention.  It means that you need help and aren’t afraid to ask for it.

If I can’t learn a thing, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad student.  It means that I haven’t learned it yet. That just means I need to work harder.

And seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you’re a raving lunatic.  See above.

We are an action-oriented society.  Show us what you’ve done, show us what’s happened to you, and we’ll tell you who you are.  You are your successes and failures—your college application, your resume, your curriculum vitae, your criminal record.

Well, I reject that, thanks very much.

People are more than the sum of their actions.  As Churchill says, “success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”  That saying is only tangentially related, but I wanted to work it in anyway.

When I want to do something, I’m going to do it—which is to say, I will unleash every force in my power to see it done, throw everything possible at it to ensure its achievement.  But if it doesn’t happen, that won’t stop me either; that just means it’s time to roll on and thunder down into the next task.  And that links into my next personal belief…

Because once you hit age eighteen, there’s nothing any human being alive can do to dictate the course of your actions.   And I passed age eighteen long ago.

(that makes it sound like I’m a crotchety old man, don’t it?)

Because all other people can do is scare you, if you let them, and being scared of something isn’t a reason not to do it.  There’s a line dividing fear from intuition, and it’s a differentiation I learned to make sometime in the last semester of my life.  (my life is divided into semesters now, by the way).

And most likely this blog post will meet with resounding ‘absoutelys’ from the people I know, because I’m probably the last one in my social group to get on this bus, but that doesn’t matter, because even if you’re the last one on the bus, you’re still on the bus.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get to Narnia, you’re still partying hard with Aslan.   Don’t be ashamed of being the last one to get it.  Don’t worry about how you look to other people.  And don’t be afraid of failure.  As someone famous who was probably Thomas Edison once said: “I have not failed ten thousand times.  I have successfully found ten thousand ways that did not work.”

[invert this]

If something is what you really want, you should be pursuing it with all force and guile.  Effort should be going into it constantly, instead of being deferred by environmental factors.  People, wild dogs, money, and hurricanes should all fall into the category of “things that are not reasons to not do this.”  And if you don’t really want it, for some reason, even an unconscious one, don’t waste time and effort trying to persuade anyone else that you do.  Especially not yourself.

So it comes down to the corny stuff, once again, at the end of the blog post.  And I suppose this is the message I seek to beam out into the universe, radiating it in all directions like a great big beacon of glowy white warmth-light shiny things.

Do what you want.

No power in the ‘Verse can stop you. 

[there’s never a bad place for Ok Go]

…and I don’t know about you, but I don’t really care what other people do beyond a certain point.  If you’re not in my face, and if you’re not telling me what to do—if you’re not attacking me and mine, or dictating my actions, well then, I really, honestly, truly don’t give a leaping **** what you’re doing with your free time.  If it makes you happy and doesn’t kill people, then go wild.  Listen to One Direction, if you must.

Teachers like students who admit what they don’t know.

Bosses like employees who ask questions.

I like people who don’t hide themselves.

And I like chocolate milk.

…and that’s all.   ‘Till next time, Internet.




One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By Dominion « jungwildeandfree on 06 Aug 2012 at 2:53 pm

    […] the strangeness of the person themselves.  In other words, the opposite of what I mentioned in my previous post on Self-Worth.  Their specific failure becomes their personal failure, letting the dominant individual in the room […]

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