Few compositions can trample one’s self-image harder or faster than a college rejection letter. Or nowadays, the rejection web page, which in my opinion is worse since there’s no paper to crumple, rip, and burn in a bonfire, only a glowing screen and the pieces of a shredded ego to pick up slowly.
For the seniors who just got their (horribly, hopelessly) final decisions, self-esteem is a big part of getting through this month. But with all of life’s judgments and trials, self-esteem matters any season, especially for young adults looking to achieve the correct amount of confidence in a world that seems at times more viciously competitive than ever.
So let’s forget about our proverbial Prince Charmings and deserting Daphnes. Here’s the real question of amor : should I love myself more, or less?
HOPE FOR THE HOPELESS
I don’t know about you, but whenever I end up stuffing my face with fried-chicken failure I wonder whether I could have prevented disappointment by simply not trying so hard. I think, maybe if I shrunk my ego and expectations, neither of them would whither so easily.
Apparently, Florida State University Sociology professor John R. Reynolds has had similar thoughts. In a 2010 study, he and his colleagues investigated the consequences of ambitious young people falling short of their academic goals. The researchers began by interviewing teenagers about their educational plans and followed up years later to see if they carried them out, and, if not, whether they suffered any emotional ill-effects.
“In the end though there wasn’t any compelling evidence to say that these teenagers who planned to go very far in college but who ended up not going that far were any worse off mental health wise than those who did as well as they expected,” Reynolds says.
According to Reynolds, psychologists have observed emotional turmoil in the immediate aftermath of dreams crashing into reality. But eventually, even the overly ambitious recover. Reynolds notes that nowadays, many young adults whose dreams are denied simply put off their academic goals until later.
“That’s sort of a feature of contemporary adulthood,” he says.
Palo Alto High School college counselor Alice Erber agrees that teenagers need not worry about being too ambitious, just because they have plenty of time to figure things out.
“Students surprise you,” Erber says. “They grow up, they mature, they find themselves.”
So basically, even if on paper you look like a loser now, there’s no reason not to dream of victory a little later in life. As fresh-faced academics, it turns out we’re young enough to keep loving and believing in our dreams and ourselves.
OUR EGOS, OURSELVES
Of course, deciding whether we need more or less self-esteem requires establishing an average baseline level. In a Verde survey of 189 students across eight Palo Alto High School English classes, 54 percent of students say their intellectual and social self-confidence is above average or in the highest 10 percent. 71 percent of students say they possess higher than average academic ability, and 50 percent boast of writing ability that exceeds the norm.
Paly seems especially rich in motivation, with 27 percent of students reporting drive to achieve in the highest 10 percent, 39 percent in the top 50. Psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me,” might worry at these results. According to an analysis of the same survey questions, says BBC News, she and colleagues have found an increase in self-esteem without an increase in achievement, leading to fears about our generation being ruined by overconfidence.
Do the actions of Paly students support our own high aspirations? Well, although only four percent of students report never being bored in class, 90 percent are interested enough to ask questions at least sometimes, and 82 percent say they explore topics on their own, without being required by a class, either occasionally or frequently.
Contrary to Twenge’s fears about today’s teenagers, I’d say that our confidence errs on the side of well-deserved rather than over-blown. We love ourselves because we have plenty of reasons to. But let’s not forget that we can only nurture those good qualities due to the abundance of resources — $164 million of them, as per the Palo Alto Unified School District budget — that we have the privilege of utilizing.
So now that we don’t have to worry about our self-worth, let’s worry a little more about what we do with it. I’ll start by rethinking that college rejection. Although my ego might still be fraught with fragility, my educational future really isn’t. I can definitely go to college, a liberty still distressingly elusive to the millions of American children living in poverty. Huh. Maybe instead of using a somewhat arbitrary admissions decision to evaluate the self I’ve been given, I should start measuring myself by what I have to give.