I was listening to NPR last night and came across an interesting story entitled “Americans Flunk Self-Assessment.” I’m not in the mood to type numbers and slashes this morning, so I’ll paste the link from Google in case you want to hear it: NPR : Americans Flunk Self-Assessment. Here is the summary of the story:
“Research has shown that Americans are bad at assessing their performance and skills. Apparently, part of our national character — optimism — keeps us from interpreting feedback accurately. And our overconfidence results in errors that are sometimes critical.”
Essentially, the story critiqued the West’s obsession with self-esteem. We feel that we are good at something, with the result is that we may not be as careful in doing the task or open to further learning. Our overconfidence is our weakness. The story also compared the West with Japan on self-esteem. According to a study, people in Japan are less likely than Westerners to say that they are good at something, but they often do better than Westerners despite their lower self-esteem. For example, when given a puzzle, Westerners tend to give up if they cannot figure out how to do it. “This just isn’t my talent,” they think. But the Japanese are willing to keep trying and to learn from their mistakes, until they finally finish the puzzle. They are more open to learning the task, without allowing ego to get in the way. And they are eager to improve.
The story has a point. There is so much emphasis on self-esteem in American culture. When teaching kids math, why should teachers have to continually tell them that they are good at the subject? Why not just teach them math? The focus should be the subject, not how good a person is. If we want to bring self-esteem into the discussion, then we should encourage
the kids that they are able to learn the subject, meaning that they are not stupid. But we should not tell them that they have already arrived. Everyone has room for improvement.
One problem I have with the article, however, is that different people have different talents. If my talent is art rather than doing puzzles, then why should I spend all my time trying to learn puzzles (unless my art is not selling and I need a puzzle job on the side)? And my concern is biblical. In Romans 12:6-8 and I Corinthians 12:29-30, Paul points out that not everyone has the same gift but should serve the body in his or her unique way. So there is little reason for me to practice singing if I have no interest or talent in that area. I should try to enhance the talents that I do have. And, of course, even people with a talent should be open to improvement rather than idolize themselves.
I’m thinking about this issue in terms of my writing. First, there is the subtopic of writing and self-esteem. I consider myself a fairly decent writer. Writing is one of my few talents. A lot of people have told me that I am good at it, but every now and then there is someone who tells me that I am not so good. And my reaction is often defensive. I feel like I need to be a good writer to justify my existence on this earth. After all, if I cannot make a contribution to this world, then what is the point of being on it? Whenever I feel this way, I need to remind myself that my value as a person does not depend on my talents or lack thereof. I am a child of God. He made me, so my existence is not superfluous or unnecessary. So there is a place for self-esteem, but it should not be based on what one can do.
Second, there is the subtopic of self-improvement. A professor once told my class that people should never fall in love with their own writing. They should be open to improvement. And, indeed, I should listen to suggestions that people make. My problem is that people may try to make me into something I’m not. I want to write well, but I have to write as I write. Trying to force me into another mold of writing is like making me write with my left hand (I’m right-handed). So I want to improve, but I want to become a better me.