Self-esteem talk got its start way back in the mid-1700’s with the writings of Scottish philosopher David Hume in which he emphasized the importance of self-worth in the quest to attain one’s full potential.

Moving forward, in 1890, American philosopher and psychologist William James posited that self-esteem equals success divided by our goals, values, and how we view our potential. A formula, so to speak.


Such thinking gained ground in the 1970s with Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem and his definition that it’s “the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.”

From there it grew into a movement.

Established in 1986, the stated mission of the National Association for Self-Esteem is “To fully integrate self-esteem into the fabric of American society, so that every individual, no matter what their age or background, experiences personal worth and happiness.”

To ensure said outcome, the site comes with such offerings as a “Build Positive Self-Esteem Lesson Plan” and “Self-Esteem Tips to Improve Your Day.”

Meanwhile, May is National Self-Esteem Month, while February is both International Self-Esteem Month and Boost Your Self-Esteem Month, too– “a dedicated time to focus on the transformative power of feeling good about ourselves.”

Transformative, indeed, spawning everything from hovering helicopter parents to lavishing kids with unconditional praise, less-structured open-concept classrooms, and groupthink.

As an equitable, feel-good movement, it sidelined competition so that everyone wins, regardless of effort or skill. Trophies and gold stars for everyone…

The result: the disappearance of class rankings, graduation valedictorians, red pens for grading, challenging assignments, rigor in learning, and the lessons that come from failure.

Entitled kids, too.

Reasoned James Lewis, president of the National Society for High School Scholars: “Class rank doesn’t promote teamwork because it’s so competitive between students for higher rankings.”

Not everyone got on board, however.

Correction: Though Microsoft’s Bill Gates often gets credit for writing “Eleven Rules of Living They Won’t Teach You in School,” those rules actually come from 2007’s 50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School: Real-World Antidotes to Feel-Good Education, by Charles Sykes.  Among them:

Rule #1: “Life is not fair; get used to it.”

Rule #2: “The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.”

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boos. He doesn’t have tenure.”

Rule # 6: “If you screw up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes. Learn from them.

Rule #8: “Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades, and they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.”

If only we had listened…

Author and pediatrician Dr. Ernest Swihart summed things up by saying, “It [the self-esteem movement] has had serious repercussions. These young adults who were raised in the 80s, now in their 20s and in the workplace—those who received praise, rewards, and prizes for everything they did without working very hard—often are entitled and self-absorbed, and they don’t understand not being promoted, they don’t understand not even being hired, and they don’t understand not getting praised.”

Another critic, English teacher David McCullough, the son of historian David McCullough put it this way in his 2012 address to the Wellesley High School graduating class: “You are not special. You are not exceptional… If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless… We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement…”

In December ‘23, surveyed 800 employers regarding Gen Z college graduates—those born between 1997 and 2012–and discovered that:

  • 60% agreed that they’re not prepared for the workforce.
  • 40% admitted they’ve avoided hiring them, instead going with those 27 and older.
  • 47% said they dress inappropriately.
  • 21% said they’d refused to turn on their camera during a virtual job interview.
  • 19% said they’d brought a parent to a job interview.

Such findings haven’t stopped the feel-good, fairness brigade, however.

Even Mattel, makers of the boardgame Scrabble, is in on it. According to broadcaster and British Scrabble president, the company did some research and found that “Younger, Gen Z people don’t like the competitive nature of the game as much as older generations.”

The result: Scrabble Together, which is not only “easier,” and “more inclusive,” it comes with helping cards offering prompts and clues “that can be selected to match the player’s chosen challenge level.” (Flip the board over and find the original game on the other side for those still willing to compete, win or lose,)

Transformation accomplished.

~ With thanks, Carol