The world is filled with books on “getting to yes” and “the power of yes” and “how to be more self-confident” and “how to binge on candy every day and never gain an ounce.”
Okay, I made up that last one, but it is an accurate summation of the same sort of idea in the previous books.
It’s not so much that the self-esteem movement in education got it wrong – it’s that they might have got it completely upside down and sideways as well as inside out, something that should require supernatural powers.
It is, in other words, another case of careful studies carefully associating cause and effect backwards.
Having found that people with higher self-esteem worked better, the egg-heads assumed they worked better because they had higher self esteem, and not that they had higher self-esteem because they had a record of accomplishment that warranted being proud of.
Let me put this another way – yes will work no magic for you. No might not, also. But on the other hand – depending on how determined and how much of a stubborn cuss you are – it just might.
I’m the first to admit I don’t like being told “no.” I hated it when I was a little kid, when the “no” mostly involved “no, you can’t have ice cream” and I’ve not grown any fonder of it now, when the “no” involves a rejection on a novel or short story.
The best thing you can say for me and “no” is that I’ve grown a lot more used to it. Which doesn’t make it any easier to take.
Worse, being an adult involves saying “no” to yourself. “No, Sarah, you can’t have a new car, because that would be debt, and then you’d go in the hole EVERY month, instead of only when you get behind on deliveries and cash flow catches up with you.” “No, Sarah, you can’t take the day off and go to the zoo (or the natural history museum) because you’re sinfully late on this novel, and any longer, and there won’t be indulgences enough to keep you out of editorial hell.”
I hate saying no to myself. We all do. Which doesn’t erase the fact sometimes we need to. And sometimes mom was right about the “no ice-cream” – partly because at the time we were poor as Job, and frankly there was no money for ice cream, and partly because, yeah, I’d have dripped it all over the dress she’d just finished for me to wear to her cousin’s wedding.
So, “no” is a poopy face word and I don’t like it, but it is sometimes the right thing.
More importantly, though, as a mother, who had to say “no” a number of times, I’ve learned that “no” is possibly the strongest tool in an educator’s toolbox. And by this I don’t (just) mean “no, you can’t have/do that.” But also “No, this is not the most wonderful drawing you’ve ever done” and “no, that’s not a complete story, try again.”
Yes, I was one of those horrible, horrible mothers. I never told my sons their every drawing was a masterpiece. I did take in account their age, so when my four year old made these incredibly expressive human faces atop of fuzzy “whirlwind” bodies that somehow showed the posture of the person depicted, I praised it. But when my ten year old made a stick figure in five minutes and angled for praise, no, I didn’t give it.
And yes, when my son was 12 – or 11? – he wrote a short story for school that had the teacher praising it to the rafters. It was turgid, had no plot and the surprise ending wasn’t. So I told him that. One of our friends was horrified with me.
But the next thing Robert wrote was Cat’s Paw.
And that’s because I’d seen that with myself. When I started writing, I had no idea what I was doing. This is fairly normal. But I got “no.” I got “no” loudly and uniformly. Some days I’d get rejections and just lay in bed and cry, because it hurt so badly. Then I went and read more, and studied. And tried again.
Now, some of those early stories have been published. Would it have been all right if I’d just been praised?
I don’t know. I think if I’d been praised and given everything on a silver platter, I’d still have no idea of structure or plot, and I’d be writing blindly and have a ratio of ten to one in unpublishable/publishable stories.
I think the people who believe self esteem will fix everything are the sort of people who believe we’re born good – the same people who believe in noble savages. In their gentle, addled little brains, they think if you’re just praised and told how wonderful you are, you will just develop all these talents and blossom like an exotic flower.
Maybe it is because I have vivid memories before the age of three, but – trust me – without being forced to improve, you’re more likely to become a spoiled brat, whose “best work” is a clay-snake full of thumb marks.
Worse, if you never fail until you’re a grown up (or middle aged. I hear reports our president is depressed over how badly the health care roll out is going), if you remain metaphorically or realistically unspanked until you are what used to be grandfather age in older times, you will not have the tools to cope with failure or with the distress of mind that comes with knowing you fell short.
This is particularly bad for those of us who are Odd and for whom certain things are instinctively easy (for me it was writing) because we will assume that we can do no wrong, when in fact the untutored mind will always do wrong, no matter how naturally brilliant. Unless we’ve been “spanked” once or twice, see the glaring mistakes we ignored the first time, and know to check for them, we WILL fail. Sooner or later. And probably at a disastrous level.
The idea that treating people with kids gloves and praising them will produce better people/artists/politicians/scientists is akin to the idea that making everyone qualify for a house loan will make everyone financially responsible. Or the idea that giving everyone a college diploma, even if they can barely spell their own names, will make everyone successful.
The markings of success are the markings of having accomplished something. To just pin a medal on everyone and call them the “winner” doesn’t mean that everyone in the race ran as fast. It just means you’re a silly person who doesn’t get the world or humans, for that matter.
So… try the power of “no.” Even if the “no” you say is to yourself.
And then get beyond “no” and find another path to get where you want to go.