The supercurled millennium generation (generation Y), born in the 1980s and 1990s, has been described as both over-protected and self-assured. Throughout their upbringing, they have been encouraged, confirmed and inspired, and as the first generation that have grown up with social media, they have become accustomed to being showered in “likes” simply by posting a selfie on themselves at the breakfast table. In many schools, there have even been prizes awarded to the one coming came last, so that they would not lose self-confidence.
Many in the millennium generation have therefore come to believe that a good job and success is a right, and not something you need to earn. When confronted with the realities of working life, too many have experience a cold shower of reality, and when the self-image has not been matched by the stark reality, many have lost faith in life and gone into depression.
But although this generation has been described as extreme in these respects, hubris and an inflated self-esteem are no new phenomenon, but have always existed. When you are in periods of life when everything goes your way, it can be easy to feel invincible, and that the success is a natural state that will last. In these moments, losing our humility and suffering from hubris makes us weak – not strong – and may be the recipe for disaster rather than for success. The ego then risks becoming one’s worst enemy.
Talent, good education and ambition to do something of your life is an excellent start, but then you have to make the most of what you have and struggle to achieve your goals with sound self-confidence. The self-image is best based on successively building on what has actually been achieved. You can then stand still, even in times of hardship.
Those who perform best through life’s adversities are usually those who, by their own experiences (or by wise parents), have learned that it often takes time to achieve success, and on the way towards it one has to make an effort and struggle. Life is inevitably a roller coaster, and your personal value does not depend on things going well or bad, but instead, whether you are true to your ideals and ready to fight to achieve your goals.
The opposite is an overly inflated self-image, which may have been induced by a well-meaning, but perhaps not so insightful environment, or come from a period of life when the successes piled up through a combination of luck and skill.
We may well be proud when we have made an effort and managed to achieve something – this is a fair reward, but we should avoid letting this pride dim our eye sight and fool us to overestimate our ability. Not rarely, is the feeling of omnipotence the largest in the beginning of the career, before life has taught us how complex and diverse the world is.
I remember the intoxicating feeling many years ago when being on my first job as a newly graduated MD. After nearly six years of hard studies, I was proud of everything I had learned and was emerged in the feeling of having the university behind me, and finally having the opportunity to use all my skills. This feeling lasted for a few months until I had met enough patients who did not behave like the school book examples. The feeling of mastery of my profession vanished to and was replaced by a feeling of desperation and failure until I could catch on to the humility and fascination of having a profession where I had the privilege of learning something new every day.
Most likely, I was the most dangerous to my patients the very first months when I still thought I knew everything. It’s the same way with young drivers, who just got their driving license. The wonderful feeling of being on the road, with the evidence of your skills in the wallet, also comes with the greatest risks of accidents.
After a series of brilliant victories, many big field commanders throughout the ages, have been so intoxicated by their own perceived invincibility that they have underestimated the risks and then lost everything. Waterloo and Poltava therefore symbolize at least as much the victory of ego over reason as the victory of one army over another. In ancient Rome one had realised this risk, and on the charriot of the victorious field marshall there was a slave who whispered in his ear “Memento te mortalem esse” (“Remember that you are mortal“).
The ego is thus a dangerous travel companion, and the more inflated it becomes, the greater is the risk for mistakes. It is when we overestimate our skill or believe that we will always have the luck on our side, we may deceive ourselves to take excessive risks. Sometimes you may realize inner that things are not going your way, but you donät want to admit ths to the external world, and instead you more forward in a futile hope that you will ultimately be saved by the providence.
The risks in these situations are not only external defeats, but at least as many internal ones. The greater, stronger and more invincible one has once felt, the deeper becomes the fall when life suddenly takes another turn. When one’s own inflated expectations are changed at one stroke, the risk is great for a paralyzing sense of disappointment and failure, depression and perhaps even thoughts of suicide.
With all this, I do not want to say that self-esteem is bad and that you should avoid taking risks. On the contrary! If you do not believe in yourself and are prepared to take risks to achieve your goals, you will never be able to achieve something of value.
But a healthy self-esteem is based on self-awareness, self-reliance, humility and realising that external factors are often more crucial to your success than your own efforts. All risk-taking must be well-considered, with an insight that next time it may not go your way. Such an attitude gives you a safe and stable foundation to stand on, where you can take well-considered risks, without losing your self-confidence and self-esteem if things would ultimaty not go your way. If you succeed with this, your ego can give you strength instead of becoming your enemy.
This blog post has been inspired by:
Strauss William & Howe Neil (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York, NY: Vintage Original.
Holiday Ryan (2016). Ego is the enemy: The fight to master our greatest opponent. London: Profile Books.