There’s a bit of lore about my generation that’s floating around. It might be based on some real research or it might be the sage pontifications of some older observer of today’s young professionals. I have only heard it from people who heard about it from people who read about it in a magazine or newspaper or something. I have, however, heard it often and from varied sources.
The lore goes something like this: “We’ve ruined young people forever by making them feel like their self esteem actually matters. When they go into a job, they tend to be restless and unwilling to stay in the same job for a long time, in large part because they do not get sufficient praise from an authority figure. Young professionals need to be constantly reassured that they are doing well in a way that was never before expected in the workplace.”
Now there’s a lot going on in that blurb and I would bet my bottom dollar that most of the individual ideas have some foundation in a decent study and that the lore only becomes implausible when you try to draw causal relationships between any two things. That’s often the nature of the connection between social science and the way the public interprets the fragment that pass through media filters. What makes such bits of modern lore stick around in my head, however, is my own experience.
There’s a bit of truth (by which I mean scientifically confirmed data) in the idea that teaching kids about self esteem in the wrong way leads them to draw their self esteem from external sources, rather than internal, for a job well done. I don’t recall my parents or teachers being especially prone to praising me for no good reason, but one thing is for sure: I got more than my fair share of praise as a kid. Even as a college student, I got lots of praise, mostly because I’m smart enough, talented enough, and was raised to have a good enough attitude and work ethic that I was not typically guilty of lowering the bar. I’ve had exactly two jobs where I didn’t receive praise for my efforts: waitressing under a complete psycopath and clerking at a grocery store. I quit both as soon as other opportunities allowed (2 weeks and 8 months, respectively) and didn’t give full notice because the jobs were that horrible.
I don’t think the lack of praise was actually the real issue at the heart of why I quit either. Seriously, do you want to work for someone who spends half of the time she talks to you criticizing your weight and the other half taking off her shoes in a kitchen to show you her bunions? Many people would tell me, with good reason, that I was lucky to have a job. I won’t disagree with that, but one side effect of being raised to believe I’m smart and competent is the belief that I don’t need to waste my life working at a job that makes me utterly miserable.
I’m in an odd position at the moment. For the first time in my life, I don’t actually work with my supervisor. I mean, I have one, but I see him no more than once or twice a month and communicate primarily through emails and brief phone calls. He’s always positive about my work, but it’s hard to place much value in an opinion that is formed around such little observation. I have exactly one co-worker who is with me maybe two-thirds of the time and he is, nominally, under my supervision. I communicate primarily with children under the age of 12 who are mad at me as often as not for having to enforce the rules and secondarily with their parents, who I only rarely have time to have a decent conversation with. What this boils down to is that I have to find my satisfaction from work entirely in my actual work rather than in the words of others who observe my work.
And you know what? It’s not enough. It’s like running a marathon you haven’t trained for. The air you catch and the bits of water you get will keep you from keeling over, but the exhaustion just builds up over time. If the kids weren’t worth every minute of it, I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind choosing to do this kind of work.
Fortunately, the kids are worth it. Every minute of it. And on the days when they decide that they can live with the rules and therefore not hate the person enforcing them, they always give me a reason to pick my rump off the ground and start running again. Hopefully I can keep going long enough to make it to summer without any artificial inflation of their self esteem…