Young people and self-esteem: Your views

A woman on a beach examines her lipstick in a mirror

Do young people really have an over-inflated opinion of themselves? A Magazine feature published last week raised this question, and there was a huge response from readers.

Research in the US suggests more and more American university students think they are something special, and this is a trend which could be damaging to their success in life.

The Magazine article outlining this argument prompted some readers to reflect on their own experiences:

Rob Dahling, China: I teach in a university in Beijing, where the policy is that students cannot fail. Many schools in the West are also adopting this standard now - No Child Left Behind - which eliminates the reality-affirming notion of failure. You wonder why students are arrogant? We coddle them too much to protect them from failure, and they interpret that as personal success and capability.

Are you a narcissist?

Magazine article

Which sentence better describes you?

  • I insist upon getting the respect that is due me
  • I usually get the respect that I deserve

The problem with the Chinese university system not failing students is that students often misinterpret the message as a vouchsafe for the excellence of Chinese students, rather than as a business decision to draw in the multitudes of paying consumers shopping around for the best education. A colleague of mine had students writing essays, and one even indicated in her writing that: "Chinese students are really good and study hard, and that is why they all pass their courses." A more perfect example of the Dunning Kruger Effect I cannot find. Yet it makes me wonder who has failed more - the students or the system.

Greg, UK: I believe that I have the potential to do "great" things. Does this make me arrogant? But then again, I feel that everyone has the potential to do something great. Whether I achieve this potential is down to me. If I don't succeed, I will blame myself. I am a student that's been told they're great through school, but I have been getting good grades.

Owen Gould, Dorset, UK: I think it is a bit harsh to say it is only young people who are over-confident. Let us not forget that adults are perfectly capable of acting like this. However it is the brash teens who get noticed by society. This can be very frustrating for the vast majority of young people who are well mannered and do their best to be modest and keep their confidence to themselves. I for one think over-confidence is a trait which people often learn from their parents or role models at an early age.

Ever more confident

A peacock displays his tail feathers
  • Research by psychologist Jean Twenge suggested a 30% rise in narcissistic attitudes over the past 30 years
  • A 2006 study found that students are increasingly ambitious, but also increasingly unrealistic in their expectations

Mark Lysons, Telford, UK: It's interesting looking back at the summer of sport and discovering that most gold medal winners came across as modest. I'm sure they have immense inner belief and drive but that only comes out during their event. It would appear that to be truly successful one needs to balance realism with confidence, and there is no place for arrogance.

Consider the remarks made by Jessica Ennis, Mo Farrah and Bradley Wiggins at the Sports Personality of the Year awards. They were quick to praise the coaching staff who had prepared them for the Olympics. Ennis, after she had won gold at the Games, praised the crowd and even her rival competitors. Why do many Olympic champions modestly deflect praise onto others? Perhaps because they know that if they took all the credit it would undermine the people who supported them and endanger that support. Wiggins would not have won the Tour de France without the selfless acts of team-mate Chris Froome. Wiggins knew this and immediately praised his team-mate.

Chris Froome (right) is thanked by Bradley Wiggins for his support in the Tour de France Team-mates Froome and Wiggins

Perhaps the modesty of champions comes from a deep knowledge of their sport. They know what it takes to win and what their opponents must have gone through just to be competitive. Modesty is perhaps the ultimate sign of confidence. Arrogance may hide a deficiency of skill, whereas modesty shows confidence in one's ability. Sir Chris Hoy, for example, knows he can win. In football, a sport full of egos and arrogance, Lionel Messi stands out though his modesty. His skill speaks for itself.

Start Quote

Younger people fresh out of university feel entitled to things more quickly”

End Quote Jonathan Kearney

Jonathan Kearney, London, UK: I have held a senior position hiring and mentoring new members of staff at my company for quite some time. From my experience I can say younger people now, fresh out of university, feel entitled to things more quickly, without taking the time to learn their job and earn a pay rise. Once they have got their degree they feel they should instantly be taking the top jobs. Too many times have I had conversations with graduate employees barely six months in the job where they have said: "But I've got a degree, I don't expect to have to do the photocopying. I didn't get a degree to waste my time doing that." Of course they didn't. However, they need to learn their job. A degree gives you the theory behind a business but it doesn't give you the practice of working in business. Too often they don't understand that, and nor do they have the patience to learn. They believe a degree is proof that they are worth more than others and they want the dream that was promised to them when they agreed to go to university - a top job earning top money, and they want it now.

Boardroom scene in The Apprentice The Apprentice: A masterclass in the art of self-confidence

Rosemary Hill, Geneva, Switzerland: I have noticed new entrants to my profession, interpreting, are more likely to tell me that their teachers have told them how good they are, or that they're sure they have what it takes to make a successful career. I think this may be because they are now being urged to market themselves in this way. It may also be the result of assertiveness courses, and perhaps of the bombastic self-confidence shown on programmes like The Apprentice, but it does young people a disservice.

Seasoned interpreters are highly suspicious of loudly confident beginners teetering on the verge of complacency. Furthermore, to do the job well, cooperation with your booth-mate is essential. Giving the impression that you consider yourself so good that you don't actually need that is a recipe for disaster. There is nothing wrong with self-confidence - when it is coupled with restraint, modesty and willingness to accept guidance from those with more experience even if you don't feel you need it. The truly talented do not need to tell the world how good they are. They let their performance do the talking for them.

Lack of confidence

A man with his head in his hands
  • For many, low self-esteem can be more damaging than over-confidence
  • It can promote a vicious circle of anxiety and depression and is associated with many mental health problems

Elaine Middleton, York, UK: Working in mental health, I am aware that focusing too much attention on a child's esteem - whether the message is "others are better than you" or conversely "you're fantastic compared to others" - can over-activate a competitive mentality and a sense of self that is based on comparisons with others. Whilst low self-esteem certainly causes problem, high self-esteem can also bring issues such as narcissism, denigration of others and lowered resilience when things don't go well. Recent research has highlighted that self-compassion is a more stable psychological buffer against life's knocks. Self-compassion is less about "poor me" and more about courage, wisdom and empathy. It also develops a sense of connection and affiliation - rather than competitiveness and comparison - through its focus on the struggles and suffering that are common to all of us.

Peter Foulds, Bielsk Podlaski, Poland: The Polish university in which I teach is severely underfunded and under-equipped. Most of our classrooms have just a blackboard and chalk, although a few now have projectors. Despite this, the students seem happy with the teaching they get. Unlike British university liberal arts degrees, students here have to work very hard. In my day in England, the weekly tutorial was the only really compulsory element. My students have long days, most days, and registers are taken in each class, as regular attendance is required. As a result, students feel that they are fully engaged with their busy courses. They also respect the work their teachers put in. All this, as well as the still strongly family-oriented society, engenders a feeling that they are here to work, and not that they are consumers to be flattered and feared. If they work hard, they pass. If they don't, they fail. Result: delightful, modest hard-working young people it's a joy to work with.

Katherine Hughes, UK: I think social media is making this worse. Ten years ago the concept of putting thousands of pictures of yourself on Facebook or publishing your every mundane thought on Twitter was unheard of. The other day I watched a teenage girl spend a two-hour train journey taking pictures of herself making faces at her iPad. Self-esteem is a good thing; self-obsession is not.

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