Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"What Do You Think You Are?"

—this article contributed by the Professor—

I think we all  remember certain things from our childhood with particular vividness.  Perhaps predictably because I’m a person who loves language, certain phrases have a special place in my memory.  A half-baked idea recounted to the assembled “wise men” of our town would often be greeted with : “so how’s that working out, then?”  A confidently expressed sentiment might be greeted with: “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” 

But the most memorable of lines was that employed by both my grandmother and mother (who, of course, were not the only ones to use it, as it was a very common phrase,)  At those moments where we had asked for an exception to be made, or provided an excuse why we shouldn’t have to do some task, or even when we just got a little bit too full of ourselves, my grandmother or mother would turn to us/me with a mix of amusement and loving dismissiveness and ask rhetorically: “What do you think you are…special?” 

This was it in a nutshell: there was never any doubt (had we ever thought about such things in the pre self-obsessed age in which we grew up) that we were loved; and we were certainly valued.  But one thing was made concisely and repeatedly clear to us:  we were no better and no worse than anyone else.
Or perhaps that is a bit of an oversimplification.  Most of us knew that there were areas in which we simply excelled more than others: some us of clearly ran faster, some scored better on spelling bees, some were able to afford the latest fashionable clothing.  But what was conveyed in no uncertain terms was that—regardless of the extent to which we succeeded—this success was not something to be drawn attention to and it certainly wasn’t an excuse to seek advantage or preferential treatment.  Another occasional variant of the phrase (“What makes you think you’re so special?)  made the situation very clear: daydreams of grandeur, exceptionalism or even modest success were not something we should be waiting upon or expecting.

Clearly we were not raised with what later generations would be drenched in: “self-esteem.”

As a teacher, I observe young people on a daily basis—all cheerful and quite lovely people—who have been told from a very early age that they “could do anything.” (I have surveyed classes many times and it is a rare occurrence for even one student not to recognize that phrase.)  They have been rewarded in extravagant ways for—in many cases—modest accomplishments.  In a nutshell, they have been encouraged to think that they are exceptional and that great things are waiting for them if only they show up, follow the rules and “be themselves.”  They were baptized (and later, confirmed) in the cult religion of self-esteem.

Astute readers will now, of course, observe “here’s another bitter geezer complaining about too many trophies.”  This is a common complaint of geezer parents (and grandparents.) For the younger reader for whom the cult is the norm,  the easy conclusion is that we geezers are resentful because we never got trophies (in our time, there was usually be one trophy, given to the one team that--dare I say it--WON the competition) and, for that matter, never got the kind of warm and fuzzy ego strokes that these subsequent generations have assumed as their birthright. 

But such kneejerk analysis seriously misses the mentality of the geezer when complaining about such things.  The complaint about excess rewards for children springs from a genuine pity of, and concern for, these generations of “esteemed” progeny. 

If one has been told how good you are from an early age, there is only really one general attitude with which to approach the wider world: “I am exceptional, I can do anything, and I will succeed.”  All of which is (with the exception of truly extraordinary and statistically miniscule numbers of individuals) complete bosh. 

Many will succeed—in some things, at some times.  But the unconscious expectation that one is bound for greatness (which is what “self-esteem” is often confused with,)  leads inevitably to feelings of dismay, disappointment and deflation when such inflated expectations come up against the hard reality that us upper midwest geezers learned a long time ago: most of us just aren’t that special. 
The lack of resilience that characterizes many of the young people I teach is something pitiable and understandable: if you fail at something after being told you will (should) succeed, it makes sense to believe you  did something wrong; it makes sense to give up and not try again, and it makes sense to think that those who failed to reward you “don’t like” you. 

If, on the other hand, you have been lucky enough to have been raised a geezer in Minnesota, you approach the world with the attitude: “well, how do you suppose this thing will work out, then?”  If it works out “not so good” the sensible reaction is:  “well, what did you expect?”  If something happens to go well, and success is somehow achieved, the sensible reaction is: “How about that, then…isn’t that something?” 

I’m not an expert on “self-esteem,” but my thinking is that true self esteem shouldn’t result in a brittle, self-absorbed expectation that great things await.  Rather, if you have been raised to know that you have true value as a person (but not any more than anyone else), you approach the world saying: “well I suppose this is going to be a mess—smarter people than myself have goofed up haven’t they?—but I should give it a try because I’m here and who knows….?”) 

The ultimate fallout from miscarried self-esteem parenting is that it seriously hinders personal resiliency and almost annihilates thankfulness: how can one be thankful for one’s success if you expect it and think you deserve it?

Lord knows, a Minnesota upbringing brings with it a lot of baggage, (most of it cold, a lot of it heavy, and some of it smelling suspiciously like fish soaking in lye.)  But if there is one thing I will always be thankful for, it’s the fact that everyone loved me enough to make it clear to me that I wasn’t special.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly, Professor, though would point out that you are viewing a certain upwardly mobile segment of the population. That's who constitutes this cult of automatic success.

    Equally problematic is the large group of kids who AREN"T raised to think that success is automatic, or even possible. I see lots of kids who have no sense they are destined for success in anything, ever.

    Pity we are so polarized, and can't find the logical intermediate stance on this, either.

    1. Very good point. There is a comparable dilemma with parental attention in general: some children are smothered with attention to the degree they become passive, others are so starved for parental guidance that they flounder. As you say, pity we can't seem to strike the balance

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