Thomas Sutcliffe: Worriers of the world: unite against the self-confident

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The Independent Online

"All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure" Mark Twain once wrote. As a recipe for advancement, this is both useless and consoling. Most of us can manage one of those qualities or even both at different times. But very few people – Lord Archer comes to mind – can combine the two into the alloy of impervious self-esteem.

Never mind, though, because Twain's aphorism devalues the prize even as he tells us how to achieve it – success, he implies, is the biggest con-trick of all, an illusion of authority rather than the real thing.

It's a beguiling thought, and the only problem with it is that we don't really have enough confidence to believe it wholeheartedly.

The meek know in their bones that they will only inherit the earth when the cocky and self-assured have got bored with it.

Yesterday offered a ray of light for self-conscious mediocrities though – not to mention a collector's item for connoisseurs of admonitory reversal. "Low self-esteem 'not as damaging as claimed'" read the headline on a news agency report into the work of Professor Nicholas Elmer, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics.

Contrary to the received opinion that low self-esteem was at the root of drug addiction, delinquency and crime, Professor Elmer argues that it is only a risk factor for suicide, depression and victimhood – and then only as one of a number of factors. In other words, those with low self-esteem tend to damage only themselves. They don't have to add to their general burden of doubt the knowledge that they are corroding society from within.

It seems that the credit for that – even more satisfyingly – must go to the over-achievers. Because Professor Elmer also claims to have discovered that young people with high self-esteem were more likely than others to hold racist views, reject peer-group pressures and engage in anti-social activities such as drink-driving. They don't, as we phrase it outside the LSE, give a toss for what anybody else thinks about them.

Just over a year ago one of Professor Elmer's colleagues at LSE – Leon Feinstein – announced, in partial corroboration of Twain, that self-esteem has a far greater impact on future success and happiness than intelligence or talent. Now we know why – self-confident people are psychological joy-riders, all self-serving accelerator and no moral brake. Suddenly the worldwide investment in "self-esteem" programmes begins to look a little dubious.

As it happens a mass experiment into the consequences of esteem enhancement has already taken place. China's vast cohort of "little emperors" - those children who, as a result of the one child policy, grew up surrounded by doting adults and without the abrasive polish of sibling rivalry – are now coming of age and beginning to worry the grown-ups.

A few years ago, an outbreak of juvenile cruelty to animals at Beijing Zoo prompted anxious hand-wringing about the effects of raising a whole generation to believe that everything they do is adorable. Others sensibly pointed out that it might also have something to do with the fact that parents tended to describe the exhibits in exclusively nutritional terms ("Look at the tiger darling. Absolutely delicious spleen.") But then confident people do treat the world as their oyster.

It's all gratifying news for self-doubters and fretters - who can comfort themselves with the thought that they are the solution not the problem. It may even be the moment for a bit of consciousness-raising – for Humility Pride marches and sloganeering ("We're far from perfect and we're here to stay!"). Just so long as it doesn't get out of hand, of course. It wouldn't do to get all superior about your inferiority complex.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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