During the mid-1990s I spent a tour of duty as a Marine recruiter in southwestern Washington State. One of my primary tasks was to give talks at local high schools, but because many of the guidance counselors were not exactly pro-military, I was expected to give generic “motivational” speeches.
I soon discovered my idea of what constituted a motivational speech was not widely shared.
“Your parents and teachers have not been straight-forward with you,” I told the students in my first presentation. “You’re not really all that special. There are hundreds of thousands of kids just like you. And the fact is that you cannot be anything you want. Most of you don’t have the physical skills necessary to be a pro-athlete or the mental acuity to be a neurosurgeon. If you want to be successful in life you are going to choose a vocation that fits with your aptitude and abilities. And you’re going to have to compete with others who are smarter and more talented than you are. You don’t have to be the best and brightest, but you do need to be the hardest-working.”
Needless to say, that message wasn’t well received by the students. Having a dream is the most important thing in life, one young girl told me and asked why I wanted to crush her (wildly unrealistic) ambitions. Another student, a slight, bespectacled young man said that while there were no 5’9” centers currently playing in the NBA, he’d be the first because he “wanted it more than anything else in the world.”
But while I was taken aback by the cluelessness of the students, I was even more surprised by the reaction of the teachers. They made it clear that I would not be invited back for I had undermined their attempts to build the “self-esteem” of the kids. I asked if they really believed that Johnny was going to be a basketball star and that Susan was going to achieve her outlandish dreams of being a famous actress. Of course they didn’t, but they couldn’t understand why that would matter. They seemed to believe that while an inflated sense of self-worth wasn’t a sufficient condition for success, it was certainly a necessary one. Therefore they believed that it was their duty to make sure that as many of the kids as possible “believed in themselves.”
The teachers couldn’t recognize that they were setting their students up for a life of failure by instilling in them “illusory superiority”, a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. This is sometimes referred to as the Lake Wobegon Effect, named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”