Use self-esteem as a career tool


I am fascinated by self-esteem because it’s such a huge differentiator among everyone – even among the smart and talented. And I don’t think people can fake it. Maybe it is my own, overzealous self-esteem when it comes to my ability to read self-esteem, but I think people reveal their own levels no matter how hard they try not to.

And I don’t think I’m the only person who is fascinated. I read commentary about Paris Hilton, (that I have spent way too much time trying to retrieve online,) that said that the reason we are fascinated by her is that she has an unshakable sense of self. You can argue that you don’t like who she is, but it’s hard to argue that you’ve ever seen her feeling insecure about who she is.

A lot of self-esteem is dependent on self-knowledge. Knowing what you want and what’s important to you. This is why the infamous Starbucks memo is infamous — because the chairman of the company outlines the company’s weaknesses so clearly and accurately. The memo shows unabashed and on-target self-reflection.

I want that. I want what the chairman has and also what Paris has. One of my biggest worries is that I project an image of myself that I do not fully understand. And this is, of course, a career issue. The people who do best at getting the career they want are the people who understand how they appear to others.

But you don’t want to put too much stock in how others view you. Hold on to yourself in the face of peoples’ opinions; this is what I tell myself all the time. And then I think about how Seth Godin does not accept comments on his blog because he thinks he reacts too strongly to how other people see him. Maybe Seth could take some lessons from Paris in this regard. Meanwhile, Seth’s idea that he can only hold on to his self-esteem if he is not exposed to other peoples’ direct input seems a tenuous spot to be in during the era of Web 2.0.

I think self-esteem will be different soon. After all, millennials are the self-esteem generation, and maybe they will commodify self-esteem in a way that is not even accessible to Seth or me. Their parents brought them up with the idea that the most important thing was self-esteem – they played soccer games where everyone’s a winner because everybody played. Some people call millennials narcissists, but I think those people are taking their own self loathing out those bursting-with-confidence twentysomethings.

There is a sense of celebrity that permeates millennials. They have been online for so long that they assume everyone is looking at them, no matter where they are. In this way, millennials have a strong sense of self that they assert constantly. And when I was interviewing Rebecca Blood (a celebrity in her own right – at least in the blogosphere), she said that celebrity is so mainstream among kids today that young Hollywood debutantes may be better role models for how to act than the kids’ own parents.

Soon after that, I saw a very public scene of a girl getting dumped, and I realized that it’s a great example of a seemingly mainstream young person being able to hold onto her self-esteem by adapting to celebrity status in a matter of minutes.

Some of you will argue that celebrity status has nothing to do with self-esteem. But I can’t help thinking there is a connection between one’s ability to live in front of a web cam and one’s ability to hold onto a sense of self no matter what is going on around her.

So maybe the best training for being successful at work is to learn to think about yourself in terms of celebrity before you get there. Because the people most secure with themselves are the ones who stand out in the workplace.

27 replies
  1. finance girl
    finance girl says:

    Eh, I dunno. I worked with many at the big M that had boatloads of “self-esteem”. I thought most of them were immature A-holes (including many in the 50+ camp) who acted arrogantly (seen SteveB’s interview in SmartMoney this month?) or borderline unprofessional.

    In the long run, you win the respect of your competitors (e.g. workplace peers) and management chain with your competence and aptitude via results.

    * * * * * * *

    Finance Girl has a history of recommending good reading, so I found the link she’s referring to :

    And it’s interesting, because Steve Ballmer is so arrogant in this interview that not only does he come off as almost joking with the reporter, but he appears to be able to turn the reporter into a jerk. This reminds me of Bob Sutton’s research about jerks — that people think they can avoid being as bad as the people who surround them. But really, if you hang out with jerks you become a jerk.

    Thanks for pointing us to the interview, Finance Girl.


  2. ex-lion tamer
    ex-lion tamer says:

    It seems like you’re confusing putting up a good front with having self-esteem.

    Knowing how to project determination, directness, and decisiveness in a job interview — or for a webcam — is useful, but part of what makes a person valuable, whether as an employee, friend, or loved one, is vulnerability.

    There’s no better route to the unmediated self, which is where great ideas and deep committments come from. (Granted, it’s also where lots of messy, unpleasant stuff originates, but human relationships — including career ones — require taking the bad with the good, right?) It requires real guts, and reveals true self-esteem, to be vulnerable. Anything less is just faking it.

    Oh, and if Paris Hilton weren’t rich, we’d call her what she is — a burden on society.

  3. Mary
    Mary says:

    I think self-confidence has a huge role in career success, and usually self-esteem goes hand in hand with that quality. However, I don’t think the self-esteem movement has necessarily produced self-confident children. Several studies have shown that highly praising children for things that take little effort/brain-power devalues the praise given for genuine achievements. As a result, children actually experience a loss of self-esteem. That could be one of the reasons people call millnniels narcissists–if they are looking for praise and attention for everything they do (I don’t have any opinion on if they are or not.)

    I know from first hand job experience it is humiliating to receive praise for easy tasks. One of my bosses was effusive over the way I Xeroxed her papers! It really angered me and confused me–was that all I was good for? (I had a master’s degree for cryin’ out loud!) My self-esteem and self-confidence had never be lower as it was at that job.

    As far as living in front of the camera–I don’t think self-confidence necessary follows celebrity or pseudo-celebrity. Think Marilyn Monroe who lived solely to be on camera–in fact, it was the only place she felt real. I don’t have to talk about her messed up interior life; everyone knows it. Being in the spotlight is like taking drugs–it alters your consciousness and encourages you to mask your deepest feelings. You are playing to an audience, not trying to find out your true feelings. I’m sure we all have pictures of us being at a public event smiling for the camera, while inside we feel hideously uncomfortable for whatever reason.

    Also, I’m sure a study would prove that those millenniels who are webcasting and twittering their every move already had oodles of self-confidence before they started. Those who have less self-confidence would be less likely to want to broadcast themselves. In a casual survey I conducted at the office among a group of grads from the ITP department at NYU if they wanted to participate in our company blog (which is a story in itself–of how NOT to launch a company blog) most of them said no, because they were afraid of people’s comments to their opinions.

    My guess is millenniels have a strong sense of themselves in terms of how they are seen in the public eye. Which will be great for their job interviews. But, whether it actually manifests itself in true self-esteem is another question.

    I hope you don’t mind I wrote such a lengthy comment, but I find the subject of self-confidence and work a very interesting topic. I know my increasing self-confidence at work has definitely led to my ability to pretty much call my own shots here.

    * * * * * * * *

    Mary, thanks for the very interesting comment. The casual poll of NYT students is revealing of what happens to people raised to form a consensus. Self-esteem, it seems, is not so cut and dried. I had a feeling that this would be the downfall of this post. But at least the downfall has turned out to be and interesting issue.

    Sidenote: The idea that praise for something easy is insulting is so spot-on.


  4. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    I think having a high level of self-esteem leads to high levels of self confidence which leads to a real strong sense of courage and optimism. People with these traits seem to be more willing to take risks with full acknowledgement that others may disapprove because they know they'll make it work one way or another. I also think people who genuinely possess these traits are rare.

    As a millennial, I know that I ask a lot of questions, challenge traditions, and am not afraid to speak my mind because I feel it contributes to the greater good of an organization – €“ not because I am full of myself. It's not that I think I am smarter, wiser, or more experienced than anyone else – €“ I just want to know why things are the way they are and see if there is a different way of doing it. It is in an effort to share ideas, even the way off in left field ones, and I know that my thoughts are not going to be right all the time (and I know that will shock some of you that think so poorly of us millennials). The problem comes when people interpret this as arrogance or laziness. I think people assume that because I am rubbing the "corporate culture" the wrong way that I must be really high on myself when in reality I am actually very humble.

    As far as finance girl's comments on winning the respect of your co-workers – €“ I sometimes think that if all your co-workers like you, then you may be pretty amiable and not really doing anything spectacular. I have found that people who truly innovate tend to rub most of their co-workers the wrong way. I don't know if it's because they are just miserable or that they are really jealous that the person had the courage to try something new and stand behind their beliefs.

    And lastly – I equate arrogance with a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. Arrogance is usually a front for people trying to be something they are not.

    Ok—-I'm done now.

    * * * * * * * *


    Good point about how self-confidence leads to optimism. This, I think, is the most powerful part of self-confidence. And it’s a way to tell the difference between self-confidence and arrogance. Arrogance does not beget optimism, I don’t think. Competitive spirit, yes, but not optimism. –Penelope

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I think the narcissism element is important here. Narcissism is a function of a psychological dynamic where, in order to negate a feeling of deficiency, lack, “not (fill in the blank) enough”, one needs to take on the character of grandiosity which translates, “I don’t need anyone.” “I’m the best there is at (fill in the blank)”, “I am mature and adult. I am! I am! I am!”, etc.

    The underside of the grandiosity, which is a truly “faux self-esteem” where one continually needs to hide the fake and phony self, is that one needs to keep efforting to “appear” to be real, authentic, and true and the efforting is like a progressive drug…where one needs more and more of it, e.g., exposure, alcohol, to support the feeling that one is actually “somebody.”

    Self-confidence and self-esteem, when healthy, require little efforting, struggle and strain. When unhealthy, necessitates lots of acting out, needing to be seen, heard, etc.

  6. Wisconsinite
    Wisconsinite says:

    Penelope, the self-reflection from Howard has nothing to do with self and everything to do with the end of an empire. He is a visionary that can read the handwriting on the wall.

    And Paris Hilton? I want that? For the sake of your daughter, recant what you have said.

  7. Ana
    Ana says:

    I think that self-estime is very important in life. It is very important in the workplace, because general people who have a high self-estim are happier and affect everybody around them positively. I don’t know do people with a high self-estim get what they want, because I have a high self-estim, but it doesn’t help me by getting a job. When they aske what are my strengts and weaknesses, I have no idea what they are. At least they sound like bragging or things people usalli say to get a job.

    * * * * * *

    Ana, when someone asks you about your strengths and weaknesses, it’s time to tell a quick story, to show an example. If you list your strengths, it’s not nearly as persuasive as telling a story about your strengths (e.g. the time you convinced your team to overperform to show your strength as a leader). If you are telling stories you won’t sound obnoxious.

    A question about strengths and weaknesses is very standard and there are lots of books available that will tell you how to answer standard questions. I suggest you check out some of those books. The bottom line is that almost all interview questions have a right answer, and the right answer does not vary much from person to person.


  8. Rambler
    Rambler says:

    Excellant post, Even better topic. I believe self-esteem is extremely important to succeed both in career and in life. I cannot rule out effects of others on my self-esteem. But what I think is, you would really start becoming what you think of yourselves, if you know what I mean.
    Personally I have two facets of my own self-esteem. I project myself to the exact levels when it comes to corporte world. Atleast thats what I think, and I am pretty happy with it. At the end thats what is important.
    When it comes to personal life, its total reverse, I tend to have the confusing levels of self-esteem. Some days I feel really strong and some times week.
    Anyways, Excellant idea for a post

  9. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I think that self-esteem has more to do with our way of living. This includes our career. it shows how we are going to be in certain aspects of our lives.

  10. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Penelope – This is an exceedingly interesting (and complex) topic. It resonates particularly strongly for me, since I grew up in a time and place where the idea of promoting self-esteem in children was non-existent. I attended over-crowded, spirit-crushing parochial schools (this was in the 50’s and 60’s), where the motto might as well have been “Who do you think you are?” Escaping with self-esteem and self-confidence in tact was little short of a miracle, yet, amazingly, many of us managed to do so.

    As you note, self esteem has much to do with self knowledge, and the ability to be realistic about what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at. Even the kid who’s praised for being a great goalie will know for himself that he may not be so great if he lets in 6 goals a game. Even a kid who’s told she’s nothing will undertand that she’s good for something if she gets all the answers on the test right.

    Self-confidence is the belief that others will value what you’re good at, and a parallel belief that you won’t fall apart when you’re in a situation that involves what you’re not so good at. Somehow you’ll survive!

    Most of us carry some little twinges of self doubt about something or other. I bet that Paris Hilton may well be confident before the camera and as an “it” girl, but might be a little less so in an arena where, say, educated age-peers of hers were discussing literature/politics/science and she had nothing to say. She might well make a vapid comment about the conversation being boring, but unless she’s 100% devoid of self-reflection, she’d have to feel a little bit lacking.

  11. oldguy
    oldguy says:

    There is healthy, earned self esteem, there is narcissistic self esteem, there is psychopathic who-cares-about-anyone else self esteem, and there is fragile self esteem.

    You have lots of business types with loads of apparent self esteem – but dysfunctional personalities. The British Psychological Society did the famous study showing that up to 50 percent of business leaders have psychopathic tendencies – projecting self confidence and authority, but unconcerned about core values or others.

    Then there is fragile self esteem. The whole self esteem movement since the 80s has been, in many respects, a well intentioned mistake. Telling kids they are great does not make them feel they are great. They are smarter than that. They end up with fragile, easily lost self esteem.

    Guy Kawasaki recently had a post on an important – indeed, life changing – book that digs into a closely related issue, which is how the way we view ourselves affects how we attack difficult issues in life.

    The book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, recounts research by author Carol Dweck about how various kids addressed tough problems. Kids fell into two groups – those who felt that their abilities were fixed (including those who felt their abilities were fixed at a high level, and those who felt they were not so gifted), and those who look at life as a process, where innate ability is less important than the effort put into it.

    The research showed that kids who viewed their abilities as fixed did poorly, especially after suffering setbacks. If they viewed themselves as gifted, the game was not to do anything that put them in a negative light; if they viewed themselves as less gifted, it was a “why bother” attitude. The kids who viewed life as a process took on the challenges with relish, and got better and better over time, even on tests measuring seemingly fixed qualities such as intelligence.

    The implications are profound, for us as employees, as employers, as parents, and as people. Tell someone, “You are smart,” and all you are doing is encouraging them to do what it takes (include, the research showed, lying about test results) to keep up the image. Tell them when appropriate, “You worked hard on that, and I’m proud of your effort,” and you lay the foundation for better work next time.

  12. Karen
    Karen says:

    Just FYI, that whole breakup thing was a hoax.

    I don’t agree with much in your blog. To have unshakeable confidence when everyone around you is calling you a horse’s rear end just shows a lack of introspection. Sometimes we need to honestly look at ourselves and, if necessary, go buy that saddle.

    * * * * * * *

    Oh, so upsetting about the hoax. But thanks for telling me.


  13. Greg Paskill
    Greg Paskill says:

    One potential drawback about displaying a high sense of confidence is that it may label you as “difficult to manage.” In fact, some with high self-esteem may deliberately mask it from corporate view simply to land the job offer via that ingredient employers obsess about today: fit!

    Employers may say in their job postings they want independent out-of-the-box thinkers and self-starters. Yet how long will a maverick last? Employers have their unwritten rules which say, “I will give you a job offer, a promotion, a plump assignment only if you love me back my way.”

    You may indeed generate results. However, if you didn’t produce them according to rules and procedures (no matter how legal, ethical and industry-accepted your methods are), you do not get the 3 R’s of Respect, Reward and Recognition. And that’s the time you really need that high self-esteem to take your job hunting and performance skills elsewhere.

  14. tamar
    tamar says:

    Another word to add to the discussion on identifying and attaining self-esteem: humility. Humility has integrity, shares the light, and sparks others to become co-winners in the bid for healthy prosocial self-esteem.

  15. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:


    I’m fascinated by your link between millenials and the celebrity culture. It may certainly explain the reality TV explosion–after all, Gen Y clearly supplies most of its participants.

    I do believe that you’re on to something. I recall reading an article about how our modern parenting style (along with the somewhat problematic emphasis on self-esteem as a means rather than an end) was much tougher on the parent and tended to produce kids who overestimated their abilities…the flip side was that those “arrogant” kids were much more likely to succeed in today’s free agent world.

    I also think that the comments reveal a very real tendency to confuse self-confidence with arrogance. My own definition (still have yet to blog this post, but what the heck, I’ll use it here) is as follows:

    Self-confidence means not worrying about what other people think of you.

    Arrogance means not worrying about how other people feel about you.

    The difference is subtle but enormous.

    On a final note, I want to quote from the brilliant author Lois McMaster Bujold (, who ends her Hugo-winning novel, “The Warrior’s Apprentice” with the following evaluation of the titular protagonist:

    “I think he’ll make a terrible ensign. But he’ll make a fine general staff officer someday.”

    * * * * * *
    Love the distinction between self-confidence and arrogance. So true.


  16. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    The only thing more destructive than low self esteem is overly high self esteem. Self esteem should be based on respect for yourself and a healthy and realistic appraisal of your abilities and talents. Yet too often it’s based on blind self regard, a la Paris Hilton.

  17. TOMAS
    TOMAS says:

    Nice post, but surely you can find two much-much-much better examples of individuals that embody a high sense of self-esteem. Paris Hilton is one person that I would not ask anyone to look up to.

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