The following paragraph appears in a work by Phil Harker & Ted Scott entitled “Humanity at Work” …
“High regard and praise are heaped upon those that win life’s competitions. It is tempting for the winners to believe that this success was all their own doing, however, they neglect to take into account the powerful shaping effects of their genetic inheritance and their social history. This is not to suggest that the individual has no part to play in their success, it is simply to point out that much of the success that people take personal credit for, and base their sense of self-worth upon, is the result of a combination of factors over which their control has been more apparent than real.”
Paraphrased … keep a balanced view of your “successes” AND your “failures” because a whole lot of your life’s “cards” were dealt to you well before you entered the game!
If I am 170cm tall, not a gifted aerobic athlete and born into a family of Rugby League supporters living in country Qld, there is a good chance I won’t get drafted into the AFL. Let’s break that down in terms of what “I” had / have control over.
- My height – nope can’t really control that
- Aerobic capacity – I can maximise my genetic “gifts” but only within boundaries
- Family – nope, they “chose” me not the other way around
- Geography – not much I can do before I am maybe 16yo?
As I watch the 198cm, 97kg, AFL champion strutting his stuff on centre stage it would be easy for me to have feelings of inferiority and envy. Through no fault of my own, I simply could never be that person because I wasn’t dealt that hand. All I can do is follow my passion and be the best 170cm AFL player I can be and reach whatever level I can reach. It may well be that our 170cm “nobody” leads a rich and rewarding life and our hulking, famous AFL athlete ends up in prison. Self-worth comes from within and is not a reward for winning life’s competitions. It is determined mostly by the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our endeavours.
I was reminded recently of a quote by African American tennis great Arthur Ashe, ” … The doing is often more important than the outcome” he said. Arthur Ashe graced the world’s tennis stage as a champion and died from complications related to a contaminated blood transfusion. He had no control over his athletic gifts in the first instance or the source of his demise in the latter.
Another quote from Vincent Van Gogh, “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced”. Sage advice from a man who, although brilliantly talented and ultimately famous, possessed a very low opinion of himself and was a much troubled character.
Attribution Theory was put forward by Heider (1958) and is concerned with how and why ordinary people explain events the way they do. Here are the two key concepts that, if applied in everyday life, can assist us to keep a balanced view of ourselves and others 🙂
1. Internal Attribution: The process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces. When we explain the behavior of others we look for enduring internal attributions, such as personality traits. For example, we attribute the behavior of a person to their personality, motives or beliefs e.g. “Frank is just naturally an angry prick”
2. External Attribution: The process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some situation or event outside a person’s control rather than to some internal characteristic. When we try to explain our own behavior we tend to make external attributions, such as situational or environment features e.g. “We would have beaten them if it was a dry day”.
In general, if we learn to apply a little bit more external attribution to others (“Frank is a nice enough bloke, he just gets angry sometimes when the big boss applies pressure”) … and a little more internal attribution to ourselves (“We played poorly today in the conditions, they deserved their win and we will get them next time”) we are likely to be more effective and at ease with ourselves.
Here is the trick however. Many people are way too harsh on themselves internally. They beat themselves up by telling themselves stories about events which have a very harsh internal edge such as, “I’m shit at that I always have been” or ” “It’s all my fault, I suck”. Clearly this isn’t conducive with robust self-esteem!
In summary, there is a lot about “us” that we don’t get to choose … but we choose how we deal with what we’ve got … and what comes at us in this “random universe”. As Harker & Scott propose, “Self-worth comes from within and is not a reward for winning life’s competitions. It is determined mostly by the stories we choose to tell ourselves about our endeavours”.