Is Self-Esteem Inestimable?
I had a privileged upbringing. I went to one of the best private schools in the UK. When I left school I didn't think I was stupid, slow and dull. I knew I was.
At that time the schools in the UK didn't publish their exam results at "O" level (age 16) and "A" level (age 18). However, a few years after I left when this school did publish its pupil's results, it was always in the top 10 schools in the UK, often in the top 3 and occasionally the best in the country. It had one of the highest Oxford and Cambridge University acceptance rates in the UK.
It was considered to be a very good school.
Founded in 1509, there have been many famous former pupils. There's a list as long as your arm on Wikipedia of prominent politicians, financiers, soldiers, authors, businessmen, scientists, Nobel prize winners - in all areas of human endeavour there were former pupils who had excelled and who were educated at this school.
My parents arranged for me to have extra tuition in Latin and Maths so that I would pass the entrance examination. I was accepted.
I struggled all through school and had a very low opinion of my abilities as a person both intellectually and academically. I was reserved and shy. I had low self-confidence and very poor self-image.
Please don't misunderstand - I wasn't bullied, I didn't self-harm and I wasn't suicidal. I just didn't think much of myself. Other kids did much better than me academically and seemed naturally more confident and able.
I didn't know any different, so I was happy and content in the thought that that's how things were in life and accepted my lot.
I worked really hard all day to keep up, I worked in the evenings doing my homework for 2, 3 or 4 hours. I would spend several hours at the weekend on schoolwork. I did project work during the school holidays and revised hard for examinations.
In every subject I was always in the lowest third of the class and, frequently, I was dead last.
Suffice it to say, I left school with very low self-esteem.
I remember one occasion, one of the teachers pompously told us that the school was not as interested in achieving good examination results as producing well-educated young men. On one of the rare occasions where I spoke up in class unbidden, I said that I was not interested in a well-rounded education - I was interested in getting 5 "O" levels, including one in maths and one in English and two "A" levels including one in a science subject. These were the minimum requirements to gain entrance to be trained as a pilot at the flying college at Hamble run by British Airways (then BEA and BOAC). The teacher was taken quite by surprise by my little outburst - his normally meek, mild and quiet student had spoken out forcefully!
The years went by, the oil crises in the early 1970's put paid to my flying career and I became an air traffic controller. Again I struggled to pass the training course but eventually graduated, by the skin of my teeth.
To digress momentarily, I arrived in Bahrain in 1981 to take up a job as an air traffic controller. During training I was bullied by one of the senior controllers and I was, unwittingly, caught up in a power-play among the watch supervisors. Under pressure and harassment from the senior controller, I struggled to pass the local training. A colleague, Niall Walshe, very kindly helped me and I passed all the training, and went on to become a watch supervisor myself. I spent seven of the happiest years of my life there. More about Niall later.
Roll forward to 1994. I was happily married and had 2 marvellous children. I had worked in various places as a controller and regulator, had faced various challenges and was quietly quite proud of my achievements. However, my career had not really progressed,
Then, quite unexpectedly, my wife left me and we were divorced.
I had a very bad time for about 4 or 5 years. Looking back I was probably suffering with depression but it wasn't diagnosed.
However......a big however, I came out of the lowest point of my life and started up the other side. I recognised in myself that I had done some pretty amazing things in my life not least of which was to get through a marriage breakdown and move house at the same time - two of the most stressful things that one can experience. I was physically fit and healthy, I was not as sad as I recently had been, I had been promoted at work a couple of times and was feeling much better about myself.
And that was when it first occurred to me that, perhaps, I was not as thick and stupid and slow as I had always thought!
I was 47 years old.
This wasn't a blinding flash type of realisation. It wasn't what is popularly called "an epiphany". It was a gradual change in my outlook and my feeling about myself. It had taken me 29 years from leaving school but I was becoming more self-confident.
My self-esteem was growing.
At work, I was given really plum jobs and was sought out for more when other similar tasks came along. I went to Ghana, Mauritius, Finland (7 times), the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands on business.
I was asked to take over under-performing sections to bring them up-to-speed and given under-performing staff to manage and look after. My seniors must have seen something in me that I was still only just beginning to realise about myself.
I won a management post in a new area against stiff competition.
Then, one day in 2006, I received an email from a recruitment company called Spencer Stuart in Melbourne saying there was a job being created in the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) in Australia and would I be interested? I thought it was some sort of scam (so my old self-doubt hadn't disappeared completely!) and that they would be asking for my bank details next! Six months later I was in Australia working for CASA as an Executive Manager.
I'll be 65 soon and I am happier than I have ever been in my life.
I mentioned Niall Walshe earlier; he now runs a training company called SEED4Teenagers - SEED stands for Self-Esteem and Emotional Development - which targets parents directly as they seek to support their teenage children. He also works with schools as well as providing online resources and mentoring for both teens and parents.
On Niall's website it says, "a 2017 survey of teenagers around the (UK) found that one in every six teenagers - around 750,000 - struggle with low self-esteem. That's 750,000 young people who will never achieve their full potential in school, or in life. And it is 750,000 individuals who will struggle with a range of personal issues, potentially including anger, self-rejection, loneliness, depression, suicidal tendencies and much else. The destructive nature of low self-esteem should never be under-estimated."
Note the part about achieving full potential. Did I achieve my full potential? I only started to appreciate my own abilities, qualities and value when I was in middle age. Would I have achieved more if I had come out of school at 18 years of age with greater self-esteem rather than starting at 47?
I firmly believe that my low self-esteem stemmed from being among such high-achievers. I was always at the bottom of the class and this fact was a continual humiliation to me.
During those crucial teenage years I formed my opinion of myself and set my level of self-confidence. My low self-esteem held back my academic achievements at school and for many years in later life.
Would I have fared better in the local State-run school where my results would have placed me in the top third of the class? Who knows? My parents did what they thought was the right thing - to try to get me into the best school possible.
When my children were at an age to select which senior school they should go to I had one main criterion: The school should concentrate on building self-confidence and self-esteem - high levels of academic success should be important but secondary.
If one has self-esteem, the potential for success is more likely to be fulfilled and academic success is more likely to follow. If one lacks self-esteem, no matter how good the school, academic success is unlikely to follow and that same lack of self-esteem will inhibit professional success - potentially for one's entire working life.
The importance of self-esteem cannot be overstated or underestimated.
Self-esteem IS inestimable!
This article is just my view of the topic at title. Like a lot of people, I’ve done some training in management techniques but there is no substitute for experience. In my case, a bit of trial and error, learning from my mistakes, watching other managers and a little common sense. I hope you found it of interest and assistance.
Peter Cromarty is a former air traffic controller and pilot. He spent 27 years as a safety regulator of ATM/CNS, airspace and aerodromes.
View his Linked In profile.