There is a list floating around the Internet (since 2000), purported to be from Bill Gates, that advises young people on the realities of life. (See below). The list is almost certainly not from Bill Gates, but does provide for some interesting discussion on finding the proper balance between promoting self-esteem in children/teenagers, and coddling them.

I must say I am not sure of the right balance myself. On the one hand I have seen the devastating effects that low-self esteem can have on people I have counseled (almost all adults) in over 23 years of priesthood. Some very smart and accomplished people if you ask me, often struggle mightily from a sense they are not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, etc. And, on account of it, many suffer effects such as depression, anger, drinking, anorexia, addiction and so forth. I too had a period in my life where low self-esteem kept me rooted in anxiety and depression. Thank God there were others to help me, and through them the Lord has largely delivered me.

That said I remain dismayed at some of the silly and, I would say, unwise practices that have set up in schools, sports leagues and other youth-related activities: not keeping score at games, giving EVERYONE awards at award ceremonies, refusing to issue failing grades, or to hold back failing students from promotion and/or graduation, etc. Frankly, most of the kids know the score to the game anyway, and they know bogus and made up awards when they see them. And while they may be relieved not to get an “F” or to have to repeat a grade, it will sure come home to roost for them soon enough that they are just not up to par in facing many of life’s challenges.

Again I realize that finding the right balance is difficult. But maybe we don’t need a one-size-fits-all solution. There used to be something we called “parenting” (before schools started being so nanny-like), and parents could adjust what was needed for each kid and work individually to find the right balance.

Yes, parenting, I remember once being embarrassed by the fact that I was so bad at wrestling, a required activity in High School gym classes in those days. I was only 130 lbs and could not be seen from sideways on. I would be pinned to the match almost instantly. But I remember too my mother, seeing my humiliation one day, reminded me of the gifts I did have and teaching me that it was OK if I didn’t have ALL the gifts. It helped, and it was rooted in truth, not in some dopey notion that I should never experience my limits or eat a little humble pie.

All this said, I’d like to list the “11 Rules” make a few comments and then get yours as well. As is frequently the case, these statements have some truth in them, but also need distinctions and adjustments. I am putting the Statement in Bold, black italics and my own comments in plain red text. (Again, these statements are almost certainly NOT by Bill Gates, but they provide for interesting reflection).

Rule 1: Life is not fair — get used to it.

There is an obnoxious tendency, especially among children and younger teenagers to shout “It’s not fair!” And our American culture, which is largely fixated (stuck) in a teenage mentality, also makes this cry at sometimes obsessional levels. It is true that justice is a worthy goal to peruse. But justice gives to people what is rightly due, it does not and cannot guarantee that all have the same gifts,  or have the same outcomes economically, and socially.

Some people are just lucky, others have just the right gifts at the right time, some happen to meet or know the right people, etc. Some have talents that are more marketable or lucrative. Some have cheerful dispositions, others more melancholy.  Some are energetic, other prefer more a more sedate pace. Some people are rich and miserable, others are poor and happy, and every other possible combination of personalty, gifts, and circumstances.

Further, many are willing to execute tradeoffs in life, forsaking lucrative careers for a vocation or career that is more desirable. Part of growing up is to work with what we have and to play the cards we’re dealt. As the old song says, “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a looser….”

“Fair” is a fanciful, somewhat childish concept rooted in a narrow notion of what success is. Success is more than wealth and popularity and many find happiness and contentment in very different ways.

Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Yes, and here is the “danger” is some of the silly self-esteem culture of the schools. Real self esteem needs to be rooted in the truth, in real accomplishment. It may be true that we should broaden our notion of what we “award” kids for. There is more to life than good math and science scores and sports victories. But if we award everything, we award nothing. Thus we should look for true excellence and praise it, not just invent bogus awards that have little relationship to real life.

I remember that some in school (such as me) didn’t make the Honor Roll because they struggled with a subject, like math. But I was an excellent writer, a creative thinker, and insightful interpreter of  literature. By the time I made it to seminary, I graduated at the top of my class, because my gifts were a great match to priestly formation.

But, back in high school there were few awards for my gifts, mostly just honor roll (a GPA based ranking), and sports. So I don’t mind if schools look to broaden awards and build self esteem in things more specific that overall grade point averages etc. But just make sure those skills have something to do with real life, a celebrate real accomplishment,

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Exactly. I tell couples I prepare for marriage this all the time. Everyone wants to start at the top. I remember my parents lived in apartments for a good while before being able to afford a home. My Father worked to build a Law practice and eventually got called to active duty in Viet Nam and made a military career of his life. The home came when the finances permitted it. Over the years my parents accumulated quite a nice income. But, that came with age and in stages.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Well not all bosses are tough. But to be sure, the stakes are higher when you work. Money and promotions are far more critical than a report card.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping — they called it opportunity.

Yes, we have to be willing to start at the bottom. I started as a newspaper carrier, I also mowed lawns. I swept floors and was a stock clerk in the local drugstore (night shift in college). Later I got nicer jobs, first building a servicing pipe organs, then working as a computer analyst for the Army Corps of Engineers. As priest I got “busted” to lowly parochial vicar before attaining to the lofty and exulted role of pastor :-)

Yes we have to pay our dues and to many youths are willing to sweep floors and scrub public bathrooms like I had to. In the end it was good for me.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault.

We DO live in a “blame others” kind of culture: “I’m not responsible, My mother dropped me on my head when I was two!”

Yet, I will say, that I have learned that many have and do suffer from bad parenting today. And many do bring wounds from childhood into life. Parents aren’t perfect, and blaming them is not very helpful. But being sober about some of the wounds from childhood can be healing. Sorry if this sounds too “therapeutic” but I have found I often have to journey back with people to childhood memories and experiences to discover why certain things trouble them now.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were.

Cute and funny, but not very helpful. In the end, we do discover that our parents were right about a lot of things.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

I spoke of this in the introduction above.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

I have often wondered why school is “off” for three months in the summer. I know there are historical reasons, but in the current setting, I wonder if this is good training for life. It may make sense to have August off for just about everyone, as do many European cultures, but otherwise it is good to learn realistic work habits.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Amen! And in real life kids don’t rule the roost and are not the smartest ones around, all men aren’t stupid either.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.

Be nice to everyone, you never know who you’re going to need.

Overall, an interesting set of rules whoever wrote them, perhaps a bit snide and preachy. Let me know what you think of them and add your own! I am especially interested in your thoughts on the “self-esteem” culture of the schools that some of these rules seem to be poking at.

Some more sayings:

22 Responses

  1. Bender says:

    About low-self esteem —

    A major factor in causing or exacerbating low self-esteem is pride. Their desire to be filled with more esteem is, at root, a desire of pride.

    Yes, pride. The answer to which is humility.

    It is one of those counter-intuitive, paradoxical answers that what is needed is humility and embrace of lowliness.

    But there’s the rub, because the person with low self-esteem is too afraid to let go and become lowly, thinking that they will simply sink even lower into being a loser, that they will lose themselves into the abyss of meaningless existence. But the opposite is true for it is precisely in letting go and emptying themselves, in losing themselves that they will find themselves, that in lowering themselves that they will be exalted, in making themselves last, they will become first.

    • Bender says:

      Let me expand on that. What do I mean by saying that the person with low self-esteem is often too prideful?

      I mean that the person wants to be great, thinks he should be great and recognized by people as great, but he’s not. He has flaws (as do we all) and his realization of those flaws, given that he thinks that he really is awesome (arrogant pride), causes him distress and resentment. If he isn’t great, then he’s lousy. He’s unwilling to accept his limitations and thinks that if he’s not a champion, then he is a loser. You’re either in first place or last place.

      Without the pride, without the narcissism, the person sees his limitations and imperfections and says, “well, so what? I am only human after all.” He accepts his lowliness, his status as a humble creature rather than a god, and as a result, he feels fine about himself.

      • Yes, I think your insight here is important, namely that low self esteem is rooted paradoxically in pride. I will say, there are other aspects that many bring to the table too, for some did suffer from childhood patterns wherein they were never good enough for their parent’s expectations etc. so there’s often a lot of baggage to unpack, including the fact that that baggage is often carried in the baggage car of pride, paradoxical though that may seem at first. Sympathy for the complexity of the issue, often with very personal and unique dimensions for each person, is important too.

      • Jinky says:

        I understand what you mean. You have a point there. God bless! =]

  2. Jinky says:

    This blog is really a useful one. Low self-esteem is one of the greatest foes of youths. Whenever I hear somebody insulting me, I tend to be hurt right away. I’m not thick-skinned at all times. =] But, when I remember that God made me fearfully and wonderfully, those hurting words don’t bother me anymore. ^_^

    Thank you for making this truthful blog Msgr. Charles Pope. God bless you!

  3. Ron Jon says:

    Not all life is work. We should also have time for prayer. That’s why I love summer vacation.

  4. Todd Flowerday says:

    I’m somewhat of s akspetic on this post, though I understand the context and I oppose coddling.

    I find there are more factors at work in society that tend to crush and demean people, some of which are very subtle. The cult of celebrity would be one of those: encouraging young people to model their lives after famous people because that has to be better than being a nobody, a teenager, or unpopular.

    In my work with young people what seems to be swagger and pride on the outside is most often a gross over-correction on their part. The most arrogant people often have the lowest self-esteem.

    I don’t think too much self-esteem is a problem in our culture–more the opposite. A wise pastor I worked for suggested as much based on his experience in the Sacrament of Penance.

    I don’t think much of rule 2. I’ve seen the others here, in various forms.

    What I do think is vital is to parent our kids and allow the experience of failure, and that actions, good and bad, have consequences. My wife and I raise our daughter to have high self-esteem and self-worth. We think this is healthy. We want her to be prepared to say no to sex until she is married, and to stand up for herself and make a difference in her circles. If she waits to become a “vice president” to have self-esteem, she won’t ever be VP material.

  5. Cecilia says:

    Rule #1–your comments are spot on. But as a parent, I have to jump on the misunderstanding of fairness starting in about 1st grade. When so many anti-Christian agendas are based on a false idea of “fairness” (I’m thinking particularly about marriage and ordination), it’s essential that my children get this idea correct when it’s first being formed, at around age 6. None of my kids are teenagers yet, so I can’t tell you how it’s worked out. But it seems like waiting till they are teenagers to correct their understanding is too late, or at least a LOT harder.

  6. Ann says:

    I am concerned about my children in this aspect. My husband and I are fortunate enough that we have a reasonable amount of income to have a solid middle-class lifestyle, with some luxuries as well. However, we both grew up poor, and we see the character-building that goes along with that, and try to think of ways to incorporate those experiences. I always say the most important thing a high school kid can have is a job. That’s when you learn exactly how many hours it takes to buy those must-have designer jeans or a tank of gas.

  7. RichardC says:

    In retrospect, to me, the kindest thing that my dad ever said to me is, “Life isn’t fair.” That helped me accept things both when things went my way and when things didn’t go my.

    Bobby Fischer used to say that you could learn something from anyone.

    “Enjoy every sandwich.”–Warren Zevon.

    Coping is a good word.

    When you find yourself in difficulty, don’t ask why, ask what does God want me to do now, and just keep doing what you need to do now.

    Got the last two from Father Benedict Groeschel.

  8. Ms. Jennifer says:

    “Rule 1: Life is not fair — get used to it.

    There is an obnoxious tendency, especially among children and younger teenagers to shout “It’s not fair!” And our American culture, which is largely fixated (stuck) in a teenage mentality, also makes this cry at sometimes obsessional levels. It is true that justice is a worthy goal to peruse. But justice gives to people what is rightly due, it does not and cannot guarantee that all have the same gifts, or have the same outcomes economically, and socially.”

    What about equality? We should be pursuing JUSTICE AND EQUALITY. We may all not be able to have the same gifts, but we do all have the RIGHT to develop the gifts we are given to our maximum potential, and that requires equal education, for starters. You can’t have an equal education unless you have equal opportunity, and if you don’t have equal opportunity, then by God, fight for it. You shouldn’t just think to yourself, well, “Life’s not fair, so get used to it.” I think that’s a childish way of looking at the world, as if it’s some hopeless place. Yes, it’s a fallen world, but it’s our job as Christians do everything, EVERYTHING, in our power to try to bring it as close back to the unfallen state as we can. How lazy for a Christian to just accept life as unfair. It’s our job to make it fair, or bleed our fingers to the bone trying :).

    • Did you miss my reference/distinction where I indicate what you are saying and seek to address it? Read the paragraph again you are quoting, it is right there. But as I say, the “fair” cry is not the same as the worthy work for justice. Your addition of the word equality needs a bit more development, I think. “Equality” as a concept is a little ambiguous and needs clarification. For too many people, equality is not properly distinguished from “sameness.” And to some degree the “fair” notion also falls prey to the equality=same fallacy. I don’t think we can guarantee equal outcomes, though to some degree we can and should grant equal access to equally qualified candidates. But there are many variables when assessing equality and so I don’t know if we can or should address it in an “unqualified” sense, or without proper distinctions being made. One example of a variable is that every person is different, has different priorities and interests. This is also true with groups. For example, are there more male engineers because women are excluded or because men are more interested in that field and women less inclined? What is equality in a situation like this. How do we measure it?

  9. Basil Peutalo says:

    I am Catholic from Papua New Guinea, south west Pacific. I wanted to simply say that I always enjoy and look forward to reading your articles as part of my ongoing spiritual development. In our country, our Catholic faith is still vague and weak due to inadequate catechising and availability of resources such as provided on many of the Catholic websites that I subscribe to. Thanks be to God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit for such committed and deeply genuine teachers like you Monsignor Pope. God Bless you and your ministry.

  10. Ann says:

    As a teacher in a public school, I can attest that we have tried to eliminate low self-esteem by honoring everyone. At our sports banquets everyone gets a letter and there are no other awards. It might make some kids feel bad. If someone has failed an assignment or test, we are told to give them a 69% instead of whatever percent they actually earned so it won’t lower their overall grade as much. We can’t have anyone failing because it will make the school look bad. What was once considered common courtesy or the minimum expected behavior is now rewarded. This has resulted in kids doing very little unless there is some reward.
    When 11 year olds come to school and tell their teacher they can’t help their behavior because they have “anger issues” there is something wrong. They aren’t coming up with this on their own; the adults in their life are using labels such as this for their own lack of parenting.

  11. TaylorKH says:

    Perhaps we should just focus on what God has done for us. We should then esteem God, not ourselves.

  12. Bob H says:

    An excellent book to read for issues relating to happiness is ‘Healing the Culture’ by Fr. Robert Spitzer S.J. He classifies people into 4 groups, the materialistic, competitive, social, and spiritual and explains how we bounce around from one to another not realizing the importance of the social/spiritual over the materialistic/competitive identities. The book wonderfully explains why one lacks self-esteem (living for materialistic/competitive values) and happiness in their lives. Jesus tells us that if we remain in his love we will bear much fruit, I believe this is what the author has accomplished…fruit that will last.

  13. Peter Wolczuk says:

    “…sports leagues and other youth-related activities: not keeping score at games, giving EVERYONE awards at award ceremonies, refusing to issue failing grades, or to hold back failing students from promotion and/or graduation, etc.”
    So, how is a child to know where he/she is doing well and where they need more effort? Everyone is doing well so just carry on seems to be the message these days.
    Some seem to imply that this is better than putting down everything a child does because it’s not up to adult quality, or some such (Other negative motives may inspire this.) However, both cause confusion because consequences are random (made artificially so) and there’s nothing to grasp on to for inspiration, referring to both good and bad as Todd Flowerday so well pointed out. And, consulting peers no longer helps because they’re getting the same confusing message.
    It would seem that quislings have a goal is to change America from the “land of the free and the home of the brave” to the land of the mediocre and the home of the confused.
    As a Canadian, I mean no slight on the American culture since I see our quislings up here working the same agenda. It’s global.
    I recently followed a link to a slogan which seems to fit people who seek to dehumanize the strengths that God created in us as they criticize values which are still supported here.
    “Truth is hate for those who hate the truth.”
    How timely.

  14. Devra Torres says:

    I’m in the middle of translating a wonderful book called Love and Self-Esteem (Amor y Autoestima) for Scepter Publishers. The author, Fr. Michel Esparza, picks out the grains of truth in the self-esteem movement, throws out the ridiculous parts, and distinguishes self-esteem from a Catholic understanding of rightly ordered self-love. I wrote a short article about it here: (very short, with pictures!), but whether or not you have time to look at it, I want to thank you for your beautifully straightforward writing, which I was introduced to recently and have been enjoying a lot.

  15. Charles says:

    I always lived with that self pride. But I am convinced that it was only that self pride which brought success in my life.The self pride is important as long as it reflects the genuine quality of the person. It is wrong when the self pride is over the genuine quality, because it would be evident, and would hinder the success expected.

    When a person want to reach his particular ambition, it is already a self pride in itself, since he believes in himself. When one believe in himself, he believes in the gift,and all the talents given to him by the Holy Spirit.
    It is here that it is delicate because as long as one keep balance within himself, and proclaim without any hesitation God’s manifestation in him,HE WOULD DEFINITELY BE HEADING TO THE RIGHT JUSTIFIED SUCCESS, NEITHER TO BIG FOR HIS QUALITY, NOR TO SMALL.

    HUMBLY, permit me to give an example:

    I was employed as a general manager.
    I wanted a new contract in order to establish my future at the age of 32.
    I was refused this opportunity.
    I was married with a son of 9 years old.
    I had no capital, or enough money to start my own business.
    I was full of self pride within me through the reputation which I built,and my general rich and vast experience in the domestic services.
    My wife never supported me.
    I had one genuine SUPPORTER: GOD.
    On my first day of work while on the way in my car,as I couldn’t afford to by the appropriate transport.
    I talked to God, like I am talking to you, and I said:

    God I know that you have given me talents, I am doing this because I believe in you, I also know that I am not going to be employed again with anybody except with MYSELF, I would definitely not starve to death, I am only aiming to live a decent life,I do not want to lose my only SOUL, and I am doing this, ONLY BECAUSE I KNOW FOR SURE THAT WHEN I AM NOT IN ANY WAY SUFFICIENT, YOU DO YOUR PART.


    At one stage I was responsible for at lest 8 families.

    I achieved a turnover of 500 000 dollars in relation to my small general carpentary business.

    Today, facing retirement, I could well percieve that God did his part as well, for the simple reason, that my work is ON THE HIGHEST SPOT OF MY COUNTRY, WHERE I LIVE, IT IS ALSO IN THE HIGHEST HYSTORICAL BUILDING, WHICH IS ONE OF THE JEWELS OF EUROPE.




    As I said I had SELFPRIDE to start with, but I simply balanced it and loaded God with it.
    Also I proclaimed God’s participation, when my clients said to me I LOVE YOUR WORK by responding that’s IT’S NOT ME BUT GOD’S WORK IN ME.

  16. Brother Rex says:

    Our self-esteem improves as we perform esteemable acts. For instance, the corporal works of mercy are good esteem builders.

  17. AugustE says:

    The problem my friends with low esteem is that we think of it as a direct opposite of high esteem. It is not. Low esteem and all the problems it brings to the mind are the result of high esteem gone wrong. We go into shock when suddenly we realize that we are not THAT special. We have to get back to being humble. We must re enforce humility in everything that we do. We have to see ourselves in the context and the mathematical scale of who we are in this amazing creation of God. The answer to low esteem vs high esteem is in the bible. Read Job. If we start from that chapter as we develop, we will never have problems with low esteem. Why? Because with Job we begin to understand and appreciate the gifts that God has given us. Some of these gifts are so microscopic that even the great minds of our time cannot still understand them. These gifts or miracles from God may be microscopic but they are infinite in the context of reality when they are revealed to us.

  18. Gaynelle Weisberg says:

    With my wife being a Catholic school teacher at the time of the birth of our first child this became a no brainer decision for us. It would have cost us more to put our daughter in day care than my wife brought home in salary. When our second child was born 16 months later this drove that one home. My wife did, however, continue to tutor school age children to make some additional income and has family (my dad is retired and enjoys the time with his grandgirls) or me watch them while she is tutoring. She has become fairly popular and this has accounted for an additional $400/month to our income.

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