The foundation of your being: Self-esteem

A university professor started his class by picking out of his back pocket a €20 note. And in this lecture hall of about 200 people, he asked, “How many of you would like this note?” Naturally, all 200 hands went up. He said, “Interesting.”

He then said, “Before I let you have it, let me ask you this question.” He took the note, and folded it in half twice, and then said, “How many of you want this note?” Still, 200 hands went up.

Now he said, “Let me try something else.” He took the note, and he crumpled it. Then he said, “How many of you want this note now?” Still, 200 hands went up.

Finally, he chucked the note on the floor. He screwed it with his shoe and crumpled it even more, picked it back up now with dirt, and said “How many of you want this note?” All 200 hands were still up.

He said, “Today, you’ve learned an important lesson. No matter how much I crumpled that note, how much I scrunched it up, how many times it was trodden on, you still wanted it, because it was still worth €20. In the same way that that €20 note held its value, so do you.”

No matter how many times life will tread on you, life will crumple you, life will scrunch you, and life will squeeze you, you will always keep your value.

Source: Build a Life, Not A Resume by Jay Shetty

Previously, we had covered the importance of being sincere by doing what you really love in life. We also looked at perseverance and when to pivot our efforts. Many posts back, we talked about not being too attached to our expectations for how life should be. In this post, we will look at an underlying factor to all these things: self-esteem.

Dr. David McClelland, a psychology professor at Harvard, spent 25 years researching one question: What’s the number one factor in success? It’s not education, since some of the world’s most powerful people are college drop-outs. It’s not IQ, since lots of people with average IQs achieve greater things than those with above average IQs. After 25 years of research, he concluded the number one factor is self-esteem: People do not outperform their own self-image.

Self-esteem is also foundational for happiness. Strong self-esteem allows you to be happy with yourself irrespective of external factors. For example, you are happy with yourself and still motivated even when you have “failed.” In fact, you probably see it as a lesson that brings you closer to success. Another example may be that you are confident and able to go against what your family or others expect of you with respect and dignity. And you understand that these people want the best for you, so you hold no grudges in pursuing what you know will make you happy, which should ultimately make them happy.

One of my mentors, Victor Cheng, is extremely successful by the common person’s standards. When someone told him that self-esteem was important, he laughed. He thought, “I have two degrees from Stanford University, including an undergraduate degree in quantitative economics. I was at the top of my class at McKinsey [a prestigious company]. I’ve helped companies go public. I have multiple clients on the Inc 500 list of the fastest-growing companies in the world. I’ve written 10 books. I’ve been on live national television 3 times. I’ve had my own column at And I’ve been quoted as a business expert by TIME, Fortune, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, MSNBC, and The Wall Street Journal.” He thought that unshakable self-esteem is optional, but he later realized that he was profoundly wrong.

He explained that every choice he made was influenced by his lack of self-esteem. He always sought external validation and the next achievement so that he would not feel worthless. After two years of therapy and practice in building his self-esteem, he said that he would be willing to trade all his past “success” and “accomplishments” to have had strong self-esteem to begin with.

Self-esteem is a significant problem in today’s society, both in terms of the number of people who lack it and the impact it has on people’s lives. People are afraid of being lonely and of failure. People need others to validate their sense of self worth, and they need to keep achieving bigger things that they or others think they should be achieving to feel good. Even for those who do not have weak self-esteem, they may not necessarily have strong self-esteem either.

So how do you build your self-esteem? Victor Cheng outlines 3 steps in his class on developing unshakable self-esteem:

1. Know your values

2. Apply filters to what others say

3. Assert boundaries on what others do to you

Know your values

Values are your guiding principles in life. Living by your values should make you happy, and a successful life should be one where you live in line with your values. Examples of values include respect, family, knowledge, integrity, career, and health. If you value health, then dedicating your time and efforts to living a healthy life should make you happy. Invest the self-reflection time to know your values. Then make sure you live by them and monitor if your values change over time.

Apply filters to what others say

When others give you advice or when others judge you, they are asserting their values onto you. Often times, those values are different from yours. For example, let’s say you really want be a musician, but your parents and friends tell you that’s a dumb idea because you won’t be able to make a living. If you have low self-esteem, you’ll feel sorry for yourself and give up on your passion. If you have high self-esteem, you would filter what other people say by asking:

1. What values underlie their message?

2. What are the facts?

3. Are they qualified to give me advice on this matter?

Continuing with this example, you realize that other people value security and they don’t value music. If you also value security, you can start pursuing music as a side interest and see if any opportunities come to grow music in your life. That way, you have stability while pursuing your passion. If you don’t value security, you can tap into your life savings to take some time off to explore that passion. The point is, you should live in accordance with your values, not others’ values. And that requires you to filter out others’ values in their messages.

Then look at the facts. There are plenty of musicians who can make a decent living, and they probably all love what they do. No one can know whether or not you will be able to make a living as a musician because that’s in the future. Therefore, their statement that you can’t make a living as a musician is false. So you can ignore it. If you pursue a career as a musician and end up not making enough money, at least you won’t have any regret, and you won’t blame others for your decisions.

Finally, decide if you should seriously consider their advice by seeing if they are qualified to give that advice. If your parents or friends are musicians or ex-musicians, they you should definitely consider what they say. If not, then take it with a grain of salt.

Assert boundaries on what others do to you

If you have difficulties with someone, where they are always trying to assert their values onto you without respecting your values, then you need to assert boundaries. A boundary is an “if-then” statement. To continue with the musician example, let’s say every time you talk to them on the phone, they complain about you wanting to be a musician. You could set a boundary by telling your parents, “if you keep complaining about my choice to be a musician without factual evidence, I will hang up the phone.” Then the next time they do it, give them a warning: “Like I said before, I will hang up the phone if you keep unfairly criticizing me. I love you guys, but I don’t want our conversations to be like this, so if you can’t stop, then I will hang up.” And if they still continue to unfairly criticize you, tell them, “I mentioned before I would hang up if you kept unfairly criticizing me, so I will hang up now and call you next time.”

It should be rare for you to have to do this. Most people in your life should be reasonable and respectful. But in case you do have a close person who is not reasonable or respectful, and you can’t end the relationship, then asserting boundaries will help you immensely in preserving your self-esteem. At the end of the day, you are actually having their best interest in mind because they need to learn to be respectful of others when others are trying to do good. And by pursuing your passion, you are taking care of your own happiness and success, which should make them happy in the long run.

Tony Robbins once said, “The quality of your life depends on the quality of your relationships.” In order to have good relationships, you must be able to function as an effective human being, and that requires strong self-esteem.

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.