Self-Esteem and Conventional Wisdom

I am cleaning off my book shelves and seeing what I can give to rummage.  One of the books I picked up was Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko.  It contains this piece of conventional wisdom:

“If you make a practice of remembering your successes and good personal qualities and paying less attention to your failures, you will begin to experience more success than you would have thought possible.  Imagine a person learning to hit a baseball.  At first, he will miss the ball many more times than he hits it.  With practice, his misses will gradually diminish, and the hits will come more frequently.  If mere repetition were the key to improved skill, his practice should make him more expert at missing the ball than hitting it.  However, even though the misses outnumber the hits, he hits the ball more successfully because his mind remembers, reinforces and dwells on the successful attempts rather than the misses.”

There are a lot of assumptions here, for example that he improves because his confidence grows by remembering the successes.  It could equally be that he improves because he learns from the misses.  That is, each miss provides as much important information as each hit.  He does not selectively remember the hits, rather our fictional batter begins to have a great database of what works and equally important, what doesn’t.

“If mere repetition were the key to improved skill his practice should make him more expert at missing the ball than hitting it…” 

But this is not what happens because the purpose of the practice is to improve not to repeat. 

Michalko assumes also that it is success that inspires the batter to keep going.  This is a western assumption.  I recall reading in The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett that while western people become easily discouraged by criticism and quit, Eastern people become more determined to succeed when they are criticized.  

In one experiment, researchers asked Canadian and Japanese students to take what they were told was a “creativity” test and they gave the students bogus “feedback.”  The subjects were either told they’d done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how long the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they had succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed. The Japanese saw an opportunity for self-improvement and took it.

Thinkertoys reinforces our cultural assumptions of control, that control is linked to self-esteem, and that the most confident is the most successful.

Of course, if you want to sell an advice book, it helps to give advice that will have people nodding in agreement– that is advice they already believe.  Conventional wisdom.

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