These past several years I have really been noticing a significant rise in bravado, grandiosity, self-aggrandizing, and a false sense of social importance, particularly among young American men. This pretentious view that one is special and important, and that the choices they make have great potential for incredible impact on the world is actually quite dangerous and feeds the ego that will one day become their greatest adversary and impediment to a fulfilling life.
In this article I’m going to further define this behavior, outline its potential causes, and explain how this mindset is leading many young men down a path of disappointment, inflated self-worth and self-esteem, and to the eventual and consequential development of mental health issues. In particular the anxiety and depression among teens and young adults increasingly prevalent the past twenty years. I will also identify a healthier mindset for combating the ego.
Starting in childhood, our parents and other family members begin telling us we are special, that our every effort and accomplishment a moment to be celebrated, no matter how ordinary it might actually be. Whether we are successful or not, our every attempt is applauded and praised as a unique and profound ability. This sets the groundwork for the ego to arise and begins to lay the foundation for a lifetime of seeking to satisfy that reward-center of our brain: the mesolimbic dopamine system.
By the time we enter school, the process of inflating our fledgling ego is well under way, but it’s in school when this ego begins to be fed to a dangerous degree, partially because of school practices but also because of societal norms, social media, and teen culture. Our teachers begin offering an overabundance of reassuring compliments and actions that further feed the delusion that we are special and powerful, and that our words and actions can change the world.
For students who happen to be athletes, the ego is fed ever the more. Coaches and other training staff set out to stroke the ego of their athletes in the belief that if you work hard, results will always follow. While a positive mindset and an established practice of self-improvement and determination can truly go a long way in life, there is a point where we are no longer being grounded in reality and are cast adrift into the space of endless possibility and glorification of the self. A mindset that concludes positive results will always follow our hard work. The notion that if we’re doing our best, everyone will notice, applaud, and offer us rewards for our achievements.
It might be that if parents and schools were to set limitations to this process of feeding the ego, it may simply result in a healthy egoism. However, society has changed and the practices common in parenting and school no longer limit recognition of achievement. Rewarding behavior has become overabundant and consequently saturated. Children, teens, and even young adults now have unrealistic expectations about what they “deserve.”
In my former career as a professional development instructor, I both taught career skills to employees and sat on interview panels. Through these processes I encountered managers and supervisors who expressed concerns over the behavior and mindset of young people entering the workforce today, referring to them as woefully unprepared for real life. They described their new young employees as having a type of privilege, an expectation that they should be rewarded for merely showing up and working.
I think a major part of the problem is society and culture grooming young people into the idea that life will somehow miraculously unfurl before them like a red carpet premiere, that opportunities will just throw themselves at them because they showed up. Unfortunately, beyond the security and comforts of home and the safety structures of school, adult life is relentlessly hard and unforgiving. Rewards and success are few and far between, recognition and acknowledgement only follow behavior that exceeds expectations, and even when you do go above and beyond it doesn’t always deliver what you think you deserve.
Hype culture is one of the things that makes me cringe the most, especially when young people carry that behavior and mindset into the workplace. The notion that anyone can think that they should receive attention or reward for exaggerated self-importance is one of the most unbecoming things I’ve seen from Generation Z and the younger members of my own generation, Generation Y (Millennials).
The painful truth is that we are unremarkable. Very rarely does any one of us accomplish something unique. Startlingly enough, most of the population is rather ordinary. Despite what their social media accounts might suggest, their lives and accomplishments are rather unimpressive. Even the rich and famous eventually fade into oblivion.
I’m sorry to inform you that you’re not a legend. In the grander scheme of things, you will live and die without anyone beyond your family, friends, and coworkers ever knowing you existed at all. Whether you have 300 or 300,000 followers on Instagram, in a 150 years from now, no one alive will ever know you even existed at all, save a few descendants who take the time to do genealogical research.
That trophy, medal, or plaque you received for winning first place in high school or college athletics is awarded to someone every year, you are just one of many. It doesn’t make you more important, better, or more capable than any other candidate in a job interview. Yeah, you were determined, you worked hard, you sacrificed time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears, but guess what my friend, some people do that every day just to survive.
Oh, what’s that you say? You have faith that your “god” has a plan for you and so that makes you special? You that 1 of 8 billion human beings, living approximately 75 years on one little blue planet of eight in our solar system, which is one of potentially hundreds of billions of other solar systems in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is 1 of 54 other galaxies in the Local Group, which is just 1 of 100 galaxy groups in the Virgo Supercluster, which is one of 10 million superclusters in the observable universe. You are one person on one planet of approximately 21,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 sextillion planets in the observable universe, but please tell me more about how special you think you are.
If your god exists, then it doesn’t know you exist anymore than you know a single specific microbial organism at the bottom of Point Nemo in the pacific ocean exists. Your god has no more of a plan for you than the 2-year-old that he/she/it just gave a terminal brain tumor to not but 30-minutes ago. Stop duping yourself into believing that you deserve a bright future and a long life, while your neighbor’s toddler deserves a terminal illness and a funeral in six months.
In other words, your god doesn’t know or even care that you exist. Your god probably doesn’t exist either, but if it does, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged. I know, the truth hurts, I faced this reality a decade ago and the mere contemplation of it caused a crisis of faith and radically changed my perspective on life, purpose, and meaning. It also shattered my false sense of importance and that’s why I bring it to the forefront of attention here. We have got to shake the sleeping and dreaming self, we have to wake up to the reality that we are not as deserving as we’ve been fooled into believing our whole lives.
While all of this may sound dreadful, severely disappointing, and potentially life-crisis inducing, there is a bright spot in all of it. The only people whose attention and judgment you should ever concern yourself with are your family, friends, and colleagues. You interact with these individuals on a nearly daily basis, you should be striving to nurture these relationships and working to aquire their admiration and respect.
When you accomplish something, celebrate it. Not with strangers on Tik Tok, but with your family, friends, and colleagues. It’s part of their role in your life to give you the support and acknowledgement needed for a healthy dose of self-worth and self-esteem. No one person can change or save the world, but one person can change or save a life, and it’s with the people closest to us and that we encounter in our daily lives that we can begin this process of influence and lasting legacy.
There are going to be times where you feel like a failure, where you feel like life is unfair and that’s because we are all failures and life is unfair. The notion that things are going to go perfectly for you is a delusion that’s been spoon-fed to you your whole childhood and adolescence. There are no training wheels in adult life, just falls. Most of the time you can learn things from your mistakes, and sometimes there’s nothing to learn and only wounds to tend to. Maybe they’ll heal and maybe they won’t.
I sincerely hope this article has been a reality check that humbles all who read it. The practice of temperance as a virtue is severely lacking in modern society and I am seriously concerned about American youth who are being set up for a painful awakening to the disappointments of adult life. There needs to be a strong cultural shift away from the obsessions of fame and fortune and the delusional belief that self-worth is the culmination of social media engagement.
While personal achievements are noteworthy, it is the actions carried out for the benefit of others that truly deserves recognition and reward. We should want to raise youth who go out of their way not for personal gain, but for selfless service. For any young person in high school or university, you should think less on the things you can do for yourself and reflect more on what you can do for others. Then and only then, will you be worth remembering.