• Daniel Bowman PhD

Building Self-Esteem

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

According to William James, the father of modern psychology, self-esteem is determined by how well we do in achieving our goals. It's a brilliant idea! In 1893, James came up with the following equation to explain his theory:

Today, few of us would use the word "pretensions," which means aspirations. Let's use the word "goals" instead of "pretensions" and the word "achievements," instead of "success." In other words, I believe we can better capture James' ingenious theory today by using this equation:

Self-Esteem = Achievements/Goals

William James believed you can increase self-esteem the way you would increase any fraction: you can either increase the numerator (achievements) or decrease the denominator (goals). For example if we start with the fraction 1/2, we can make it bigger by increasing the numerator, such as 2/2 or decreasing the denominator, such as 1/1. According to James, to improve self-esteem you can either achieve more or set lower goals (aspire less). In my talk below you will see that I agree with James, but there is an even more elegant solution: Instead of aspiring less, set goals that are process oriented! For details about becoming process-oriented, see my earlier blog on this site: https://www.peak-performance-coaching.com/post/being-process-oriented-1

An example of a process-oriented goal is setting a goal to spend two hours each day, practicing your sport, or studying stocks, or working on your new business. Another example would be to spend 30 minutes a day exercising or setting appointments to network with people. These types of goals are not dependent on outcomes (your score in sports, your gains in the stock market, your revenue in business, or the amount of weight you lose); they are achievable and depend on your effort.

When it comes to self-esteem, its the denominator (your goals) not the numerator (your achievements) that will make all the difference. You will never achieve your way into great self-esteem. As I discuss in the talk below for parents on building self-esteem in athletes, it's fun to have some outcome goals in order to gauge improvement and turn work tasks into a game, but outcome goals must be both REALISTIC and challenging and should always be secondary to process goals.