Posts Tagged ‘self-esteem’

Another of my gurus died this week.

I first encountered Nathaniel Branden long ago when I was a shy, introverted young man of questionable self-esteem. Initially I found him a bit off-putting. Like most of the followers of Ayn Rand, Nathaniel was (at that time) a dogmatic Objectivist with no room to even enter into discussions with people like me – we who want to wrestle with hard questions like the existence of God; the possibility that not everything about individualism is good; the possibility that there is something to be learned from Kant or Rousseau no matter how much we disagree with – perhaps even detest – them; or the idea that dogmatic, doctrinal,, rationalism is not necessarily any better than dogmatic, doctrinal religion. The evidence of the senses and the finitude of Aristotelian logic were, in early Objectivism, incontestable. And Nathaniel was the great teacher with the great aversion to even speaking about other possibilities.

I once told Nathaniel that I was a practicing reform Jew because I felt it was to only way to preserve the culture and civilization of the Jewish people. I asked him if there was a way to compartmentalize and to live a rational life while still saying prayers and practicing rituals. He told me that it would never work and that if I wanted to have high self-esteem I need to live consistently not in perpetual contradiction. Of course, you know, he’s right. But, Judaism is important to me and if keeping our culture alive forces me to live with contradictions, I’ll accept that. Long ago Nathaniel would chastise me for saying that and even in these last years he would not agree with it. But, by the end, he would no longer refuse to admit that I’m a good person even with my imperfect application of reason.

When I say that, what I mean is that over the years, Nathaniel shed his dogmatism, became willing to enter dialog with all sorts of people (evening going so far as to befriend Ken Wilbur, who could not be a more opposite thinker), and learned the power of benevolence and spontaneity. That is why I like Nathaniel more than almost any other Objectivist I know.

Nathaniel was part of Ayn Rand’s “Collective”. He and Ms. Rand had a sexual relationship and split entirely when their affair ended inharmoniously in the late 60’s. After that, all “official” Objectivists were required to denounce him, Evidently Ms. Rand did not leave all of her Soviet history behind! Still, the break was a good thing and eventually Nathaniel became an extremely successful writer on human psychology, and the pioneer of the “self-esteem” movement.

It is Nathaniel’s work in Los Angeles that brought me to revere him. Although he remained an Objectivist to the end of his life, he was more of a pragmatic “doer” than he was a philosopher. Nathaniel never gave up devotion to even a single Objectivist virtue. What he did give up was that dogmatic devotion to Ms. Rand. He could have remained in the class of Randian rationalists who viewed Objectivism as a closed system. But, no. Like other more open-minded Objectivists such as David Kelley, Nathaniel came to accept diversity, to have a willingness to discuss even what he did not agree with, and most profoundly, to realize that objective happiness could include spontaneous joy, benevolence for the pure sake of benevolence, and kindness unhinged from self-edification.

From his early beginnings with Ms. Rand, to his death this week at the age of 84, Nathaniel grew and matured. Ultimately being a man who I personally view as “Atlas Matured”.

Rest in peace, Dr. Branden!

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I used to have a quote written on my whiteboard at work. It reminded me of something that I consider really important. I recently erased it because too many people did not immediately understand it and I don’t feel like taking time to explain things when I need to be getting my job done. It it, however, not a quote that I’ll ever remove from my heart, my mind, or my system of personal ethics. The quote is from Dr. Nathaniel Branden, during a talk on the foundations of self-acceptance. It says:

“It’s not about what THEY think; it’s about what YOU know”.

To me, that sentence seems very straightforward. Yet, more than one person thought that what it meant was that I don’t care about what other people think of me. Just to be really clear, that is NOT what it means. For better or for worse, the first impression that one projects to another is the one that lasts. If you want to survive in a world where you work for someone else, where people have specific expectations, and where you represent a team, the impression you make on others matters. I KNOW THAT.

But, there is a big difference between presenting ones self in a particular external form and having an internal sense of self-efficacy and self-acceptance. There is nothing wrong with liking who you are and believing that you have as much right to live and anyone else. The Branden quotation is not about external presentation, it is about internal definition. It is not about ignoring what others think; it is about not letting others be the primary criteria by which you define yourself.

That is why I want to live by the rule that Branden’s statement defines. I won’t stop liking opera just because my friends don’t like it. I won’t stop writing poetry just because I’m a product manager not a poet. I won’t stop using humor as my way of balancing my stress just because someone doesn’t think I’m adequately stoic. I won’t stop valuing personal relationships with coworkers just because it’s not the “executive” thing to do. I won’t stop acting like the relatively cool guy that I think I am just because an alternate way of behaving might someday get me the title of Vice President.

What I WILL do, it to accept the things I like about myself and to live consistent with my values, even if I’m somewhat atypical.

You know why?

Because I have as much right to my happiness as anyone else and I’m not going to stop being me just to be someone who other people want me to be.

It is common these days to speak of community and teamwork with the phrase “It takes a village”. Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t really dispute that. We need to work together and we need to form communities because the world is an extremely complex place. I’m really good at some things and not as good as others. Yet, to be optimally successful in my endeavors I need some of each. If I contribute my strongest skills and ask to use someone else’s strongest skills in return, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts like any synergistic relationship. I recognize that I have a need of that synergy. But the next question comes when thinking about where the “strongest skills” will be developed.

For me, the answer comes in striving to be the best I can be. This does not just mean being the best “team player”. It means being the “best”, period. It all comes down to personal achievement. Not group achievement, not community achievement, not team achievement. PERSONAL achievement. Community and team are important concepts. But there is nothing wrong with individual achievement too. In fact, I’ll be so bold as to say that it is individual striving that drives a desire for individual responsibility; taking individual responsibility that contributes to individual success; and individual success that provides these “strongest skills” that one contributes to the team or community. So, without individual accomplishments, there is nothing to contribute to a team or community. I know this “bucks the trend” but, although collaboration is essential to group success, there IS an “I in team”.

Let’s get back to Nathaniel’s quotation:

“It’s not about what THEY think; it’s about what YOU know”.

Why is this so important?

To be the best that one can be, and hence the best contributor that one can be, one must realize that he or she is both capable of succeeding and worthy of it. Knowing this about yourself is what makes you willing to accept responsibility. It is what make it possible for someone to learn from mistakes instead of be deflated by them. It is what gives you confidence that you can learn the high-value skills that make you a valuable contributor. It does not mean the team is unimportant or that your bosses perception is unimportant, or that your family or other communal entity is unimportant – unquestionably they are. But the way to become the best possible contributor to those aggregated structures is to recognize that you, yourself, are important too.

So, I live by the Branden quote, just as I live by a desire to achieve unconditional integrity and self-responsibility, because the only way to be my best is to know that I have that capacity. One can not, I will not, let anyone take that knowledge away from me. Irrespective of what THEY think, so long as I know my capacity, everyone is better off. Believing in yourself is crucial to living a fulfilled life. If others believe in you as well, rock on! But it has to start with you and you have to be strong enough that no one else can screw it up for you.

Not long ago, this BLOG was just my way of being me. I wrote for myself; in large part because I wanted to keep my “chops” polished. A few people per day would find their way here and that was just fine. I said what was on my mind and that was the end of it.

But one week ago, my dear friend Emily Gottfried passed away. My essay in  memory of Emily drew over 1200 people to this little space of mine; and more than one of them has asked me why I write a BLOG. It’s not about a single subject. It’s not about a single viewpoint. It’s not about a particular political philosophy. So, what the hell is it and why do I write it? I think it’s only fair that I try to answer the question – so I will.

Emily used to say, about my BLOG and Facebook page, and Twitter feed that “Steve is just a completely open book“. I think she’s basically right. But, it’s not because I think anyone really cares about what I do and think every day. I’m not arrogant enough to think that. I’d say it’s because, while lacking in arrogance, I do have high enough self-esteem (thank you Nathaniel Branden) to think that sharing my struggles might some day be helpful to others. So, yes Emily, I am an open book.

Among the most well-known and over-used phrases we see today is the ancient saying of Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living“. I’ve heard that for my entire life but until a few years ago it never fully sunk in.

In the past couple decades I’ve lost several dear friends. Emily Gottfried is the latest. But before her was my best friend in Oregon, Pablo Esteve; my co-worker, Bruce McPherran; my college mentor, friend, and one of the people I most admired in the universe, Stephen Lucky Mosko; Lucky’s wife and my college friend Dorothy Stone; and several others who were all far too young to die. This brought me to terms with the importance of living ones’ life purposefully.

After having read some very technical works of philosophy by Robert Nozick (yes, he too died young), I happened upon his book: “The Examined Life“. In it were “meditations” on everything from parenting, to sexuality, to the nature of faith, to the Holocaust. That is when I got the idea to write this BLOG. Not because I’m the genius that Nozick was; but, because I saw value to how Nozick thought and then synthesized an eclectic blend of thinking into an examination of a personal life. So, I decided to pursue an examined life through writing publically.

In essence, this BLOG is really about one question:  Why is an actively practicing Reform Jew who reads Roland Barthes, was initiated into Kriya Yoga, and watches Antonioni  films a fan of Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Libertarianism?

Well… I am awash in inconsistencies. So, I might as well share the struggle!

Nathaniel Branden told me that trying to keep living with my contradictory views would just make me unhappy. In many ways, he was right. But, wrestling with my conflicts also seems (to me) to make for a very rich life. It would be nice if I could just pick a belief system, like Objectivism or Christianity, or Judaism, or Shinto, and then live my life happily ever after. But, for better or for worse, I can’t (or won’t).

From Rand I get my belief in the importance of striving to be the best you can be. taking responsibility for yourself and valuing your own life; and my belief in the fundamental importance of living rationally using the mind that is uniquely human. From Judaism I get validation that the fulfillment I get from fighting discrimination, working for peace, speaking out against genocide, and standing up for human rights, is a real, viable way to be edified. Those are 2 conflicting systems but I gain from them both. Rand would surely have none of it; nor, probably would the Bal Shem Tov and the Kotzker Rebbe. But, too bad… I am who I am.

I’m not sure I could ever say, in good conscience, that an unexamined life is not worth living because, each in its own way, every life is precious. Yet, for me, living an examined life makes the life I lead richer and more fulfilling. If you get a little entertainment, or someday something I’ve said helps you in your own life struggles, all I can say is thanks for riding along!