On New Year’s Resolutions, Bill Gates, and Self-Esteem

I’m not optimistic that my new year’s resolution will be achieved this year. It’s a noble, worthwhile goal but it requires more self-discipline than I can probably muster. My resolution is to cut back on the amount of time I spend on Facebook.

One reason for the resolution leads me to the focus of this piece. Through Facebook, I’m back in contact with lots of long lost friends and family members. Sometimes this is a good thing. More often, I find myself reading their posts and recalling just why they became long lost friends. Late last year, a few friends sent around a post that serves as a perfect example of this phenomenon. It’s a meme containing comments  attributed (incorrectly it turns out) to Bill Gates from a speech he supposedly made to a group of high school students in California. It’s been circulating since 2000 as a piece entitled Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School.


It came around on Facebook late last year and every time I saw it, my regard for Bill Gates took a nosedive. In my research, I quickly learned that Mr. Gates had absolutely nothing to do with the piece. He didn’t write it and he never presented it as a speech to high school students or to anyone else for that matter. So Bill Gates is off the hook. I’m sure he’s breathing a sigh of relief.

In fact, the piece originated as an op-ed published in the San Diego Union-Tribune in  1996. It was written by syndicated radio host Charles Sykes, author of the book Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add. It’s been cited by luminaries such as Ann Landers, Paul Harvey, and by periodicals like The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which may have somehow gotten the ball rolling in crediting Bill Gates with it.

If you clicked on the link to read the piece, you saw that the gist of it was the author’s warning to kids and teenagers to stop whining, appreciate all their parents do for them, and to enjoy things now because the going gets a lot tougher once you enter the working world. Let’s say that I have a few problems with it.

The main issue for me is the exasperated “Kids these days!” tone of the list. When I was a kid, my Grandpa Dave used to vent about how much tougher things were when he was growing up and how much better his generation was because of it. He really did tell me, with a straight face,  how he’d walk for miles in the snow for a chance to shovel someone’s driveway. He didn’t have a lot of good things to say about kids of my generation. Our work ethic was non-existent. Our chances for success were minimal.  And that crazy rock and roll we listened to…that was just noise. At the time, I was pretty sure he was wrong and, as an adult, I’m happy to say that my generation is probably doing no better at screwing up the world than his did. With this in mind, let’s take a look at rule #5:  “Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity. They weren’t embarrassed making minimum wage either. They would have been embarrassed to sit around talking about Kurt Cobain all weekend.” Views like this – endorsed and shared by many of my Facebook friends – remind me of the following remarks:


Socrates was wrong 2400 years ago. My grandfather was wrong 40 years ago. Charles Sykes was wrong 15 years ago.

And, parenthetically, I will not only NOT be embarrassed if my daughter spends entire weekends discussing Kurt Cobain (or whatever star of the day she gravitates toward,) I will be disappointed if she doesn’t!

In the social skills groups I run as well as in my interactions with my own daughter I sometimes find it necessary to say  “It’s not just what you say. It’s how you say it.” Mr. Sykes’ piece suffers for “how he says it.”  Some of the pure content of what he writes is hard to argue with. I’m guessing there’s a only a tiny percentage of people who comprise the world’s Pro-Whining, Pro-Entitlement Factions. What I take issue with is his sanctimonious tone. Being preachy and insulting to kids and teenagers about how their sense of entitlement will work against them in the long run employs the same logic  you’d need to criticize babies for crying when they’re hungry or need to be changed. That’s just what they do. Do they need to grow up? Of course they do! They won’t survive without doing so. But all these “shortcomings” fall well within the category of “developmentally appropriate” and are better left to patient parental guidance than to the snarky sticks and stones cast by condescending social critics.

Rule #2 is a problem too.  “The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.” My issue with this statement stems from the connotation that the term “self-esteem” has taken on lately. Self-esteem has become a cheapened buzz word through its overuse and misuse. My practice lists enhancing self-esteem as one of its stated goals and yet, whenever I hear the term, I still conjure up images of Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s character from SNL created years before he became a senator.

I’ll admit to cringing every time I hear about schools trying to teach self-esteem to their students. Self-esteem is not a subject that can be taught and implying that it is conveys a misrepresentation of the concept on a par with Mr. Sykes’. Self-esteem can best be viewed as a feeling of stable self-acceptance based upon real awareness of one’s own feelings, values, identity, and intrinsic value as a human being. It is developed largely through our relationships with our parents and others as well as through feelings of competency developed through our successes. Development of this sense is vital in creating the resiliency needed before heading out into the real world. Mr. Sykes is correct in stating that children and teenagers are in for a rude awakening when entering the world of work and careers. They are bound to encounter failure, frustration, and self-doubt. Without at least a minimal sense of self-esteem, it will be difficult for them to get back up, dust themselves off, and try again in the face of these challenges. If it’s true, as Mr. Sykes wrote, that the world won’t care about your self-esteem and will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself, I would respond that it’s virtually impossible to accomplish anything unless you feel good about yourself.

I’ll close with a quote from another contemporary writer, J.K Rowling, whose material ranks much higher on my list than Charles Sykes’ screed. She wrote “Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.” I’d say more about it but I’ve got to respond to something on Facebook.