Excellent Sheep

From the Atlantic:

You’ve observed that Ivy League students have an internal struggle with both “grandiosity and depression.” Can you explain this further?

Alice Miller wrote about this 30 plus years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child, but I had to experience it to see it for myself. The grandiosity is that sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest.” This kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. And I would say that this is even worse than when I was a kid. Now there’s a whole culture of parenting around this positive reinforcement.

These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.

These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all or nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again.