Your True Net Worth

In accounting, net worth is defined as assets minus liabilities. Essentially, it is a measure of what an entity is worth. (Jenifer Tuck)

The recent reveal that dozens of uber-rich movie stars and corporate execs paid up to $6.5 million to get their offspring into elite colleges, prompted U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, to remark, “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth, combined with fraud.”

I would argue it’s that and something much deeper, this need to outshine everyone else—Look at me, I’m king of the hill, top of the heap!—that is never fulfilled no matter how many $$$ you have in the bank, how many homes you own, the number of private jets you command, or your level of worldly accomplishment.

At root, it’s about a powerful lack of self-worth.

This Behemoth Called Self-Worth

Much has been inked about self-worth. Where does it come from? In what conditions does it thrive or perish? Who’s to blame when it’s lacking?

A not atypical article in Psychology Today points a finger at disapproving authority figures, uninvolved caregivers, and the media’s penchant for airbrushing all flaws (which makes the rest of us feel like so much wrinkled flotsam).

Though some or all of these factors may play into any individual case, I think the issue goes much deeper. After all, there are those of us who suffered the perpetual disapproval of draconian authority figures (call them Mom and Dad) and have survived to tell the tale, self-worth intact. And then there are many others, with seemingly doting families, who never stop feeling the need to impress. I’m betting at least one of the fifty parents charged in the college admissions cheating scandal came from a reasonably supportive home.

Generation to Generation

Lucian J. Truscott IV writes in Salon: “One of the parents in my daughter’s kindergarten class in Los Angeles some years ago was constantly saying, ‘well, you know my daughter Ophelia will be going to Harvard, so…’”

Truscott reports he was shocked by these assertions. “How did any five year old know what college they wanted to attend?” he asks.

I had a similar experience when my daughter was in second grade. At a parent/teacher conference, I was asked, “What do you want most in life for Lauren?” Taken aback—she was just a little kid—and never comfortable with the idea of formulating goals for other people, I murmured, “I want her to be … happy. What else would a parent want?” Her teacher then informed me that other parents wanted Ivy League schools, CEO slots, a career in law, medicine, the major leagues.

I suspect these parents’ efforts to convince the teacher that our child is one of the elite was no more than a mask to hide their insecurity about their own true worth. But what are they teaching their kids? No doubt, the same lesson the parents in the college admissions scandal passed on to their children: You are not enough as you are. Little Susie III is not bound for the Ivy Leagues because it’s clear she’s overflowing with talent, superior in every way. She must be accepted by a Harvard or Princeton because without that big name next to her own, it’s feared she may be found a nothing.

Generation to generation and far as the eye can see. It’s bigger than a fault-finding mom. More powerful than a botox ad that promises to nuke your “imperfections.” I believe when it comes to lack of self-worth, we are talking systemic.  

Drinking the Kool-Aid

As a society, we are goal-directed, not process-focused. Intent on competing rather than developing. So future-oriented that we ignore the only moment we ever actually live: Now. And everything is conditional:

We’ll be happy if

We’ll feel admired when

We’ll have proven our worth if …

Worthy of what? According to whom?

Steeped in these less-than-subtle messages, it’s hard not to drink the Kool-aid. But we pay a high price when we do.

Writer Elad Nehorai describes how he spent 20 years of his life struggling to prove himself worthy. “I saw every failure as a sign that I was worthless. Part of the evidence against my soul. I saw every success as something I had to grab onto, hold onto for dear life for whenever the court case was brought against me.

“This is no way to live, this ‘judgment’. And it’s not just about morality. It’s about reality. Judgment implies a fixed-state of things. It implies no change. It implies lack of growth. But life is the opposite of fixed. Life is a verb. An action. A motion.

“As this realization has oozed its way into my mind, I’ve learned to embrace failure as a part of my ever-evolving attempts to grow into a better person… I’ve learned to stop trying to impress people.”

Striving, Striving—Where Does It End?

The beauty of a transformation like Nehorai’s is that you don’t have to do anything. You just have to let go. Proving to the world that you’re a winner (and what is that?) is exhausting. Even if you are declared “the best” at something (By whom? Who died and made them king?), what you ultimately “win” is a lifetime of looking over your shoulder, tensed, waiting to be dethroned by someone new. A better, fresher “best.” Ask Lance Armstrong.

The youngest U.S. amateur cycling champion of his day, Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France seven times in a row. For a competing cyclist, it just doesn’t get more prestigious than that. But Armstrong was stripped of these titles and banned from all sports that follow the World Anti-Doping Code when it was discovered he’d been using performance-enhancing drugs for much of his career.

Did he take drugs because he was afraid that without them he’d never break world records? He’d already won some very notable races before the doping began. Why risk so much when his future looked so bright? The problem with constantly having to prove yourself to others, to dazzle them with your greatness is that there is no “finish line.” It was this insatiable need to keep outdoing everyone else that ended Armstrong’s career.

Actress Felicity Huffman toiled several decades to earn her breakout roles in Desperate Housewives and Transamerica. Now, her guilty plea in the college bribery scandal has cast an uncertain shadow over her future. Vanity Fair reports that Huffman’s new Netflix film Otherhood, set to debut in late April, has been postponed until August 2. This need for a showcase school that screams POWER, WEALTH, SUPERIORITY, was it worth it? Isn’t it a teensy bit possible that her child and the children of the others accused could have done just as well at a less tony institution? Many have.

Neurosurgeon, author, and reporter, Sanjay Gupta graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences.

Billionaire business investor Warren Buffet completed a degree in business administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The incredible Maxine Waters, U.S. Rep for California’s 43rd district, graduated from California State University, Los Angeles with a degree in sociology.

One has only to look at TheRUMP’s body posture in White House videos—angry scowl, arms crossed defensively tight—to realize that multi-million dollar wealth, and the U.S. presidency to boot, are not enough to grant one a true sense of self-worth. “Nobody has ever done so much in the first two years of a presidency as this administration. Nobody!” he repeats to anyone who will listen. Who is he trying to convince? If you’re the greatest, you don’t have to prove it.

Armstrong. Huffman. Trump. Striving, striving. Desperate. Never certain.

Trust me, you don’t want to be these people.

Breaking Out of Junior High

Developmentally, we start measuring ourselves—smarts, talents, looks, class—against each other around age six. You can see it in any first-grade classroom. How we stack up against our peers reaches painful, epic proportions for most of us in early adolescence. I wrote about my own experience with this in a previous post, but suffice it to say I was miserable at age 12, craving to be liked by the “cool kids,” fretting about my hair (wavy in an era of straight), my clothes, my every utterance. After much effort, I was invited to join some of these kids at a football game where I quickly realized how much they bored me. This freed me to be myself and connect with more compatible people. I was lucky to learn this in junior high.     

The tragedy is this: Many people never get out of junior high. They spend their whole lives performing for others.

Recently, I came across this sage observation by psychologist Michael Schreiner: “You put yourself in a precarious position when you feel the constant need to prove yourself because all of a sudden your behavior centers not around furthering your own self-actualization but around living up to the demands and opinions of those around you, demands and opinions that might actually have little to do with your interests and much to do with theirs.”

Self-worth is not a panacea for doubts. Doubts help us to review, to question, to rethink a project, a relationship, the path we’re on. Self-worth is not a bulwark against failure. Failing is part of the process whereby we learn and go on to fail better and better until we maybe succeed. Sometimes it’s a long process. The beauty of self-worth is that all these evaluations and efforts are inner-directed, not outer-directed. It is the confidence to believe only you can judge what’s valuable in your life, where your energies should be directed. Warning: Sometimes other people will dislike you intensely for this. In those moments, it helps to remember that such rebuffs are almost always a comment on the rebuffer’s insecurity about their own true worth, not a reflection of you.

So pursue what you love. Take the rejection of others in stride.

And your true net worth?

You are more than enough. Believe it. And be free.