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.

20 thoughts on “Your True Net Worth

  1. This was a very interesting article. you wrote Amy. You really have me thinking about my childhood and what makes me think as a parent. Your post helps explain the bizarre behavior of those parents who committed fraud and broke the law just to get their children into a good college. Quite honestly, the whole scenario baffles me. Intellectually I understand the concept that wealthy people like to “keep up with the Joneses.” But on a personal level the whole idea is quite bizarre to me.
    Growing up, I never understood why people wanted to be in cliques in school, wanted to only hang out with certain friends, and tried to impress other people. I suppose it was because I was always a free spirit dancing to the beat of my own drummer. So I walked around oblivious to most of that competition stuff while in school. meant nothing to me because my head was in the clouds creating poetry, music, and designing wardrobes of British fashions. I was one of the girls who was friendly with everyone and yet walked my own path. Simply because I felt like I was different from everyone else on the planet. Not intentionally, I just didn’t worry about the trivia stuff like popularity. I thought they were all weird because they didn’t think like me. (Not the other way around.) Ironically, being myself gave me my own popularity, which I had no clue about until decades later at reunions. (I mean in 1965 and 66 I was in an all girl’s rock band because I wanted to play guitar and write music. I didn’t do it because it was cool. I did it because It put my poetry in motion – literally. It took decades later to discover I had a following. So maybe I was just always unobservant about trying to impress others.) I suppose that is why this celebrity or wealthy person thing about trying to impress others by having their children in the best schools is so alien to me. Or perhaps it is because I was blessed by having two gifted sons. (Both were identified as gifted early in elementary school.) And I knew how special that was and didn’t take that for granted. It did make being a young single mother easier. I knew they were brilliant and I didn’t have to worry about what would happen to them when they grew up. Because they were really smart they got good grades and I figured they would get scholarships and go to a good college. But, I was a poor school teacher so there was no chance of me bribing anyone with money. PLUS, I never would have thought of doing such a thing. I always had my children earn their grades. I remember my oldest son in second grade having to make his own musical instrument for music class and asking for my help. I told him I would discuss ideas with him and help him find whatever materials he wanted to use, but It was his project not mine. He cried saying that everyone else’s mom does their work why wouldn’t I? My answer was simple. I wasn’t the one in school, he was. It would be cheating and cheating was wrong. A lesson both my children learned at a young age. They also learned to take pride in their work and their accomplishments. So when they grew up and were ready for college, both got academic scholarships, were advanced placement scholars and went into the fields of their choice. Which was really lucky for me because as a divorced mom I couldn’t have afforded to pay for a great college without those scholarships. AND they knew they couldn’t fool around and party in college or they would lose those scholarships. So when I listen to all this craziness about rich people… I just wonder… what did these rich parents teach their children? With all that money of theirs why didn’t they go to therapy and make themselves happy and just show their kids some good old fashioned love? I worked multiple jobs to put a roof over my kids’ heads. I spent as much time as I could with them to let them know I thought they were awesome. I plastered my refrigerator with their drawings and test papers to let them know I thought they were special. Why didn’t these rich people do that? I had loving parents, but quite honestly they really didn’t get me. I was not the typical child going to school in the 50’s and 60’s. My brother and sister were, but I wasn’t. So I can’t say it was because my grades were perfect or on display at home growing up. My artwork was, however. And at social gatherings my mother always asked me to show the family the latest dance steps from American Bandstand, so I suppose thinking back on my childhood now, my mom was intuitive enough to understand that my talent was in the performance area and not being a shy child she could show me off. LOL

    Amy you always make me think. And this article about insecurities made me think about why I never fell into that gap about competing with others or wanting my children to be better than other people’s. I think I just thought I was different and I was ok with that. And frankly, I knew my kids were the smartest boys in the room, so I never had to worry about that. But, even if they hadn’t been. I wouldn’t have cared. Because I would have loved them no matter what. Maybe these parents just didn’t look outside themselves enough to realize that any school would have been fine as long as their child was healthy and safe.

    You make excellent points about insecure people trying to prove themselves. Our President being a classic example. A pathetic man with mediocre intelligence and ability always trying to say how great he is when it is obvious he is the opposite of that. Braggarts are rarely great at anything. AND the thing is, once you hit 70, most people FINALLY realize their strengths and their weaknesses. I finally accept what I am pretty good at and also what I suck at. It is astounding that 45 doesn’t admit he hasn’t any flaws. But that’s a whole other topic…. Thanks for writing your blog and taking me back to my childhood to try to understand the unusual behavior of people who actually broke the law for their children. Crazy!!!!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, Lesley! I think between me and you, we’ve got a podcast here. Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to write a detailed response. I consider it a compliment that my post inspired it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Another wonderful, thoughtful post that made me think about my own slow but steady development of self-worth (still a work in progress). As you so profoundly noted in your wishes for your daughter: the important think is to be happy. Happy in yourself and happy with and for others. Thanks for another fine post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ed, as always. Regarding “a work still in progress”–I think that’s true for everyone, hopefully. Like a messy desk, it’s a sign of LIFE.


  3. From one of my favorite poems, The God Who Loves you, by Carl Dennis.
    The God who loves you is sad…Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
    Had you gone to your second choice for college.
    Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
    Whose ardent opinions on painting and music 10
    Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Spending one’s life performing for others —- yup, that’s a rough ride. Probably a pretty high percentage of people meet that fate. It’s tough to be yourself. We’re sensitive creatures, after all.

    By the way, do you know if Huffman’s husband (Macy) is part of the scandal? I haven’t heard him mentioned. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have known what his wife was doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just did a little sleuthing in connection with your question and wow! it does seem he was involved at every step but somehow no charges were filed against him by the Feds. Perhaps he’s good buddies with Bill Barr.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post, Amy. When I got to the end and saw the box saying “Sing Your Own Special Song,” I interpreted it as an exhortation. I was thinking about what my own special song might be when I clicked on the box…

    I love Mama Cass, but I’m still thinking about what my own special song might be…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love your original interpretation! Now you’ve got me thinking about what my own special song might be. Let me know when you decide on one. Take care.


      1. Tom… Amy….That’s a great question. I think we all have a lot of songs that could define us. But I always related to “Everyday people” by Sly and the family Stone. We are all just every day people. Had these parents remembered that, perhaps they wouldn’t have broken the law or stressed themselves out so much. “And so on and so on Scooby dooby dooby..

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Amy, your posts should be required reading for high school students, college students, parents, and everyone in the world who can read. Seriously. I love your ability to get to the heart of the matter. You also have a gift for writing in an authentic voice, complete with humor. As always, I look forward to your next blog!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Tom… Amy….That’s a great question. I think we all have a lot of songs that could define us. But I always related to “Everyday people” by Sly and the family Stone. We are all just every day people. Had these parents remembered that, perhaps they wouldn’t have broken the law or stressed themselves out so much. “And so on and so on Scooby dooby dooby..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Phil! You made my day. So glad you liked the post, and your encouraging words come at a particularly welcome moment, as I’m querying, querying, querying agents about my new novel. One cannot gird one’s loins enough for that task.

      Liked by 1 person

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