Am I considered inadequate if I fair poorly in school? A lot of people around me seem to be doing very well academically except for me and it takes a hit on my self-worth.

A student sent me this question:

Am I considered inadequate if I fair poorly in school? A lot of people around me seem to be doing very well academically except for me and it takes a hit on my self-worth.

There’s a bit of a sampling bias going on. The ones who are doing well academically will, of course talk about it because it’s something to be proud of, so it isn’t something to hide. But everyone else will be silent about it because it doesn’t look good on them. So you’re only noticing the voices of the few and you’re forgetting about the silence of the many.

Imagine if I bring together all the creatures in the world – bugs, fishes, birds, reptiles, mammals – and I enroll them in the National University of Squirrels. Suppose there’s a module called NUT1101 that aims to teach and assess your ability to do basic squirrel-y things.

Who will score well? Squirrels, of course. And then many mammals will do well too.

Who will do badly? Elephants, fish, ants, etc. Sure, the fish flopped the module, but are we to say that the fish is inferior? No, not at all. The fish will excel in some fishy things if given a chance. But here, the fish is subject to squirrel-based testing, which is it not so well-inclined to do.

Should the fish be ashamed that it can’t do squirrel things? No. Should it feel any less in terms of self-worth? No, not at all. It makes no sense for a fish to feel bad about itself for not being able to perform like a squirrel. But if the fish isn’t aware of its own fish-prowess, it may go away with the thought that it’s a bad fish and think of itself less.

But you and I know that it makes no sense for the fish to feel that way. It has its own fishy excellence.

The same with school. The fact that you already made it to University is already a huge achievement to be proud of. However, academic assessments and grades pertain to only one of many standards of excellence/competence. Whether you can or cannot perform in school shouldn’t make you feel bad. It just means that academic achievements it not your thing. You are being tested for squirrel excellence in school. If you’re a squirrel, it’ll be relatively easier to score. If you’re a mouse, you’ll struggle a lot, but if you’re willing to work very very hard, you might perform as well as the squirrel. If you’re a fish or an elephant, you’re in for a bad time. But the fish has its own excellence, the elephant has its own excellence, and you have your own excellence. So don’t feel bad. It takes time and lots of real world experience to discover your excellence if you still don’t know what it is.

But whatever it is, self-worth should never be tied to your ability. You are not a machine or a tool where your worthiness to be kept is measured by your efficiency.

You are a human. You are your own person in charge of your own destiny. Your self-worth is dependent on how much you are able to accept yourself for who you are – the good, the bad, and the ugly; your excellence, your achievements, your competencies, and at the same time, your weaknesses, your faults, and your failings. Knowing how to accept yourself in spite of the negative things that you may be ashamed of and to be able to embrace and say, “I’m ok with that,” or better yet, “I love this person because this is the best person that I can possibly be at this point in my life” – that really determines your self-worth.

All these external measures are distractions from our own self-acceptance. It’s precisely because many of us have difficulties accepting and loving ourselves, and so we doubt our own self-worth. And we go about seeking other things, external measures like grades, salaries, etc., to make us feel better about ourselves. It will never be enough. There are other people who doubt their self-worth but they score good grades, and they have found other things that take a hit on their self-worth, be it their looks, their family background, their work experience, etc. There really is no end.

Self-worth comes from within. So let me end by saying this: You are awesome and unique by the very fact that you exist, and your existence already makes a positive impact in the lives of some people!

Stay awesome! :)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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