Are We Taking Ourselves Too Seriously?

At Stanford, students are encouraged to passionately pursue their goals and believe in themselves. This advice has its merits, but we believe the truly successful students will be those who couple passionate confidence with modesty and humility. Critical self-evaluation and rational decision-making that comes from an attitude of modesty is as important for success as confidence and idealism. We worry that Stanford, both the student body and the administration, has become overconfident in ways that could be detrimental to our status as a leading institution of innovation.

In a New York Times column earlier this year, David Brooks noted that America is facing a modesty crisis. He cites contrasting data over time to show that self-esteem has skyrocketed in recent times, especially in education. For example, a Gallup poll in 1950 asked high school seniors if they perceived themselves as important. Back then, only 12% thought they were. Fast forward to 2008, and around 80% of high school seniors responded in the affirmative to the same prompt. This is clearly indicative of a cultural shift; regardless of whether we are smarter, more competent, faster, or stronger, we are surely more confident about our abilities than we have ever been.

An enlarged self-esteem is not a bad thing to have, but as Brooks observes, ours is reflective of an exaggerated sense of self. It is more of an imperative for us to seek out praise than any other generation. In 1962, there were absolutely no self-esteem articles published by any major education journal. There were 2500 in 1992 alone. Is Stanford following this trend, and becoming a school for those who want to achieve “greatness,” as com- pared to finding their passions and thereby contributing to the greater good of the world?

Could this increased focus on oneself and decreased focus on modesty and humility be reflected in society’s rate of progress? Peter Thiel critiqued American Progress, arguing that we live in a time of historical slowdown. Thiel, founder of PayPal and also the Stanford Review, points to the transportation industry as an example of this slowdown. But he also noted that the speed and efficiency of American transportation has plateaued if not decreased in recent years. The same is true for medical industry advances.The United States Congress promised a cure for cancer within six years of 1970, but instead pharmaceutical companies are now liquidating their research divisions, leading to fewer innovative medicines every year.

Computer technology seems to be an exception to this slowdown. There are hundreds of new tech start-ups in Silicon Valley every year, and many of these companies break the billion-dollar boundary within five years of conception. That culture has overflowed onto Stanford’s campus, but at what cost? How important is modesty in spurring innovation, hard work, and risk taking that leads to success?

Richard Vedder, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that universities have become complacent and risk-averse, relying too heavily on their endowments, research grants, and traditional methods of instruction. Stanford University promotes itself as one of the top research universities in the world. While this is certainly true and this claim is helpful in promotional materials, it behooves the university to approach self-evaluation with modesty and a willingness to admit areas for improvement. Parts of the university have already taken this risk. The computer science department is offering a course this year for free and already 100,000 people world- wide have signed up for it. But the university should also critically evaluate accreditation, academic requirements, and academic offerings.

The need for modesty expands to the whole student body. Entrepreneurship seems to envelop Silicon Valley and the student body. Entrepreneurs must have confidence in themselves, but an overconfidence can drive students to believe their idea and company is infallible.

For example, the university has recently seen a plethora of new web and mobile applica- tions targeted mainly towards students on campus. Other students have created their own world-wide focused start- ups, or have jumped onto ones already in development.

We applaud an entrepreneurial spirit, but we also question the wisdom of devoting one’s life, while trying to earn an undergraduate degree, to a start-up that competes in an over-crowded market with an idea that is not necessarily new or innovative.

While the number of start- ups on campus has increased, so has the number of startups that are abandoned by one or more, or even all, of those in- volved. Students are jumping onto opportunities without recognizing that the chances of a Social Network reality are terribly low.

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