Stephen Bosch


A simple modern cover featuring a red-ochre above and a blue-grey area below on a white background.
  • by Robert Fritz and Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen
  • Newfane, Vermont, USA: Newfane Press, 2016
  • 200 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-9981862-0-7
  • Find it in Worldcat.

31 May 2021 - Notes by Stephen Bosch

What you read here was taken from the above book, except for [any text between square brackets], which are my comments and contributions.


  • [You are self-obsessed. Injuries to your ego are painful because your identity in the group once had survival implications.]
  • Successful people often have a poor self-image. [This poor self-image is often a motivating force.]
  • Your self-image is no more real than the image others have of you. It is your model of how others see you, imperfect and incomplete.
  • Focusing on yourself is a distraction and robs you of energy you need to do your best work.
  • [Other people don’t care as much about you as you think they do. Take the hint and stop paying so much attention to yourself.]

You don’t feel so great about yourself

[Many people feel bad about themselves.

Life inevitably becomes hard. Things don’t go the way people hope they will: maybe they hate their jobs, or their home is too small and the rent or mortgage payment is too high, or their relationships are unsatisfying, or all these things at once, or worse things! Nobody seems to care or care enough, and so people feel scared and lonely and abandoned and worthless and hopeless.

For these people, life’s focus reduces to problems of the self.]

The problem of self-esteem

[We call how a person evaluates themself self-esteem.

When psychologists studied self-esteem, they found that people with higher self-esteem also seemed to do better on a variety of outcome measures: they had better relationships, better academic performance, better working conditions, better income.

Determining whether one thing causes effects in another thing is difficult, but it seemed reasonable that improving self-esteem might also improve these outcomes. And so, particularly beginning in the 1970s, governments and institutions tried to do this. They told parents, praise children no matter what they do, help improve their self-talk by teaching them affirmations, like “I am OK” and “I am loved”, or even “I am special”, tell them they can be anything they want to be if they work hard enough.

An entire self-help movement was built around teaching people how to improve their self-esteem.

Despite these efforts, people weren’t feeling any better about themselves, and the outcomes weren’t improving.]

You think your successes define you

When you think your successes and failures define you, you take failures personally. [Failure becomes an injury to your ego and painful, so you do anything you can to avoid it.

One strategy we sometimes employ to protect our ego is to not try at all. Because we do not try, we inevitably have fewer successes, too. And then we feel worse.]

This can only happen if we believe the statement that our value as people depends on whether the outcomes of our work were judged successes or failures by some criteria by others. [This implies that we have complete control over outcomes.

Yet, while we might influence the outcomes, we do not control them.] We can only try things and observe the result. Moreover, we don’t know whether we can do a given thing until after we have successfully done it one time. We cannot predict outcomes.

[Do we blame small children for the success or failure of their outcomes?

When a very small child fails at something, should we blame the child? How is the child supposed to know what’s right or the right way to do something? When you are raising a child, you cannot argue rationally with that child, and parents that try usually end up driving themselves crazy.

Instead, you have to find ways of guiding behaviour that respect the starting point and the nature of the child. For example, you can set attentional constraints: very often a crying child can be distracted by something novel and soon stops crying.

Paying attention to the right things is the key to feeling better and being more effective.]

Why do you care what others think, anyway?

[What others think of you determines where you stand in the social hierarchy, which affects your ability to get what you need and want from others. Throughout most of human history, an individual needed to be seen as valuable by the people around her, because individuals who were not valued were shunned, ejected from the tribe and abandoned, and being alone in a dangerous world meant certain death.

So your ego is in fact an adaptive trait. It is your built-in model of how others see you, and because this has survival consequences, you have a natural instinct to protect it.

Instincts immediately relevant to survival express themselves through strong, automatic physical responses that are difficult if not impossible to ignore. When we see a threat, we feel fear. When we need energy, we feel hunger. When we are injured, we feel pain.

And this is also how we experience an injury to the ego. Although it is not a physical injury with a defined place in space to which we can point, we do feel a kind of pain that is no less real. We even use metaphors taken from physical experience to describe it: “That hurt my feelings,” or “my heart aches for him”. This is why a slight can feel so terrible, even when it is trivial. It is a signal that our model of self might be wrong.]

What if self-esteem doesn’t matter?

[And so we spend much of our lives in an effort to avoid pain of all kinds, including the pain of a hurt ego.

What if all this attention to self-esteem was not only not working, but in fact causing us to feel worse?]

In their 2016 book Identity: Why it doesn’t matter what you think of yourself, Robert Fritz and Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen propose that positive self-talk emerges naturally from observable facts about our capabilities.

You can only say you can do something once you have actually done it.

The effort expended on improving our self-talk doesn’t work because our subconscious does not brook lies about ourselves, and no amount of repetition changes that. This obsession is doubly expensive because it does nothing to develop our real abilities.

Our attention has a natural limit, and the more attention we spend on self-evaluation, the less we have available to work on creating the things we want. Paying attention to developing actual ability, while it is not a guarantee that you will improve, certainly increases the likelihood that you will, whereas obsessing over your self-talk is guaranteed not to impact your ability at all.

Why attention to your identity is destructive

When you learn anything new, you will be dreadful before you are competent.

If you spend any energy to avoid looking like a fool, you are actively interfering with the process you need to go through to develop ability and mastery. This delays your progress and drains you. Soon, you are avoiding situations in which you might appear foolish and the battle is lost for good.

But if your focus is on learning, how you look while doing it is irrelevant. Your only standard should be how close you are to where you want to be.

You tell yourself a lot of made-up nonsense

[After my grandfather turned 40, he approached his life as though it had already ended. Whenever he was presented with a new opportunity to learn something, he would say, “I’m too old for that.”]

Fritz and Andersen say that statements like these are not located in reality. They are fictions. If you have not even tried it, then you cannot say that you are too old for something.

[Even if you try and succeed, you might think that you are too slow to be useful. That, too, is a fiction. What would “fast enough to be useful” mean, anyway? Have you considered all the possible situations in which you might apply your newly acquired ability? Can you predict how much you might improve with more deliberate practice? No. Remember, we cannot predict outcomes.]

There is no objective arbiter of what you should be, do, accomplish or experience, nor when. Statements about these things are also fictions.

Some wildly successful people have terrible self-esteem

In the book, there is a story about successful people with poor self-esteem:

The pre-roll to the 2011 HBO production, Lady Gaga Presents the Monster Ball Tour, features Lady Gaga rolling up to Madison Square Garden in a limousine, in awe of seeing her name up in lights. Later, in the dressing room, she breaks down in tears, saying “I just sometimes feel like a loser still, you know. I know it’s crazy, because we’re at the Garden, but I still feel like a f***ing kid in high school.”

At this point she was at the pinnacle of her career. How could someone so successful have such an apparently damaged self-image?

Fritz and Andersen say that she can because her self-image is and always has been irrelevant to her craft.

As a performing artist, she must strip away all the features of her existing identity, because the attention paid these interferes with the creative process. What she thinks of herself does not matter, only the facts of what she does and has done do.

The question of who you are isn’t important

David Bowie was well-known for his repeated reinventions of his public persona. He is reported to have said, ‘I didn’t try to identify myself or ask myself who I was. The less questioning I did about who I was, the more comfortable I felt. So now I have absolutely no knowledge about myself, and I’m extremely happy.’

Discipline and consistency are what matter

Discipline and consistency matter more than self-belief.

Is your focus on what you want or on yourself?

Failure is a necessary part of learning. If you always succeed when you try something, you will always be uncertain about what was responsible for that success. If you always fail, that is not helpful either. It is a balanced mixture of failure and success that tells you the most about how the world works.

[If you are succeeding without ever failing, then you are not learning anything. If this is the case for you and you want to learn and improve, you must challenge yourself more.]

You must appraise yourself honestly, because it is only by knowing where you are that you can figure out in which direction you need to go to get where you want to be.

A lack of honest self-appraisal is like saying you want to get to Paris, but where you are right now is unimportant for choosing which direction you should start walking in.

Here’s what you should do instead

[You should just get on with the business of making what it is you want to make. Focusing on self-worth and self-belief is just a distraction, and what’s more, it’s boring. If nobody else cares about who you are, why should you?

Note that I don’t mean that you have no worth, just that your view of yourself isn’t the hard truth any more than anybody else’s is, and fretting over it is not the best use of your time.]

Whenever you notice yourself thinking about yourself and your place in the world, or how others see you, shift your focus and begin to think about what you want to create. It takes practice to get better at this.

Your opinion of yourself is not reality. That you are thinking certain thoughts about yourself might be reality, but the content of those thoughts is not. [This is a central tenet of cognitive behavioural therapy, which says that thoughts are just thoughts.]

Threats to your self-concept can harm

Hans Selye was able to show that chronic psychological stress leads to physical illness.

[I had never considered the possibility that a constructed idea of the self could be so internalized that a perceived threat to it could cause not simply mental harm but, through psychosomatic stress, even physical harm.

Preventing that harm demands an awareness that these constructed ideas of self exist.]

Perfectionism and conformity

Perfect is the enemy of the good, goes the aphorism. Fritz writes of “significant roughness” as a virtue in aesthetics, thus perfection steals soul from art. “There needs to be a little funk.”

Give up the perfect thing. It is an empty ideal that brings with it constant self-condemnation.

[Successful conformity is not beneficial to the world because it contributes no new information. Conformists are by definition part of the background noise.

By daring to be wrong while looking for something better, we can explore spaces we did not know exist. This willingness to be wrong is like the random variable in stochastic optimization algorithms: Being occasionally wrong can bring you closer to being right where and when it matters.]

Many do not feel that they have the freedom to choose, especially when it comes to cultural gender compliance. They are faced with a difficult choice: to pretend to conform, or to be a non-conformist. [Neither path is easy.]

On being real

It is a lot easier to be superficial than authentic. When people criticize you, telling you that you are not this or that enough, recognize that they are reflecting a norm or ideal, not anything real.

“The stereotype is a social invention of pure fiction, made to seem as if it is true science.”

“There is no ‘right’ way to be a man or a woman.”

Do not let society assign you your role.

Many people believe that their worth is determined by their achievements. By this standard, without achievement, there is no reason to exist. This is a myth, one often so ingrained that we are unaware of it.

The result is that “perfectly wonderful people can feel deep-seated guilt” for no good reason. They accumulate an ever growing backlog of things they should have done and increasingly feel that there is something wrong with them.

What you create does not define you

If you have identity issues, you may think that everything you create says something about you. This interferes with objectivity, learning, adaptability, improvement and gets in the way of creating what you want.

[To liberate yourself, separate what you are creating from considerations of your identity.]


Generally, people believe that we do things for the rewards they bring. The difficulty with this is that the rewards cannot be evaluated until the creative process is finished. Until then, we doubt whether we are doing the right thing and are not fully committed, not fully involved.

Full involvement requires that we focus on what we are creating rather than the payoff (the prospective benefit).

Satisfaction is an insufficient condition for motivation, because it is fleeting and has something to do with you. If you focus on what you are creating, whether you personally are satisfied stops mattering. You can be equally involved no matter how satisfied you feel on any given day.

Self-deceptions arising out of identity issues

If you take success and failure personally, you don’t learn as much as you can and worse, you start distorting reality in order to repair your mood. You might use one or more of these common strategies to soothe the injury to their ego caused by failure:

  • Claim the failure was in fact a success.
  • Frame the failure as a useful lesson. [This is a strange one. Isn’t that part of how we achieve mastery?]
  • Blame others.
  • Blame destiny.
  • Blame a rigged game.
  • Try to convince yourself the game didn’t matter.
  • Engage in “if only” thinking.
  • Warn yourself to be better next time (self-flagellation).

Failure is part of life and a necessary component of learning.

“…When you take it personally, it’s hard to enjoy the benefits of the lessons that may be critical to your future success.”

“Be fluent in reality if you want to accomplish your goals. Any distortion of reality [self-deception] makes it harder to achieve sustainable success.”

Figure out what you want

Do not confuse symbols of success (“your partner, your job, your car”) with your true aspirations.

Strive to be objective

If your identity were not a factor, you could be honest about your gaps and weaknesses, determine what you need to learn or where you need the help of others, and then take care of those things! You would be free to experiment, to say, without fear, ‘Let’s see what happens when I do this. Let’s see what happens when I do that.’ “Success and failure lead equally to knowledge about how to become more effective. Neither outcome is taken personally.”

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