Self Esteem = Success / Pretensions

So says William James, quoted in Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety

The two areas of flex here are our pretensions and our success, each with slightly different attributions.


Our pretensions are 100% controlled by us. What we aspire and drive to be, and what we expect and aim to achieve, are set by us. There are a number of external factors that influence this, such as familial expectations, socio-economic background and raw ambition & drive. 

While we are here, it is worth listening to Brian Moore’s Desert Island Discs as he is wiser than the wind up merchant he sells when commentating on rugby. In the show he says he was not ambitious, as ambition has an end point and once it’s reached, where do you go? He is driven, as this is constantly pushing you forward.


Whilst you do have a lot of control over your success, there are other factors you do not have control over. The performance of your colleagues, opportunities available at the time,the alignment of your goals with the company or any other external stake holders will influence your progression path. One thing you can control is your ability and aptitude, as described here:

So what level do you place your pretensions? 

Legendary Spurs manager Bill Nicholson said “It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low” Here he is suggesting to have the highest pretensions, otherwise you run the risk of achieving at a lower level and wondering what could have been. It is better to know your limits and it is ok to fail here. 

We are constantly having “success” thrust in our faces. Youtubers making millions, aspirational products advertised to people who can’t afford them, talent shows.What we need to understand is that success looks different to everyone, and more importantly, how to raise your self esteem. Lowering your pretensions doesn’t mean failing, or having less of an ambition. It means understanding the source of your drive, and learning to accept you do not have control over all of your success.