Michel De Montaigne and my flagging self-esteem

What happens when you’re promised work and it doesn’t materialise? Feel like throwing a tantrum and sticking your bottom lip out like a surf board? Yes I feel like that, especially right now. You feel like you’ve given your all. You couldn’t have been nicer, you showed them your best side, you were charm itself and you feel like you’ve got it in the bag. And then what? You don’t hear from them again, apart from the odd paltry excuse as to why they’ve not been in touch. There may be genuine reasons why they haven’t called or emailed, but at the end of the day they don’t realise your gas bill is due any day now and you feel like screaming.

It hurts – because no matter how good you are, no matter how high you value yourself and your skills, someone has either got there before you did, marketed themselves better or the clients or agencies your were vying for just didn’t care that much. You can reach the point where you wonder whether it’s worth the effort at all. After all, what more can you do? How many tricks can you turn, how many times can you turn on the charm?  It’s enough to make you give up, or you see someone younger, prettier and seemingly cleverer than you that seems to be doing much better than you are.

It usually makes me feel quite inferior intellectually and socially, and if I’m honest in every conceivable way possible. I have always been like this, while others are always confident and constantly blagging their way through life convincing everyone of their skills and talents.

Montaigne and my flagging self-esteem

However, at times like this I always look to someone cleverer and wiser than myself for inspiration and Michel de Montaigne is the perfect man for this. He was an influential writer of the French Renaissance and he believed we shouldn’t go around thinking we are better or worse than anyone else. He focused on three main areas of inadequacy, that of our bodies, intellect and being judged by others. As I am suffering from a certain feeling of inadequacy right now looking a little into of what he believed may go some way to making me feel better.  Montaigne believed that we should all aim for a more normal concept of reality and that we are constantly looking to the wrong role models to measure ourselves against. We should, according to Montaigne, accept the ordinary in ourselves.

He believed in this so much he wrote a book about himself, where he talked openly about his body, his penis and his bowel movements. He believed that humans had awkward relationships with their bodies and he compared humans with animals, we shit, they shit, animals are our equals, this wasn’t meant to degrade us, but to make us see that we should accept ourselves for who we are, to break it down, to simplify it. We have big brains you see, therefore we have grand ideas about how we should be, how we should be doing in comparison to someone else, how we should look in comparison to someone else, how successful we should be to someone else. Are you with me so far? At the end of the day we are no better than anyone else, no better than simple human beings that shit and fart and eat and drink. We shouldn’t try to compare ourselves to someone else that represents some ideal person that we think we should be – when really they’re no better than we are.

With regards to intelligence, Montaigne was a little sceptical of university graduates (although I am one myself), and referred to them as “just blockheads,” what he meant by this was; that as far as he was concerned the symbols of intelligence that we hold so dear are very different from the reality, as we don’t value other things as much. For instance, he believed wisdom was of great value, he watched simple working people, and in comparison to those that had attended university often seemed much cleverer. For Montaigne, he believed that to be wise was to live with humility, modesty, and in acceptance of your limitations. You don’t need to know everything; nobody knows everything, no matter how clever and smart we think we are. However, he didn’t believe that learning was useless, just that people who went to university weren’t that much cleverer than the rest of us.  Exams test students on the wrong things, yes, some people are cleverer than others, but it doesn’t make them wiser. Qualifications tests people on things that won’t do them much good in the real world, they serve only to make you feel stupid if you don’t know the answers and others feel clever when they aren’t. I know that there were students at my last University that thought they were the cleverest people in the room, yet they were poorly read and didn’t seem to have basic common sense. They were good at writing essays, but piss poor in general at everything else.

Perhaps then, it isn’t as important as I think it is to be this raging success, so that every time I go on Twitter I can openly brag about how successful I am and how you can be too. I don’t have to write cheesy how-to-guides on how to be really successful. I don’t have to be as beautiful and as clever as the next person. I shouldn’t constantly compare myself to someone who seems prettier and more successful, because at the end of the day, they’ll open their mouths and hey presto..idiots. There is such a thing as giving yourself enough rope to hang yourself with.

I can be successful, I can be good, but only measure my success by my own standards, know my own limitations and be good at what I do best, for it is that that will bring me happiness and satisfaction. Ignore the hype and the bullshit; ignore the naysayers and the ones that extoll the virtues of their own methods for they are all bullshitters. Just listen to your own inner voice. There may be people around you who give the impression that they are doing better than you are, but really, we’re all in this together.

I feel better already….

And thanks to Mr Montaigne and Alain de Botton for making me feel much better than I did an hour ago……


About the author: Gillian Jones


My name is Gillian and I’m writer and academic, I’ve trained as a teacher, worked for the public sector and now I’m a freelance copywriter. I provide content in various guises, topics and tones of voice both for agencies and private clients.
You can connect with me on my or my website

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5 replies
  1. Len Diamond
    Len Diamond says:

    Well said, and hope a lot of “university” “professors” and “bootcamp” “drill instructors” read and reflect on the part about how-to guides and the virtues of their own methods.

  2. Scott McKinney
    Scott McKinney says:

    Thanks, having current doubts along those same lines myself.

    And what he said about credentialed people becoming cocky rings very true.

    The people I know who are most successful base that off their own learning, and applying that knowledge in the world…

    Not from waving around their diplomas and acting like that makes them intelligent.

  3. Richard Mann
    Richard Mann says:

    Hi Gillian,

    I’m fairly certain that Eleanor Roosevelt was credited with the quote “…no one can make me feel inferior but myself.” I’d bet it’s been said centuries before. Nonetheless, it holds water. If my feelings revolved around others’ opinions about me, I’d have several problems… Let me illustrate, if I may.

    * Lack of self-identity (different from self-esteem).
    * Inability to discriminate (not synonymous with social discrimination).
    * Difficulty accepting rejection.

    1. Self-identity is cerebral, and more specific. It’s pictorial, like an X-Ray, and simply states ‘This is who I am; my strengths and weaknesses – right here, right now. I can change them should I choose to.’ On the other hand, ‘self-esteem’ is largely emotional.
    My generation popularized the concept in the 70’s, expressing itself in rearing our kids. It continues, at least in the U.S. and it’s meaning has become way over-inflated, which is not healthy for our offspring.
    One example is classic…Awards and trophies for kids’ teams that lose. Give an undeserved reward and self esteem becomes harmful. Kids don’t feel the power of failure with an award in hand. So, I ask, was the award EARNED? When we’re unjustly rewarded for being 2nd best we lose the motivation to do better. We expect reward regardless of effort. Then, we become indignant when we enter the real world and don’t get that reward. We see ourselves as the ‘victim,’ and justify blaming others for our own shortcomings.

    2. To fairly discriminate is a behavior. It is part of ‘critical thinking,’ which, properly used, allows us to prioritize, separate right from wrong, AND, gives us the clarity to be in touch with our VALUES. If our values are challenged, discriminating allows us to say “Whoa, that’s not in line with what I believe in.”

    3. If you find it difficult to accept rejection, no worry…No one likes it. No one. However, the degree to which it affects you (i.e. emotionally) is enormously important. Let’s say you were just rejected by a prospect. You have just enough time to make your next appointment with…a new prospect.
    I know how I would feel, and it wouldn’t be balloons and rainbows. So, and this is the core, do I use
    my powers of discrimination to differentiate a CRITICISM from a DECISION made by the prospect? In all likelihood, it was a business decision…..not a personal attack.

    I welcome your response…..and don’t sweat the small stuff. Life’s way too short.

  4. PedJun
    PedJun says:

    Hey, don’t give up!
    It may seem harder to believe, but sooner or later, something will appear.
    Cheers and good post!

  5. Clarke Echols
    Clarke Echols says:

    Our American “education” system is little more than a factory to crank out worker-bees to fill the pipeline of employees of government, businesses, and institutions run by “educated” people who have been trained to be worker-bees employed by those entities, so they have the screwed-up thinking that if you haven’t been to the right “college”, you can’t do the job.

    Wrong. If you have 10 PhD degrees from Harvard, you can take that and five bucks, and buy a hamburger at a local fast-food joint, but you may not have enough to pay the sales tax.

    We are trained to please the teacher in hopes that we might get a gold star or “good job” compliment.

    When you apply for a job, you’re on the hook to please the interviewer, employer, or whoever. Get off of that path to self-destruction, self-flagellation, and other forms of self-punishment. Many have been through it. There’s even a company out there that, for a fee is willing to credential you as a “certified copywriter” when you finish their training. Yet there’s no accrediting institution to validate their “certification”, and I haven’t been able to get them to identify who any of their “experts” are who put the course(s) together.

    To thrive, you must rid yourself of neediness, or the need to be accepted, paid, or anything else. Montaigne is onto something, but one who’s thriving who went through the same garbage and overcame it is copywriter Jason Leister. He has some excellent resources, including a daily newsletter that are quite helpful for anyone wanting to get off the neediness wagon. I don’t get any compensation from him, but I’ve found his material filled with wisdom and good sense. Check him out at It can cure you of being subservient to those clowns who don’t call back.

    How is it done? Get yourself into a position where they come to you, and have to convince you to work with them. Takes the pressure off, and you get to dictate prices and conditions or negotiate from a much stronger position.

    That’s the key to a thriving business. Quit acting like an employee, and create something they want and need.

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