I witnessed something recently that said a lot about who we are in America. It took place not on a big stage on a Saturday night in New York, but in a midsized American city, on a weekday morning.
I was to be a guest on a local morning TV show. It was one of those shows that are liable to have a cooking segment, followed by a pets segment, then a segment on sexy Halloween costumes.
On this day, they were doing a mini talent contest a singing thing, like "American Idol." They had three contestants. Before each of them came out, they ran a 30-second recorded piece, asking the person who they were and what they planned to do.
The first was a young woman, maybe 20 years old. In her interview, she boasted how she was gonna "win this thing for sure." She bragged about her talent. She was supremely confident.
Then she came out. And she started singing. And I am not exaggerating when I say she didn't hit a single note on key. Not one. Politely put, she was awful. But because this was a smaller city, and a local show, when she finished, the judges said "amazing," and they got the audience to clap.
Next came a young man. His recorded segment featured him talking about how he was going to win, no doubt. At the end, he slid on a pair of black sunglasses and made a crack about being the coolest guy you would ever see.
And he came out. And he was barely better than the first woman. But when he was finished, the hosts said "incredible," and the audience clapped.
The third contestant was no better than the others. Her video showed a confident attitude. But partway through her song, she forgot the words (and she only had to sing for less than a minute). Still, when she finished, they told her she was great. The audience applauded.
You kept waiting for someone to come out from behind the curtain and say, "OK, it was all a joke, clearly these people can't sing." But no one came. A winner was awarded. And nobody mentioned how foolish they all looked bragging about their talent, when their talent, once displayed, was little to brag about.
What seemed most important was that everyone clapped.
Now, the same day this was going on, I happened to be having an ongoing conversation about a Belgian girl we know. She is 15 and. has already graduated high school. She is now taking university courses. At 15! She is, politely put, brilliant. She speaks English better than most American kids, even though it was not her first language.
Yet because her culture emphasizes conformity, humility, more and harder work and less and less talk, she thinks she is nothing special. She is shy and demure. She would blush if you asked her to say she was "gonna win this thing for sure." And she would put on sunglasses only if it were sunny.
I thought about her as I watched this small-town version of "It Ain't Bragging If You Can Do It And Even If You Can't, It's Still Good." You see this everywhere in America.
Rappers sing about their greatness while recording in someone's basement. MySpace is full of teenagers boasting Web personas they would never live up to in the flesh. Athletes make bold predictions, and if they are shut down, nobody calls them on it.
What seems most important in America is that you have another boast in your bag if your first one falls through.
Why this concerns me is that, in many ways, we have become a place more interested in telling you how good we are than in actually working to be that good. Somewhere along the line we fell so in love with having a positive self-image that good became great, and mediocre was also great, and lousy was great, too.
Look, it's fine to be confident. But teaching young people to be confident without any skill or sweat is like sending a wingless bird out of the nest and telling it to "think" it can fly. Inevitably, there is a crash. It will come away from the cameras, when there is no phony clapping and no smiling hosts. Then the person will have to look in the mirror and ask, "Have I done the work to be where I want to be?"
Here's a tip. First take off the sunglasses.