“They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol

During my early adulthood, I always waited for permission. My opinion of my self worth was based on other people’s reactions. They decided whether or not I was smart, pretty, thin, or successful. Facebook decided. Other people’s success only heightened my feelings of failure. I had no money, was $300K in debt, held a job I was embarrassed of, and had zero love prospects.

They said “loving myself” or getting a stronger sense of self worth was the answer, but I couldn’t find a single self-help book that seemed to provide any practical advice. Finally, I got a good answer to, “How do I get more self-esteem?”

“By doing esteem-able acts.”

In Singapore, when I started work for the hedge fund, I didn’t like the job. A few years earlier, when I was finishing my master’s in Film, I landed an internship with my favorite producer in New York City. It was like a dream. No, I wasn’t being paid, and I was pretty much the lowest rung on the totem pole, but I was happy every day.

It was a memory that contrasted strongly to the way I felt at the hedge fund.  I literally trudged to work, ear buds in my ears, blasting angry music until the last possible second. One day, I was thinking about the concept of small esteem-able acts. I arrived at work, got off the elevator, swiped my card and stepped neatly over a messy stack of newspapers that had been dropped off outside the office door – financial publications like The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Every morning the delivery guys would lean out the elevator door and throw them at our office, until our office manager (who arrived a little later than me) picked them up and assembled them for reading. Picking them up was not my job, and anyway, it was too menial a task for me to bother with.

That morning I thought: How would I act if this was my dream job? Would I have stepped over newspapers sitting on the floor at my New York internship? For the first time ever (after about eighteen months of stepping over these papers every day) I knelt down in my skirt-suit and heels, and collected every single one. I set them prominently in the lobby for people to read. It took all of three seconds. And then I did it the next day, and the next day, and the next.

I cannot overstate how this simple act of humility, which I did purely as a sort of exercise, revolutionized my life and career. I challenged myself to think of more esteem-able acts, collecting other people’s charts off the printer and dropping them at their desk, saying “Good Morning” and asking colleagues how they were. I stopped acting like I was too good to do that stuff, which was all a cover-up for my low self-esteem anyhow.

Slowly, things began to change. The traders started including me in their daily banter. The office manager and I began taking afternoon coffee breaks. I started getting the office “inside joke” emails and invitations to drinks and dinner.

Tiny “esteem-able acts” over time fixed my low self-esteem. I am sharing this, because if you can fix your low self-esteem, you can fix your high student debt. To get out of six-figure debt, you have to start with yourself.

If you loved your life, what would you do differently? What small esteem-able acts would you do? What small act can you take right now?

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