Confidence and competence

For my first two years of high school, I earned As easily. I studied some, and worked hard for an English independent study I had sophomore year, but in most classes, I’d had a realization. If I read the text, and did a quick review the night before, I’d probably ace the test. All was going fine... until I switched high schools.

For my junior and senior years, I attended the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and the Humanities. This is a residential, public school for gifted kids, located in Muncie, Indiana, and although the school has had its troubles (our most famous alum was actually on the FBI’s Most Wanted List), here’s one thing it was not: easy. My first semester, I got a lot of Bs, and an actual C. I couldn’t just show up. I couldn’t just wing it. I had to learn how to work.

And so I did. I stretched myself to take the toughest classes I could -- AP Chemistry, AP Biology, Differential Equations -- and get As in them. This was particularly nerve-wracking in the science classes, which were graded such that getting an A required being more than a standard deviation above the class mean. You couldn’t just do well on a marginally easier test. You had to do enough better than all your competitive classmates, too. I didn’t sleep a lot my senior year. It was a blur of college applications and inflicting cover stories of my choosing on our school newspaper readers, and spilling acid in chem lab on my ballet tights because I was studying dance at Ball State University at the time and would race over from class to lab and...

But here’s the thing. By the time my college acceptance letters arrived that spring, and when my final transcript showed straight As for my senior year, I had become a rather confident girl. It was a confidence that came from throwing myself into something very difficult, and achieving it. I knew I had the ability to work very hard, and could summon it up again if I wanted to. That sense of what I’m capable of has actually stayed with me ever since.

Because I review books frequently (for here and elsewhere), people often send me advance reading copies. Sometimes I’m amazed that books are getting published. But other times I’m quite intrigued by the ideas therein.

That’s how I feel about a new book coming out this fall called Confidence, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a personalty expert and professor at University College London. I was not inspired by the subtitle, on “overcoming low self-esteem, insecurity, and self-doubt.” Oh no, I thought, another bit of meaningless self-help fluff. I have a whole pile of such books in my office that I haven’t gotten around to recycling yet.

But this book took a totally different tactic. Namely, it advanced the idea that the only confidence worth anything is the confidence born of competence. And you’re more likely to become more competent if you have a few doubts (say, a few Bs and Cs) and work to overcome them by practice, study, and struggle. Confidence isn’t the secret to success. Hard work is. Indeed, as I summed up the book in a blurb I offered them, “if you want to achieve great things, you are better off being your own worst critic than your own biggest fan.”

That statement sits better with me than the usual bromides like “if you believe it, you can achieve it” or even “don’t let the critics get you down” or “focus on your strengths.” Sometimes the critics are right! Sometimes your weaknesses -- like my laziness and lack of study skills -- need addressing. Just as one example (in a book that’s based on studies and data), Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic talks of his own first years as a teacher, when he was quite cocky. He loved to entertain his students, and thought he was so exciting and funny that he didn’t prepare much, or work against the syllabus. At first he ignored the negative feedback from the best students in the class (the lazier sorts naturally loved the performance). But eventually he started to get enough of the negative feedback that it shattered his confidence. He had to take it seriously. But those newfound doubts about whether he was competent inspired him to work hard to become a better teacher. He’s still not as confident as he was as a young gun. But he’s much better at what he does.

Self-esteem is, of course, important. But people get too excited about self-esteem in the absence of the achievement that leads to a lasting sense of self-worth. Confidence based on competence is powerful. Confidence based on bluster is easily poked like a balloon.

What hard-fought achievement made you feel most confident?

Success at Work Challenge update: Did you make your short to-do list yesterday? Did you get it all done? I'm glad my list was short because I wound up spending 2 hours at the dentist's office dealing with a wide variety of tooth trouble, and then 1.5 hours obtaining my toddler's new glasses (she's farsighted; but incredibly cute with her little purple frames!).

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12 Responses to Confidence and competence


  1. ARC says:

    Ooh, I love this post and won’t ramble here but may write one of my own soon as I think about this a lot.

    Your high school sounds awesome! I had the same experience when I got to college, only it took me a couple of years and a few failed classes to learn how to study and succeed.

    I’m near 40 (!) and I’ll still say the achievement I’m most proud of was the junior year quarter I took a full load of classes (no fluff) and got a 4.3 GPA (a couple of A+), and that was way back when I was 18. That made me realize I could do it if I worked hard enough and would make it to graduation with a decent GPA despite my early failures.

    Toddlers in glasses are super cute, but of course, I’m biased 🙂

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – nice work on the 4.3! Grades you had to work for just feel different than ones you don’t.

      • ARC says:

        Oh yeah. It took me until mid-college to realize *I* had to want it, and it wasn’t about getting in trouble with my parents. I’d like my kids to learn self-motivation LONG before I did.

  2. Cloud says:

    I had 6 items on my to do list at work today, and got 5 of them done. Not bad, since I usually have one “if I get everything else done, here’s my next priority” sort of task on my daily list. Some days you’re on fire, so I figure you should be ready to capitalize on that! Today was not one of those days for me…
    ****
    On the topic of confidence- your story and summary of the book ring true to me. I would not say I was lazy in school- I’ve always been reasonably good at self-motivation- but I had never really been pushed academically until I got to college. I tested into honors chemistry, but then got a C on my first exam. I was already struggling a bit to find my footing at college, and went to see a counselor. She helped me not feel so overwhelmed, and I also figured out how to study- I finished that class with an A-. On the whole, I say that the experience of being challenged and being able to succeed at my college (University of Chicago) was what helped me become really confident in my intellectual abilities. To be fair to my earlier schooling, I’d had some very good teachers and experiences along the way, but I had never before come close to not getting an A. I watched a couple of close friends fail to navigate through their first real challenge when it came later than first year in college- and that experience is part of what motivates me to find challenges for my daughter now, even as a kindergartner.

    • Laura says:

      @Cloud- I would love to hear more about how you are challenging your kindergartner. It’s a topic we are trying to figure out as well.

  3. Ana says:

    Yes, I agree with you, and the concepts in the book—may have to give it a read. Other than AP English class (writing essays and also analyzing poetry—which did NOT come naturally to me), I didn’t feel challenged until I got to college, which was when I finally had to learn to manage time and to study effectively. I agree that I didn’t feel much confidence about my academic abilities until I had to work for my grades—it seemed to easy to be worth anything, and I was right.
    I think this concept is extremely important when it comes to how we teach & treat our kids—we prize self-esteem and feeling good above all else, and give trophies for simply showing up, and “graduations” every time they move up a grade it seems! I really want my kids to have to learn how to struggle & work something through—I’ll have to think through how to make that happen.
    Finally, yes, kids in classes are so cute to me! I wish I thought that when I was a tiny tot in glasses–I remember absolutely hating them.

    • Laura says:

      @Ana- we are trying to figure this out, too — how to provide opportunities for our kids to work really, really hard on things. Unfortunately, schools are seldom set up to allow for this if you have an outlier kid. You need a school of outliers 🙂

  4. Susan says:

    “Confidence based on competence is powerful. Confidence based on bluster is easily poked like a balloon.” –I feel that this was part of Susan Cain’s message in Quiet, when she talked about the overemphasis on being bold and outspoken in business and the classroom. While I understand that sometimes you have to “toot your own horn” and project confidence through body language, it seems that those things would come more easily if you’d been encouraged to struggle and overcome instead of just talk about your strengths.

    I felt a boost of confidence after taking challenging college courses for career advancement and getting A’s. Although I’d been told that it would be “hard to go back to school” if one is not in the habit of studying, I found that it was just a matter of carving out the time to do the work. There was pain involved (saying no to other things, less sleep); and like you, I made B’s and C’s at first. But I dedicated my time to learning what I did wrong, and eventually got it right. Now if someone were to tell me something would be “too hard” for me, I feel more conviction that I can do it–not because of some vague feeling that I’m great but because I can point to what I’ve accomplished.

  5. TG says:

    I think learning to work hard to develop competence in a particular area is an important trait and have been thinking about how to do that for my kindergarten son. (He’s not going to be challenged at school.)

    The other part of this is that activities to which hard work contributes are part of the “courage to change the things I can” in the prayer “Give me strength to accept what I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Some challenges (children with medical issues) are not under our control, though the associated tasks must go on our to-do list.

  6. oilandgarlic says:

    Love this. I think most people gain confidence based on things that come easily to them. At school it’s easy to give up on difficult subjects. In my case, it helped that I was a “natural” at some subjects for many years. When I finally was challenged in those subjects, it was a rude awakening! I had to work harder and eventually got As and 5s for the college AP tests.

    You’re right that lifelong confidence comes from overcoming difficulties and challenges, but it’s hard to remember that!

    • Laura says:

      @Oilandgarlic – yeah, most of us don’t want to steer ourselves into difficult situations just because of the confidence boost that will come out of it 🙂

  7. Sara says:

    One formula I’ve heard is that regular exposure to moderately difficult tasks (relative to ability) from an early age is the key to instilling intellectual confidence and comfort with risk-taking. This is how people learn in school and in life. Unfortunately large portions of the educational establishment seem not to buy into this psychology.

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