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!).