Someone told me today that the world would be a better place if more people had more self-doubt.

That sounds about right.

I have written before about how unimpressed I am by the common solution to the so-called confidence gap – that is, when it’s raised as a problem that women typically don’t have the confidence level of men, I’m skeptical that the best solution is for “women to be more like men.”

Maybe none of us should be egotistical pricks.

I mean, really, should anyone aspire to be Gilderoy Lockhart?

And I’m a bit uncomfortable putting this all in gender terms – it is true that women, on the whole, have lower levels of confidence than men, on the whole – but I also know plenty of bombastic women and overly humble men.

That’s not to suggest we should just ignore the gender dimension of this issue. It is most certainly a problem that men are generally taught to be aggressively confident while women are generally taught their ideas are worth nothing. That is a problem, indeed.

But just for a moment, let’s pretend we want to instill the same lessons in all young people regardless of their gender, regardless of the race, class, sex or gender identity. Let’s just pretend we want all people to learn the same lessons. And then we can ask:

What’s the right amount of confidence to have?

Probably my least favorite type of person is someone who is overly confident with nothing to show for it. People who are overly confident with everything to show for it aren’t too far behind.

Invariably, it seems, it’s the people who think they know everything who actually know nothing and the people who think they know nothing who actually know everything.

Well, not actually know everything – because the people who think they know nothing know it’s impossible to know everything – but the poetry is better that way.

Irregardless, nothing is worse than a blowhard.

But while stunning over-confidence can be tyrannical, a dramatic lack of confidence can be devastating.

A little self-doubt may be a good thing, but too much self-doubt can be crushing, paralyzing. To wake up every morning convinced of your own incompetence, convinced nothing you ever do will add value – well, that’s no way to live, though many do live that way.

But self-doubt doesn’t have to be debilitating.

A physicist by training, I think often of the men who developed the nuclear bomb. Just what did they think they were doing?

They were inspired by patriotism, by science. They had a fascinating problem at the cutting edge of human knowledge and they brilliantly developed a solution. A solution that ended in death, destruction, and the continual threat of more.

“Now we are all sons of bitches,” Kenneth Bainbridge famously said to ┬áJ. Robert Oppenheimer.

Those men probably should have doubted themselves a little more.

A moral life requires constant introspection, constant questioning, constant examining of your true motives and beliefs.

And I think that confidence should probably follow a similar process –

If you aren’t doubting yourself, you are probably doing something wrong.


One thought on “Confidence

  1. Dennis Fischman

    Thanks for this essay on a morning when I am trying to use self-doubt to spur me to action instead of to retreat. And speaking of poetry: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/
    Are full of passionate intensity.” -Yeats, The Second Coming


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.