I am not sure, but I think I may be developing a sense of confidence.

I came to this conclusion through a somewhat different observation: I’ve started to spend a not insignificant amount of time concerned that I sound like an a-hole.

I’m pretty sure that’s what confidence sounds like.

And before you start to offer any words of encouragement, let me clear – this post is hardly about me. There has been much research done around imposter syndrome, especially its disproportionate impact on women. As a study by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes describes:

Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise….In our clinical experience, we have found that the phenomenon occurs with much less frequency in men and that when it does occur, it is with much less intensity.

Recently, the clinical diagnosis of “imposter syndrome” has been generalized and popularized as the confidence gap – perhaps not a pathological condition, but still a challenge that many – if not most – women face.

I myself have always been skeptical of the solution that those who lack confidence should simply work to develop it. Particularly given the gender discrepancy of the problem, this solution reads more plainly as an argument that women should just be more like men – a problematic argument in itself which is only further weighed down by the stereotypes of a gender binary.

The real question, then, is how much confidence ought a person properly have?

The answer is trivial if you assume a transparent, universal metric for one’s ability: a person ought to be confident in the skills and knowledge they have mastered, and not confident in the skills and knowledge they do not.

Of course, life is not that easy. There is no universal metric and my perception of what I haven’t mastered may be quite different from your perspective of what I have mastered.

Certainly, there are tests and reviews and other accomplishments that may help us put our own ability into a standardized context. But all such metrics seem strangely unsatisfactory. It is well documented, for example, that test score correlate to parental income, so while a high test score may indicate that you’ve had lots of opportunity, it doesn’t intrinsically follow that you have lots of ability.

I think of this challenge partially in terms of Wittgenstein’s concerns over the inaccuracies of language in conveying a unique experience:

If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word “pain” means – must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly? Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!

No matter how many proxies indicates we surround ourselves with, we cannot determine an appropriate level of confidence because ultimately, there is no way to accurately determine our competence.

One might assume that a good person will do their best to have a level of confidence appropriate for their capacity to tackle the task at hand, but the inescapably reality indicates that we will inevitable err – either on the side of under confidence or over confidence.

From there I can go no farther. I do not have a perfect solution, and even if I did, I would not be so bold as to assume it would be perfect for everyone.

Perhaps it is best to err on both sides equally – averaging out your moments of overconfidence with appropriate bouts of under confidence.

Perhaps it is fine to just embrace under confidence – accepting the feeling without letting it hold you back.

I am most skeptical of always erring on the side overconfidence. It may get you far in life, but – I’m pretty sure that’s what makes you an a-hole.

1 thought on “Confidence

  1. Charlie

    Having dealt with these internal debate constantly, Sarah, the only suggestion I can give is this: “confidence is the point at which you no longer spend time dwelling on confidence, and find yourself instead automatically putting your thoughts toward happier things”.

    If you’re spending time thinking about “confidence”, you’re not confident. If you’re thinking about how to make that dream you have of how to assemble the best turkey-bacon-avocado sandwich in history, then maybe you’re confident.

    How do you gain confidence? I have no real idea, but I’ve found certain behaviors happen to correlate well with times of high confidence, AKA: “I’m not thinking about the topic of ‘confidence’ because I’m too distracted being really happy these days”:

    1) Exercise: If I get to the point where I’m able to run 5 kilometers 3-4x a week, even if it takes 45 mins per run, then I find that after 2-3 weeks of this I’m happy as fuck and never even *thinking* about confidence. Turns out running a lot trains the body to absorb high levels of oxygen and lots of oxygen makes the brain feel really happy. Who knew?

    2) People: Being around people a lot trains the brain to turn from looking inward to looking outward. Looking outward means you dwell on yourself less and others more and you just stop the worrying.

    3) Rewarded problem solving: Being back in school with classes helped me in a huge way because I was able to do things intellectually where I’d receive immediate feedback saying “hey! good idea!”, which immediately provided a confidence boost. Work can be harmful in the long run if you have a bad boss because you constantly do great things that get zero feedback. We all need feedback that corresponds with the quality of what we do, and if we don’t get it we start to fall through the ice. And plus school also provides a huge hit of #2 above.

    4) De-stress: If you have a billion things on your mind that all have to be done like yesterday, and your poor brain’s RAM is sorting through problems and potential solutions for all of these all at the same time, and your poor soul feels like there’s no way you can keep track of it all, there’s ZERO way you’re going to feel confidence. If you can rid your life of all of the worries that don’t really matter in the long run (often just by learning to say no), then you can free up RAM and eventually have extra processing bandwidth. And trust me, when you have unused RAM, you end up pretty damn happy.

    Okay, that’s alls I gots. Hope any of that makes sense. Keep up the good work. 🙂


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