Saturday, September 24, 2011

Confidence and overconfidence

Bruce Bower, writing in Science, reports that overconfidence often boosts individual success in competitive games (“The bright side of overconfidence,” News In Brief: Humans - Science News, September 14, 2011). Reading that note primed me for Ian W. Toll’s review of Laurence Bergreen’s new book, Columbus: The Four Voyages (“The Less Than Heroic Christopher Columbus,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, September 23, 2011).

Toll’s portrait of Columbus seems hauntingly accurate: Columbus was “a visionary explorer. He was a harbinger of genocide. He was a Christianizing messiah. He was a pitiless slave master. He was a lionhearted seaman, a rapacious plunderer, a masterly navigator, a Janus-faced schemer, a liberator of oppressed tribes, a delusional megalomaniac.” In other words, like most people, Columbus was a bundle of contradictions. Unlike most people, he lived life on a larger canvas, with more far-reaching consequences.

The annual commemoration of Columbus’ discovery of the New World has become a source of social conflict as people align in favor of or against Columbus and his discovery. Given both the inevitability of European conquest of the American continents (conquests that Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel argues always end badly for indigenous people) and Columbus’ outsize and contradictory personality the conflict over the explorer and the renamed Discoverers’ Day holiday seems unlikely to end any time soon.

However, reflecting about Columbus’ exceptional self-confidence is worthwhile. Had Columbus not such so much self-confidence, it is unlikely that he would have persevered in his ocean journeys. Similarly, high achieving leaders in all occupations – the military, business, government, etc. – possess large amounts of self-confidence.

Undue self-confidence can result in an arrogant person who is out of touch with reality.

Conversely, a lack of self-confidence results in individuals who do not live into their full potential, afraid of failure, incorrectly uncertain of their ability to achieve.

Cultivating healthy self-confidence seems especially important in children. The current concern about bullying addresses only half of the problem. Bullying is wrong; parents, churches, schools, and others who work with children and youth should establish and enforce policies against bullying.

But we do not live, and do not want to live, in a police state. No matter how many policies we establish and how consistently enforced those policies are, bullying will still occur when nobody is watching. Consequently, the other half of the problem with bullying is that the person bullied finds her/his self-confidence eroded, perhaps even turned into self-doubt.

Eleanor Roosevelt wisely observed, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” My parents regularly emphasized that what other people said or did offered no excuse for my behavior. There is no substitute for healthy self-confidence. Whether a child (or person of any age, for that matter) is gay, or overweight, or of a different race, or different in some other way that prompts taunts and bullying, the child who has enough self-confidence to dismiss those comments as empty words has received a gift of grace from affirming adults in her/his life.

Similarly, adults who experience the unwanted and painful disintegration of an intimate relationship or who find their employment terminated, who nevertheless can truthfully continue to affirm their self-worth, have received this same grace filled gift of self-confidence.

I am somebody because God created me and God does not create junk (in the words of a young boy from the ghetto that appeared on a 1970s era poster).

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