The Right Kind of Confidence

Wes Chapman
2010 First-Year Convocation

Polish translation courtesy of Nick Stasov
Kazakh translation courtesy of John Vorohovsky
Hungarian translation courtesy of Zsolt Boros

            I try to imagine how you are feeling out there, on this first day on campus, and I imagine many different things.  Some of you—most of you, I hope—feel excited and hopeful about the new opportunities and new freedom opening before you.  Some of you are a little anxious, wondering if you'll fit in here, or if you'll be able to make the grade academically. Some may already be a little homesick, thinking back to friends and family left behind; or a bit distracted, wondering if you'll get a chance to meet that total hottie you saw on campus earlier today; or a little tired after a day of traveling and moving in.   Those from small towns may feel a little overwhelmed by the noise and the crowds, while those from the city may feel closed in, wondering how you'll manage now that you're no longer a train ride away from anything at all you could want to do.  To all of you I just want to say this:  "have confidence."  Have confidence; it's going to be OK.  But try to have the right kind of confidence, genuine confidence rather than false confidence.  

            What do I mean by false confidence?  Very simply, it means believing that you are good at something without having good reason to think so.  All of us do this to some extent.  There's a name for one form of it, the "Lake Woebegon effect," after the Garrison Keillor radio show in which " all the children are above average."   It turns out that most of us tend to think that we are above average.  One study showed, for example, that 88% of American college students think that they are better than average drivers.  An even more interesting study showed that people who were in the hospital recovering from an automobile accident that they themselves caused thought that they are above average drivers. Similar results have been shown for high school students thinking they are more popular than average, CEOs who think they are better than average leaders, police officers, stock market analysts, and so on.  95% of college professors think that they are above average professors.  Personally, I think that I'm close to average...with respect to whether or not I think I'm above average.

            This kind of confidence isn't always a bad thing.  When you have to perform under pressure—whether it's on stage, on the sports field, in an exam, or during your first conversation with someone you want to be your friend—confidence is crucial, and false confidence is better than none at all.  When it comes down to the moment when you just have to make something happen, you'd better believe in yourself even if you're terrible, because if you don't you'll perform terribly even if you're actually pretty good.

            But there are some downsides to false confidence.  The first is that it makes people much less cautious than they should be.  Drivers who think they are above average take stupid risks, such as driving while texting on their cell phones and drinking a soda.  This is a bad idea even if you are above average in driving, above average in texting on cell phones, and above average in drinking sodas.  The classroom version of this often takes the form of thinking, "I can start my paper the night before it's due," or "I won't have to study for the test, since I paid attention in class," and so on. 

            A more serious downside is that because false confidence usually can't stand the test of experience, it flips over easily to destructive self-doubt.  It's easy for students who didn't study and then bomb an exam to think, "oh, I'm no good at this."  It is of course possible that that's true, but no one can actually know that until they have given their very best effort, possibly more than once.  Even worse, false confidence that is disproven by experience can flip over to students' thinking that they're no good at anything, that a bad grade on a paper or an exam is a mark of some kind of inherent character flaw.  I refuse to believe that any of you isn't or can't get good at something.  And although you might very well have a character flaw—I have many, myself—a paper or an exam isn't going to tell you that; that's not what papers and exams test. 

            Just as bad is the case when false confidence runs afoul of the facts and refuses to adjust, spiraling down into further self-deception, as for example when a student who does badly on an exam says something like, "the teacher doesn't like me."  Again, it's possible that this is true—maybe you're an extra annoying person—but it's not the most likely explanation.  Clinging to false confidence in this way is dangerous because it prevents people from learning from experience—which then prevents them from getting genuinely good at something that they might actually have a talent for. 

            So what kind of confidence should you aspire to?  Genuine confidence, the right kind of confidence, consists of knowing exactly how good you are because you have been tested, because you have been pushed to your limits.  The very best kind of confidence comes from having been pushed beyond your limits, and having risen to that challenge to do work that is better than you ever thought you could do.  This is the kind of confidence that tends to go beyond just the area in which you did the work; it's the kind that makes you think differently about yourself as a person. 

            Ironically, this kind of confidence often arises from humility.  Humility is not the same as self-doubt; those who doubt themselves say, "I'm no good," while those who are humble say, "I don't know how good I am, but I will try."  Often, the very best in a given field are the humblest; they know so much that they know how much they don't know.  But their "I don't know" prompts them not to doubt themselves but to keep learning more. 

            I am focusing on confidence not only because I think that it's important to your success in college, but because in some important ways, confidence is precisely what you're in college to develop.  Things change—you will change. So you cannot know what lies ahead for you. I attended a panel session last semester in which students who had graduated came back to tell current students what life after graduation is like.  Only one of the five students was actually doing what she envisioned herself doing while in college.  I don't know if those proportions are typical, but I believe strongly that their experience will be for many of you.  Many of you, perhaps most, will work in jobs that you would never have guessed, probably related to things you're interested in now but perhaps related in strange and unforeseeable ways.  Some of you will start out in the field you choose in college, but change fields mid-career.  Some of you will work in a field that hasn't even been invented yet—that was the case for one of the students on the panel.  And some of you are now planning to work in fields that will no longer exist by the time you're my age.  I'm not totally sure that professor of English—my field—isn't one of them. 

            So what are you doing here, if you can't be sure that what you're preparing for is what you will actually do?  Well, for some of you the path you're preparing, or will be preparing by the time you graduate, is the path you'll follow, and whether it is or not, you have to pursue the dream you have.  But you are also here to develop confidence, a very particular kind of confidence.  All five of the students on the panel thought that their educations at IWU had been essential in allowing them to do what they now do.  There were a lot of things they learned to do here that they identified as crucial: writing, speaking, working in groups, analyzing, seeing the big picture, learning how to learn, leadership, and so on.  Underlying all of them, I would argue, is confidence:  the certain knowledge that they had been tested, that they had been in situations before in which they did what they never knew they were capable of, and that therefore they could rise to whatever new challenges faced them. 

            One way to look at college, and especially a challenging college like Illinois Wesleyan, is to see it as a place where you will be tested, where you will be pushed beyond what you thought were your limits, but where it is safe to fall short on any particular task.  In the workplace, taking a risk that doesn't pan out can cost you your job.  On the battlefield, and in other high-risk occupations, it can cost you your life.  In a class, however, if you try something and it doesn't work, you get a bad grade.  So what?  After graduation, your GPA will probably only matter for about 15 minutes.  Now, they're usually a very important 15 minutes, so  I'm not recommending that you pay no attention to grades—but if you're one of those people who are always challenging themselves, your overall record is probably going to look pretty good...much better, in all likelihood, than if you are the kind of person who never takes intellectual risks.

            The argument I've set before you, then, has important implications for what you should do while you are in college.  If your degree were just a credential, a piece of paper certifying that you jumped through some hoops and did so to a certain level of competence, then it would be smart to take only classes that were safe or easy.  If your degree were just professional training in a field, then it would be smart to take only those classes that were narrowly focused on that field.  But neither of these is true.  A college education is much more than a credential, and you can't be sure what you're really training yourself to do.  So what's smart is to do the things that in the long run will develop in you the confidence to do anything that you want to do.  Explore as much as you can.  Take some classes that are just interesting, even if so far as you can tell they have nothing to do with your career plans.  Choose the hard courses, the ones with subject matter that really makes you think and with professors who have reputations of being tough.  Study abroad, if you can.  Look for internships.  Get involved with things outside the classroom that interest and challenge you, whether or not they are "relevant" to your field:  write for the Argus, run for Student Senate, join an intramural team, audition for an ensemble, join a club or a political organization, do some volunteer work—do whatever suits your abilities and interests.  And definitely leave yourself open to those absurdly deep conversations that happen in college at odd hours with your friends.

            If you can do all this, if you challenge yourself in every way possible, you won't just be making your time here at Illinois Wesleyan fuller and richer, you'll be preparing yourself for the future no matter what changes lie ahead.  And you can do this—have confidence.  I have confidence in you.