A friend of mine was recently at a party where an older colleague said, “Can I be honest with you? You do good work, but you really need to have more confidence in yourself.” She was surprised and upset by this interaction, had been mulling it over for a while, and wanted to know what I thought he was really trying to say. My response was that it’s hard to parse out motive in situations like these. Was he doling out well-intentioned career advice? Expressing annoyance at what he perceived to be a personality flaw? Conflating confidence and arrogance? Playing mind games to surreptitiously try to make her LESS confident? Who knows. The encouragement I offered her was based on the lessons I’ve learned from my own long-term struggles with confidence.
For the 11 years I was an English teacher, I was in a position of having to constantly project a confident persona due to the nature of managing a room of adolescents. They can smell fear and insecurity like sharks smell blood in the water, so if you’re not a naturally confident person, you’d better learn quickly to show more confidence than you feel. Those years of teaching definitely taught me how much it can boost your self-assuredness to pretend like you’ve got your act together.
But I also learned a core truth about myself: I am, fundamentally, not a confident person, despite how I may come across. I am always questioning, seeking, and self-doubting. Most people, including my friend’s colleague, see that as a flaw that needs to be fixed. For a long time, I would have agreed. There’s no doubt that confident people accomplish great things. In a society that puts the most arrogant, obnoxious, bulldozer-type people on pedestals, the less confident are made to feel like the broken toys fit for the trash can. However, my life has taught me the surprising beauty of uncertainty.
Personally, I think that uncertainty (about myself, my talents and abilities, my place in the world) has led to some truly marvelous outcomes in my life. Confidence would have made me complacent; uncertainty has made me constantly seek to do better. This summer, I produced the best writing of my life from a deep lack of confidence, a fearful doubt in my own abilities. Uncertainty has become for me a driving force, a constant push toward personal best. I see a lot of uncertainty in the lives of great artists, poets, and scholars for whom over-confidence would have been the kiss of death to their work. I believe that genius is often born from a place of deep insecurity that drives us to always question whether what we’ve done is good enough. It is something to be celebrated, not eradicated.
I will say this, as a caveat to my argument: you cannot thrive if you are uncertain of absolutely everything. For uncertainty to be productive and healthy, there must be anchors. There are some things in my life that I am always, 100% certain of, because I know that these things are not dependent on my performance. One is the love of my husband. It is unwavering and unconditional, a love based on who I am, not what I do. And his love is the tenor for the unsurpassed vehicle of God’s great love for me, shown through His Son Jesus Christ. In the context of these (and other) deep loves, uncertainty can be a truly beautiful thing.
I hope that maybe one day my friend can say to her colleague, “Can I be honest with you? Your work is good, but I think it could be really great if you embraced uncertainty a little more and had just a bit less confidence in yourself.”