Momentary Confidence: On The Relationship between Confidence and Capability

An article, a conversation, and a report card created a confluence of thought that is resulting in this post. I may wander a bit, because there is a lot on my mind, and it’s a philosophical sort of day. There also may or may not be a Doctor Who quote at some point, because there always should be.

First, the article. I’ll share a link here, in case anyone is interested: I Hated Math! But Should I Have Dropped It When I Was 15? – NPR.

My husband had stumbled onto it, and it came up during my ranting about the report card situation. I stopped to read it, and found that it was very thought provoking. I’m not from India, and obviously grew up in a different educational system than the writer did, but at roughly the same age, I was given more and more choice about what subjects to pursue and which to drop.

My own mental illness problems played a heavy factor in my particular curriculum and the choices that were available to me, as for part of high school I could only attend half days. But, even for an average, run of the mill, full time 15 year old student, this was roughly the age or stage of education where their own preferences began to have more of an influence on what they studied. Required classes started to be completed, and with electives to choose from, many students completed the required number of classes in each subject, and as soon as they had reached that threshold, they grabbed on to the chance to focus more on the subjects they were personally interested in, while leaving other subjects behind. Even those who didn’t grab that opportunity to the enth degree – the students who decided to study some or all of the core subjects beyond their minimum requirements – still had the opportunity to do so, to reach the baseline of what was required, and not continue beyond that point.

In retrospect, the idea of giving 15-year-old-me (or 15-year-old-any-of-my-peers) that much of a say in what direction they want to go, seems rather stupid on a fundamental level. 15-year-old’s generally have a blindness to their own lack of knowledge, even the more mature ones.

Allow me to give an extreme but true example of this blindness: I previously worked at a multi-vendor market place, and one of the other vendors had a 15 year old nephew (“Tom”) who would come in and help him on the weekends. Another employee of the same vendor was a close friend of mine(Larry), so I saw both of them a lot. Larry was in his forties, and had a rather crass, vulgar sense of humor. One day Larry, Tom, and I were standing around talking during some downtime, and Larry made a rather (in my view) inappropriate joke to make in front of a 15 year old. I didn’t say anything (I’m not oblivious to teens having a knowledge of sex, and he’s not my nephew or employee so I didn’t feel it was my place), and both Tom and I laughed at the joke (out of politeness on my part, as he had told me that joke at least 3 times before). Larry then asked me to tell Tom a joke I had told him previously.

It was definitely an adult joke, so I said “Sorry, I don’t think I should be repeating that particular sex joke to a 15 year old.” Tom looked at me and said “Look, I know absolutely everything about sex, it’s really no big deal.”

It took all my strength and willpower not to fall to the ground in hysterical laughter. It really did. I asked, just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating: “You know everything, literally everything about sex and sexuality?” He said “Yeah, it’s not like it’s some big deal.”

I thought I might give myself an aneurysm if I held my laughter back much longer, so I congratulated him for being the first person in human history to accomplish that, and I excused myself and went to my booth where I could let out my laughter. My sides were aching and tears were rolling down my face, especially as I kept laughing while I tried to explain what had happened to my husband.

So, can we agree that 15 year old’s may not have a realistic view of how much more there is to know than what they’ve already seen?

I’m not looking to quibble about what age one becomes an adult, or at what age we should bestow which levels of independence to each individual. The level of nuance involved would derail my overall wonderments too much at this point.

Reading the article (you remember, the article I mentioned waaaaaay earlier before I rambled on and on?) made me think both of “Tom” and of my own experience. There was a brief period where I was able to choose how to allot a large portion of my school day, when my mental illness was in a just-barely stable enough state for me to go for a full schedule. I think about how I spent that time, and how much of it I devoted to subjects and classes that weren’t preparing me for anything useful or schooling my soul in some important way. I also remember how confident I was that I was making the right choice, in those moments when I was choosing my classes for the semester.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad that I am where I am and, thusly, for the path that brought me here.  But the level of confidence in my own decision making capability that I felt at the time I was making those choices was not an accurate reflection of how capable I actually was. There was a whole world of opportunity that I wasn’t even aware of, let alone taking into consideration. But if you had told me that then, I would have been irritated at yet another grown-up telling me I didn’t know what I was doing with my life.

Even when my self esteem was in the toilet, I still defended my choices as I made them, and I still had that enviable, teenage blindness to the idea that I could be wrong about something as fundamental as what I personally wanted for myself, or who I was, or what else in life was out there that hadn’t occurred to me at all simply because I hadn’t been exposed to it yet.

There’s a reason that regret is all about the past. Because when it’s in the present, it doesn’t feel like making a mistake, it feels like making a decision. Obviously, I’m not counting those times when we know what we are doing is stupid, simply want to do it anyway, and then do so. I’m talking about those decisions in every person’s past (and honestly, the decisions awaiting every person in their future), where they were confident they were making the right choice, only to look back at it later on and say “What the hell was I thinking?”.

This momentary confidence doesn’t just apply to teenagers. Most of us have loads of advice for a version of ourselves just a few years in our past, even toward the end of our lives. As our awareness of the world broadens, every day, we become privy to new information and knowledge, which sheds a different light on certain decisions in our past. And yet, even as we flinchingly realize how we should have done something differently back then, we continue having confidence that the decisions we are making in the present are sound; decisions that future versions of us may someday look back on with regret, having seen a broader picture in the intervening time. Even our analysis of past decisions is based on the assumption that our current judgment is sound, despite the knowledge that previous versions of ourselves believed that just as wholeheartedly as the current version.

Momentary confidence. The words keep ringing in my head as I write. Confidence in the moment. Even the most self-doubting of people have confidence that their doubts are well founded. It’s as if that momentary confidence is fundamental, because even when we are doubting ourselves, as we do it we are also believing that we are accurately noticing the evidence that warrants the doubt, or accurately identifying the feeling as doubt. We fundamentally trust ourselves in the fraction of a second which compromises the present, and have confidence in the choices we make.

Our perception of the present is, in all reality, an analysis of the very recent past, even if the time between event and perception is microscopic. Which means that this momentary confidence is either occurring during the actual moment of the present, or in the moments immediately following it. It’s only after analysis that we are able to make positive or negative judgments about anything, however brief the analysis may be. Even if you regret something a second after you did it, there was still a part of you, in the exact moment that you did it, that thought it was the right choice, and that part of you had the swing vote in that instant.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that it implies a consistent momentary confidence. If that consistency is happening in the present, meaning whatever moment we are inhabiting at this point in time, that means it is virtually if not literally a constant. Each moment, even as we are analyzing the previous moment, we are acting in the present moment. Acting, apparently, with a confidence that most of us don’t actually feel we possess.

So my question is this: What would you be capable of if you could actually harness that momentary confidence, and more effectively turn it into real confidence that holds up even after analysis?

Thousands of studies and analytics on the relationship between confidence and capability show quite clearly that how well we do on something depends greatly on how confident we are that we can. It’s a well known connection. Heck, just read TV Tropes- Achievements in Ignorance, particularly the real life examples down at the bottom. Human beings are quite capable of doing things that were thought impossible, particularly if the human being in question doesn’t know that it is supposed to be impossible. Our belief in our ability to do something directly affects how capable we are of doing it.

Yet, despite all of our doubts about ourselves and how capable we are, there is apparently a part of us that is consistently if not constantly confident.

It’s just about finding a way to harness it.

An Anonymous Outsider

P.S. I implied that there would be a Doctor Who quote, and I would be doing wrong by all of you if I didn’t deliver. So here you go: “Your chances of survival are about one in a thousand. So here’s what you do: you forget the thousand and you concentrate on the one…Now you have got to make a choice…You have got to decide that you’re going to live. Survival is just a choice. Choose it now… You have one chance in a thousand. But one is all you ever need.” – The Doctor in Doctor Who, The Magician’s Apprentice

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One thought on “Momentary Confidence: On The Relationship between Confidence and Capability

  1. Pingback: The Lost Girl and The Wounded Woman | ananonymousoutsider

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