Confidence

Recently, we were discussing confidence on this blog and people expressed a really bizarre idea that confidence is a result of continued success and not vice versa. This is part of the fatalist mentality that I dislike profoundly, so I want to share a little true story illustrating what confidence is like and how it works.

I can’t even explain why I decided that I needed to get a PhD in Hispanic Studies. I had no idea what “PhD” or “Hispanic Studies” really meant but I thought the whole thing sounded incredibly cool. Because of the conditions of my university admission I didn’t have the time to go the usual route of taking a year of elementary and then a year of intermediate courses in the Spanish language. I had exactly one semester to learn to speak Spanish well enough to be able to take graduate level courses in Spanish literature.

The academic advisor told me I was wasting my time and my plan was untenable. A professor in the field told me I should think about my future and not take such an enormous risk. The Chair of the department laughed until she snorted.

I decided they were all idiots, lied to the person who was supposed to administer the placement test to me, and enrolled in a Spanish Intermediate Intensive course without ever taking a single class in Spanish or hearing a word of the language spoken anywhere. Then it was the turn of the poor instructor in the course to roll his eyes and ask me if I was completely sure I wanted to do it. I decided he was an idiot and continued in the course. Not a shadow of doubt visited me as to whether all these people might be right.

We all know how the story ended. I did enroll in graduate-level courses after this one semester. In the first one of them I got an A- but it was all As after that. The effort it took still gives me a head-ache whenever I think of it but it all worked out.

So what were my antecedents in higher education and language learning before I proceeded to attack Spanish with all this confidence? They were pretty piss-poor, to be honest. By that time, I had already dropped out of two universities where I made professors hate me because of my constant absences, tardiness, and a very vocal contempt for “the useless Humanities.” The two profs I especially liked to torment with my loud, “Oh, this is SUCH a waste of time that will not help me make any money” were the professor of World Literature and the professor of Latin. No student ever tried doing this to me but if it happens, I won’t be able to complain.

As for languages, I had been learning French for about 12 years by the time I started taking Spanish. The results of that effort (which had lasted more than half of my entire life) were minimal. I couldn’t speak the language and I still don’t. I had also been studying German for 4 years, both with a private tutor and at the university. The results were non-existent. My very kind tutor started hinting that I was a plodder with no capacity for languages.

I did speak English, of course, but that was not a language I learned. It was a language I spoke since infancy because of the heroic effort my father made to give me this hugely marketable skill.

A while ago, there was this cartoon going around the academic blogosphere where a jaded aging professor was trying to talk a student out of going to grad school. To every one of the advisor’s arguments the student responded with a robotic, “I will become a professor and everything will be great.” The student in the cartoon will have a fantastic career and the resentful professor will go on deriving her only enjoyment out of apocalyptic reports on how everybody’s life is even worse than hers. She will convince herself that the only reason she has no confidence in herself is that objective circumstances prevented her from having any actual successes to boost that confidence.

35 thoughts on “Confidence

    1. I knew absolutely nothing about the culture and hadn’t read a word of literature, not even in translation. 🙂 🙂

      I was interested in how cool the words “PhD in Hispanic Studies” sounded. 🙂

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  1. Have you ever ask yourself why you have had a so low confidence in yourself when you learn French and German?

    “So what were my antecedents in higher education and language learning before I proceeded to attack Spanish with all this confidence? They were pretty piss-poor, to be honest. ”

    But you knew at least 4 other languages totally (and you were a English-Ukrainian bilingual, which is a great thing to be able to learn another language!) or in part at this time. This experience is a great thing to be able to learn another language quickly. And this experience brought you some confidence to be able to do that in Spanish.

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    1. “Have you ever ask yourself why you have had a so low confidence in yourself when you learn French and German?”

      – The problem wasn’t lack of confidence but lack of interest. I wasn’t interested in learning.

      “But you knew at least 4 other languages totally (and you were a English-Ukrainian bilingual, which is a great thing to be able to learn another language!) or in part at this time. ”

      – My knowledge of Ukrainian is worse than my knowledge of French.:-( 😦 The only languages I spoke were Russian and English.

      “This experience is a great thing to be able to learn another language quickly. And this experience brought you some confidence to be able to do that in Spanish.”

      – My only experience in learning languages were two resounding failures.

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      1. Okay, Russian-English bilingual. This is a great experience to be able to learn another language. Many of your students don’t know about “its”, so this is normal that they have less confidence in themselves than you..

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        1. “Okay, Russian-English bilingual. This is a great experience to be able to learn another language.”

          – Which did not help me to learn either French or German.

          “Many of your students don’t know about “its”, so this is normal that they have less confidence in themselves than you..”

          – I did my BA in Quebec. Many of my fellow students were bilingual.

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      2. “The problem wasn’t lack of confidence but lack of interest. I wasn’t interested in learning.”

        So you believed that you’ll be more interested to learn about an academic subject that you didn’t know about?

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        1. “So you believed that you’ll be more interested to learn about an academic subject that you didn’t know about?”

          – Exactly. Wanting it was more important than anything else. It was almost a form of religious fanaticism. It’s so beautiful to have this kind of higher purpose that consumes you completely. I didn’t do any harm to anybody in the process, unlike the real religious fanatics, so it’s all good. 🙂 🙂

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        1. I decided I would do the PhD before I even got accepted into the PhD. 🙂 I had an exact image in my head of the lifestyle I would lead after getting that PhD. And it all came true!

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  2. Helping a child develop that sort of confidence is one of the best ways a parent can ensure their future professional success. True, having good achievements does help a bit in maintaining it, but the confidence is there before the achievements, and the (many and spectacular) achievements show up because the confident person can’t even think of the concept of personal failure and maintain a straight face and spends no energy on worrying about what might happen if they don’t succeed. Such confidence is cheap and easy to instill in one’s child, as well; just be perfectly certain that one’s child can accomplish anything they put their minds to and the child will pick up on it and behave accordingly.

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    1. “Helping a child develop that sort of confidence is one of the best ways a parent can ensure their future professional success.”

      – It’s uncanny how you keep reading my mind. This is precisely why I wrote this post: I’m wondering what I need to do to give this kind of confidence to my Eric.

      “the confidence is there before the achievements, and the (many and spectacular) achievements show up because the confident person can’t even think of the concept of personal failure and maintain a straight face and spends no energy on worrying about what might happen if they don’t succeed.”

      – Exactly! Very successful people I have met seem to have no idea that failure exists.

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      1. Well, I think you should have a house filled with interesting books your child should have full access to, teach him to read as soon as possible and let him loose on the books. He’ll devour them because that’s what his parents do as well, and then you can spend the rest of his childhood in awe at how much smarter than all the other kids your kid is – they haven’t even learned to read yet, but yours already knows biology at a 7th grade level (or something else – I picked biology because one of our neighbours was a biology teacher and she’d let me borrow her books). Encourage him to do anything non-harmful he wants to do, and don’t ever tell him how hard something is until he manages to do it – then he’ll have done something that a child 5 years older than him would have had trouble with, and you can let him know this in as much detail as you wish, and you won’t need to worry about the excitement and admiration in your voice and body language either. It’s what my mother did and it worked admirably. Of course, she wasn’t as psychologically knowledgeable as you, so she did mess up my ability to self-motivate to a degree by trying to micromanage my life for Maximum Success after I started school – but you know better than that, plus my father is an abusive, unpredictable-to-a-child asshole, which messed up my social confidence – but N knows better than that, so don’t worry. It’s easy and you already have all the requirements in place to do it just by doing what, I believe, comes naturally to you.

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  3. This is exactly what I needed to hear. I’ll be wrapping up my undergrad program in about two years, I have the support of my department and my professors to apply to grad school, and I have plenty of wonderful people to tell me they believe in me and my work, but I’ve got to remember to always be proud of myself too, and go on to achieve all of those remarkable things I know I will. 🙂

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  4. A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. “I can’t; that is too much a pull for me,” said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can,” puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

    As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

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    1. You can’t advise somebody to be confident. 🙂 This reminds me of my tango teacher who stood by me and yelled, “Be sexy!! I told you to be sexy!” Believe it or not, it didn’t work. 🙂

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        1. The first one was completely hilarious. I went to the Polytechnic to study to be a manager. You’ve got to understand that this was 1993 in post-Soviet Ukraine. Nobody knew what the word “management” meant, so the school started training us to be programmers. 🙂 And we can all imagine how well-suited I am to be a programmer. 😉

          So I dropped out and got into this ultra-prestigious program to become a translator (English and German.) I stayed there for 4 years (our BAs are 5-6 years.) And then dropped out to go to Canada.

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        1. I saw this as something highly unprestigious at that time. Just shows how much I understood at that time. 🙂

          I can’t begin to tell you what a little idiot I was in my youth.

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  5. You are lucky you were not participating in this culture too much in the nineties. That was a bad time, I think, in terms of ideological wars and cultural turmoil, I was reminded of this by listening to videos by a guy last night, who spoke of his ongoing battle with feminism since the nineties. He seems to imply that many men were taken by surprise by female aggression during that time. Their relationships went topsy-turvy.

    Actually, I thought male ideologues were eviscerating during this time. Now they have calmed down a bit, but still don’t seem to get it. They complain they are hurt and damaged now, as compared to wanting to seem flameproof in the past. Here’s a very funny bit of abstraction that I really enjoyed. It goes on for a long time, but the abstractions are good and quite relaxing:

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    1. It is curious that we had our own anti-feminist backlash on the 1990s. As the economy collapsed, men removed themselves from the public sphere and women compensated for being almost 100% responsible for making ends meet by very aggressive fantasizing about the ideal of female passivity and weakness. Eventually the fantasy became the only social narrative. Women retained all of the responsibilities but lost all of the privileges. It is a very idiotic situation where a woman keeps the family and, in the meanwhile, debases herself and grovels to appease a man she keeps but has convinced herself keeps her.

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      1. So the 90s were a bad time for everyone? Really, during that time, I found that if you mentioned even very severe forms of abuse/injustice, people would reflexively tell you to shut up and stop whining. So many people were telling me this that I even thought they had a point. So I thought, “Damn, these people are really tough if they could take all that punishment without so much as flinching. But I guess they are telling me it’s normal.” So I began to act as though violence and abuse were just something to be laughed off. But this reaction in itself made the men…the anti-feminists…even angrier. My attitude, that if you have a problem it isn’t really one, was okay to apply to me, but they strenuously objected to my applying that principle to them.

        So I learned thought that discrepancy that there really was a war on and that talking or persuading was not the way out.

        Very, very bad times. Anti-feminist backlashes are never good for social relations, because they distort reality so much and heighten negative emotions.

        Nowadays, the antifeminists have changed their tactic, to say, “we are injured; we are hurt,” but still, like the Norwegian killer, they want to say that the structural effect of feminism is to blame.

        They also see feminist responses as dark and “occult”, because they are unable to come to terms with them in realistic ways.

        Now, I do think a lot of ‘feminism’ these days is rather insane. I’ve been yelled at by these insane feminists and I’ve seen normal, everyday people mistreated by them.

        But the nineties really were a time when even making the smallest objection to any mistreatment would cause a hailstorm of misogyny to rain on you from all directions. Talk about excessive.

        It’s not surprising that many feminists themselves then took the battle to another level.

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        1. “Nowadays, the antifeminists have changed their tactic, to say, “we are injured; we are hurt,” but still, like the Norwegian killer, they want to say that the structural effect of feminism is to blame.”

          – Yes, they are falling into their own trap. They have convinced themselves that the essentialist vision of women as ultra-emotional beings is true, so they adopt this whiny voice and try to play the role of offended little children. Of course, all they get in return is ridicule. I love it when the whiny voice boys come over to my blog. Their childish heart-break when they see that no nurturing is forthcoming here is priceless.

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          1. The problem perhaps is they still think it is a game, that women were pretending to be injured for show, whilst not actually sustaining damage.

            The whole concrete, material part, they cannot understand.

            But in reality if you have made it necessary for people to enter a war with you, it’s highly likely that they will have honed a few skills, meaning that the situation is more real than they think.

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