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.