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Confidence and Competence

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I’ve been thinking a lot in recent years about confidence, and its relationship with competence. The two can so often seem to go together…but not so reliably that you can generalise about the correlation. Indeed, it is when the two seem mismatched that it feels dysfunctional. A novice who feels tentative seems as rational in their relationship with praxis as a self-possessed virtuoso. But a good performer wracked with self-doubt is a cause for concern, while an ebullient mediocrity just seems deluded.

Paul McGee characterises competence as the bricks and confidence as the mortar: you need both to build a wall of success. I like this because it is a vivid and memorable image that encapsulates the way the two are different in substance, yet both essential to an endeavour. I nearly wrote ‘equally essential’, then realised that the strength of the image lies in the way that actually you can get further with a pile of bricks and no mortar than vice versa. But you’re going to be able to build a bigger and more stable structure with both.

But what this image doesn’t capture is the feedback loop between the two. Self-confidence is closely related to our sense of control, so the better we become at achieving our ends at will, the more positively we can act in the world. And the experience of success reinforces the belief that success is possible, thus motivating further efforts to improve.

And for some lucky people this works just fine. But for many of us, the virtuous circle breaks down sometimes. Indeed, I came to see confidence as the central issue facing my advanced performance students when I was running postgrad courses at Birmingham Conservatoire. All the students on these courses were at least reasonably competent, since we auditioned for places, and some were very good indeed. But many of them carried a burden of anxiety that weighed them down and made the acquisition of further competence much harder work than it needed to be. And I used to yearn for them at a personal level too: they were having much less of a good time than they deserved.

At the heart of this is the relationship between people’s self-identity and the type of social validation they receive. Talent, as Henry Kingsbury has quite brilliantly analysed, is a socially-conferred attribute that labels people as having inherent capacities on the basis of observed behaviours. Self-identity, meanwhile, is built out of our personal autobiographies, the narratives we tell ourselves of who we are and how we came to be like that.

You can see these interacting in the most dramatic form in those stories of people who become ‘non-singers’ in childhood. This is usually traced to a single event where they were labelled by someone they believed as incapable, and ever since have maintained with considerable energy and dedication the assertion that they can’t sing.

Endemic self-doubt, I suspect, is a milder, or possibly more complicated version of the same process. Public affirmations of talent at some point in a person’s life-story are contradicted or undermined by public failures later on. The fundamental self-identity as someone with a natural capability totters uncertainly: am I still that kind of person, or have I lost it?

And these failures may in fact be competence deficits. It is quite possible to out-perform at one level, but if your technical development doesn’t keep pace with your ambition, you can find your achievements becoming ever more precarious and unreliable.

The thing is, it is much easier to solve a technical deficit than to repair the internal personal story that gets damaged by the difficulties. Expert guidance and dedicated practice will solve any technical issue in due course. (And you do actually need to address the technical issues if you are going to restore confidence: people need a sense of control.) But the emotional work of consigning the failures to the past is harder. Our concept of ourselves reaches back into our remembered pasts and forward into our imagined futures, so those failures can all too easily come back to haunt us.

People who successfully get over severe self-doubt seem to do so using a combination of two things. First, they get revenge on the past difficulties by getting some successes under their belts. They may initially be small steps, minor wins in comparison to their previous problems. But they represent progress, and provide new fodder for the internal autobiography, so they can start to string together a story of recovery and persistence in the face of adversity.

Second, they re-interpret the failures as turning-points. This allows them to integrate the failures into their personal narratives in a way that makes sense, yet keeps them safely in the past. Re-framing the meaning of past difficulties short-circuits their power to disrupt current activities, and in fact helps you draw strength from the fact that you have recovered from them. The failures are still there as part of your life story, but their meaning has changed.

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