Confidence is no virtue

A lot of awful people should believe in themselves much less.

Confidence is no virtue

A lot of awful people should believe in themselves much less.

There is a man in my mountain town who runs for office every chance he gets. Last year he ran for both the U.S. Senate and the state senate of Montana, eventually withdrawing from the first race and getting disqualified from the second. He ran for city council in 2017, during which contest he wrote of our four-term mayor, “Currently he’s taking a break from drinking, but I expect he’ll be off the wagon again soon.” He went on to lose the election with three percent of the vote. This year, he’s running for the same seat in the same ward again. “I wish I had his confidence,” my wife said. I know what she means, but I also thought, what a disaster for our family.

My wife really should be more confident, though. All the best people should. I think most of us would say that our friends and loved ones ought to have more confidence, and this truism provides the first inkling that confidence is not the virtue we think it is. “The best lack all conviction,” W.B. Yeats wrote in 1919, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Probably he was writing about the collapse of Europe after World War I, but maybe he meant it as a rule of thumb. If the best people lack confidence, it follows that confident people are the worst.

My wife’s remark echoes a mantra from the internet: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” This lament diagnoses the problem but prescribes the wrong cure. Confidence is what mediocrity substitutes for skill. It’s a strategy to exploit people’s natural impulse to defer to others, ignore bad behavior, and just get along — all social privileges the white man enjoys to a greater degree than everyone else. But it’s not that everyone else needs the white man’s confidence; everyone else needs to stop being fooled by it, so that we all fall back on actually knowing what we’re doing. Lord, give the mediocre white man the same scruples as his counterparts.

I know it is a bad idea to advance this argument. Confidence is one of the few virtues our whole society agrees upon, now that honesty and forgiveness are over. Whole swaths of culture, from children’s entertainment to the Democratic Party, repeat the message that self-doubt is a mistake, a wound we must heal. Why would I oppose this fundamentally generous idea? Only a fool would put his name at the top of a reasoned argument against the reader’s self-esteem. I am in danger of running afoul of the internet and its stock of pop-therapy responses, including “don’t yuck my yum” and the bottomlessly condescending “who hurt you?” This essay is an identifiable type of mistake. My only safeguard is my fear that, unless I proceed carefully, I will probably fuck it up.

Most writing teachers would disagree with me on this point. Confidence is said to be one of the most important qualities a writer can possess. You don’t hear people say that about electricians, which suggests a first principle from which to begin our investigation. People try to have confidence in situations where success and failure are subjective — the boardroom and the bedroom, in the public square and on the printed page, or anywhere else that does not enforce a single perspective on who is doing a good job. When no one can prove you’re fucking up, confidence is there to say you’re doing fine.

In order to perform this function, it requires incomplete information. Uncertainty is confidence’s natural habitat — the only environment where it can really take hold, because its function is to paper over a lack. We rely on confidence when we don’t know what other people are thinking, or what we should do, or what’s going to happen in the future. Confidence doesn’t give us the answers to these questions, but it assures us that when we find out, they will be good.

Confidence is therefore not the opposite of doubt so much as a solution to it. Except doesn’t actually solve anything, because when people say we should be confident (adj.) or have confidence (n.), they never tell us what to do. This is why the advice “be confident,” in addition to being infuriating, is so often preceded by the word “just.” You can’t say how it’s done. The verb “to confide” means something different — something we do to others when we give them privileged information. When we take someone into our confidence this way, it’s because we already believe we can rely on them to keep secrets. We cannot do the same thing with ourselves, because lack of trust in ourselves is the whole reason we need confidence in the first place.

The gospel of confidence has given us the social media influencer, the pickup artist, the improv comedian who mostly performs offstage.

Often when we confide in others, our confidence turns out to be misplaced. This kind of unjustified leap of faith in someone else makes a living for the confidence man, whose scam relies on the mark’s willingness to believe he is about to come into good fortune despite a lack of proof. Again, confidence takes hold amid incomplete information, reaching across the gap in observable evidence toward what is literally too good to be true. The marks trust the con man because they want to believe something great is about to happen to them. The central insight of confidence scams is that this belief feels even better than something great actually happening; marks want to feel like a jackpot is just around the corner, so they tell themselves whatever is necessary to believe it.

The sufficiently confident mark scams himself. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had a term for this behavior: “mauvaise foi,” which English translations render as “bad faith.” Bad faith relies on our human capacity to deceive ourselves. When I have an outcome in mind that the evidence does not support — my play will find an audience, I can wing my presentation to the board, that woman with the book will be glad I started talking to her — a voice inside me says that I might fail. My solution to this problem is to have confidence, i.e. to believe that things are actually fine. I try to convince myself that I am confident, that the thing I so manifestly lack turns out to be something I actually have, simply by calling it into being.

I can’t really do that, of course. A central element of Sartre’s theory is that genuine self-deception of this kind is impossible. Even as we convince ourselves to believe what we once did not, we know on some level we are full of it. As long as the jury is still out, though, and the internal conflict between what we want to think and what we actually think continues, we can keep denying what we know is true.

Put in these terms, confidence doesn’t sound so good. But the selling point of confidence is not that it’s good; it’s that it will work. Who cares if it’s founded on bullshit? Confidently presenting your bullshit will advance your career, seduce others, propagate your political views, and make you feel good about it the entire time. Is this true? Who knows. It probably depends on how much you commit to it. Here, at last, is the verb-reflexive form of confidence: To act like you believe confidence is going to work. The big, French, vaguely walleyed snake of bad faith swallows its own tail.

This is not to deny the almost certain truth that people who feel very bad about themselves should do what they can to feel better. Lots of people’s lives improve when they become more self-assured. But this feeling is better understood as the flip side of uncertainty; when you’re certain about what you’re doing because your math/evidence/training/experience supports it, you become surefooted in a way that obviates confidence. It’s the difference between reminding yourself that fires are unlikely and installing some sprinklers. Taking steps to feel confident is good. It’s when we try to get that feeling sui generis — when our plan is to be confident instead of doing what it takes to feel that way — that we run into trouble.

Being confident is just a way to justify what you’re doing already. You can do anything, once you learn to believe that whatever you do is good. And I submit that people doing whatever is a huge problem in our society. Confidence is at the root of the worst social, political, and even existential problems of the 21st century.

The gospel of confidence has given us the social media influencer, the pickup artist, the improv comedian who mostly performs offstage. These people have weaponized confidence against strangers, hoping the self-deception they have cultivated will become contagious and trick other people, too. The galling thing about this kind of social confidence is that it is impersonal. The goal is not to seduce their crush or make their friends laugh; it’s to seduce women or make people laugh. Confidence is the virtue that turns every interpersonal relationship into a business plan.

You can only justify treating other people as means in this way if you are supremely confident in your ends. Confidence of this kind has wrecked American democracy from both ends. People who have never held office or attended a city council meeting are convinced that everyone in politics is stupid, so they confidently ignore it. Among those who still participate, a growing number are confident enough to do whatever it takes to win people over to their cause, even if that means publishing fake news or exploiting congressional procedures. Once you get past the habit of doubting your own ideas, you don’t need to prove them to anyone else. You just need people to trust you.

Here we return to the verb “confide” and the act of putting our trust in someone else. Sometimes we do it to connect, and sometimes we do it to shirk the effort of deciding what to do for ourselves. It’s exhausting to think about that all the time. It’s a pain to figure out what to do about global warming when we can’t even talk to our boss on the elevator without sweating through our shirt. Just as confidence is there in these situations to tell us we are doing fine, it is also there to assure us other people will do fine, too, and we can safely leave the passage of the world to them. That, dear reader, is how the ship runs aground.

Dan Brooks writes essays, fiction and commentary from Montana and abroad. He's online at @DangerBrooks, and previously wrote about manly wedding rings for The Outline.