Originally published 6/17/2018. Lead image by Chris & Karen Highland on Flickr.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that word-choice can drastically change a person’s impression of a situation. If that person comes from the same culture as the writer, then the impact of the right word can be fairly predictable. For instance, here in the US, the word “confidence” is almost always viewed in a positive light. We tend to think of its opposite as something along the lines of “shyness”, “fear”, or “anxiety.” Something negative. But for every word in the English language, there is an equal and opposite word. In this case, opposite words that still have positive connotations: sincerity and humility.
In the US, rumor has it that confidence can gain you practically anything. Act confident all the time, and you will go far! But will you really?
Below I explore the pros and cons of being confident and being humble.
There is a principle that the US sometimes overlooks in its quest for individuality (not that it’s a bad quest): humans accomplish far more together than they do individually. I’m not talking about group projects at school, I’m talking about building a space shuttle. Individuality has its place, but so does team work. And I think the extra emphasis on confidence comes from our emphasis on individuality.
Confidence: Confidence is for when you are trying to control or somehow work against others. Want to get into a restricted area where you don’t belong? Just walk in confidently and everything will turn out all right. Want to intimidate your enemies? CONFIDENCE. The point of confidence is to make others doubt themselves and to keep you from doubting yourself.
Confidence is also useful when you believe that you’re working against something. If you’re afraid to ask out your crush or perform in front of an audience, having confidence is quite useful. You’re afraid because you fear something is against you, and only you have the power to overcome it.
Humility: Few people analyze the uses of humility. I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for my upbringing. I was always taught to be courteous, humble, honest, and sincere. So why have I succeeded with those traits, even where those who instead employ confidence have failed? It’s because humans don’t always work against each other. Every day, when you’re crossing the street or calling the cable company or ordering coffee, you cooperate with others. I’ve tested out confidence, but I find that when I need help, humility is the way to go. When asking a professor to explain a problem, when trying to come to a logical agreement in a political discussion, or when hanging out with friends, it pays to be humble, to admit your mistakes, and to openly consider the point of view of others. Don’t agree that it would help with political discussions? Think again. Your partner, not your “opponent”, will onlyconsider your point of view if it seems like you’re considering hers. Every day I watch politicians yell their views uncompromisingly, and I find that people tend to gravitate towards orators who concede flaws and openly look to improve their own points. But if you’re a salesman and your only job is to say that your product is good, that is the time to be confident. What about this “hanging out with friends” thing? I find that tension builds when people in a group view another person as “arrogant.” Someone who never admits her mistakes and completely ignores others who try to get a word in edgewise. If you’re in a political debate, by all means interrupt your competition. But be polite to those who you’re trying to get along with. Lost in an unfamiliar place? Speak your insecurities to someone, and she will come to your aid. But speak your insecurities to an enemy, and she will use it against you. There is a time and a place to be humble, and a time and a place to be confident.
The most important use of humility comes not from interacting with others, but from personal improvement. My Taekwondo instructors highly appreciate humility, because without admitting our own weaknesses, we never work to improve them. At a tournament, be confident in your performance, or else you may choke. But if you’re practicing for the tournament, be humble. Be insecure. Be paranoid. Don’t give into despair, but admit your faults and fix them. That’s how you improve your performance, your homework, your writing, yourself.
The connotation of words sometimes leads us astray. Would you rather “persevere” or be “fickle”? Obviously you’d pick the first. But those same words mean, respectively, to “be stubborn” or to “keep an open mind.” Now which one would you pick? The same applies to confidence and humility. Both have been recommended by famous/successful/iconic figures since humankind began speaking, and both are good strategies for getting ahead depending on where you are.
So the next time you’re asking someone out, instead of saying “You, me, dinner date!” try expressing your emotions and putting yourself out there. Be confident in your humility.