Confidence, introspection and extrospection

I ran across an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times yesterday. Ordinarily I don’t find myself agreeing with what he writes; but this time I do.

The article[1] is a meta-commentary on a commentary[2] about a new book entitled “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. The book itself is a summary of the social science and behavioral economics literature behind the difference in self-confidence between men and women. On average, men tend toward overconfidence and women toward underconfidence. Although there are clearly systematic biases and other barriers that explain the differences between men and women in workplace and academic advancement, there is also evidence that underconfidence among women plays a role.

Equally intriguing was one of Brooks’ reactions. He observed that people are notably bad at estimating their on self-worth. Some value themselves to little, other far too much, relative to their achievements, competence, and other attributes. He notes:

“The self-help books try to boost the “confidence” part of self-confidence, but the real problem is the “self” part.”

He goes on to talk about the philosopher David Hume’s difficulty in pinning down the “self” that he was attempting to observe[3]:

“David Hume noticed that when he tried to enter into what he called his most intimate self, he always stumbled on some particular perception or another. He never could catch himself without a perception of something else, and he never could see himself, only the perception.”

Amida Buddha

This sort of true introspection is difficult because you keep bumping into filters, sensitivities, and defensiveness. When Brooks refers to the fragility of the ethereal ego that we conjure up, I thought of the Buddhist concept of the self. In Buddhist traditions the “self” is an illusory concept; and to fully-understand the nature of non-self[4] is enlightenment. The “self” to a Buddhist is just another impermanent thing. With each breath, the “self” changes; so why should we bother holding onto it? This is important because the idea of a fixed self means that we try to cling to what we are and what we have. The Second Noble Truth tells us that this sort of craving leads to unhappiness.

So what is the solution? If we keep running into our own filters, how can we become more confident? For Brooks, the idea is to focus less on the “self” and focus more on our efficacy in the real world. He writes about two mental stances one can adopt in facing the world. The person with the self-confidence stance approaches the world thinking about how he comes across, whereas the person with an instrumentalist stance asks “What have I done in the real world? At what am I competent?”

I wonder how we can make better use of this in raising confident children. After all, Kay and Shipman noted that the loss of confidence in girls at a pivotal point in their development could put them on the road to lower achievement in adulthood. At a time when kids - early teens especially - begin to search for an identity separate from that of their parents, it seems easy for them to succumb to what psychologists term “impression management.” Instead of looking to form an identity around their effectiveness in the world, many strive to mold themselves to fit their surroundings, becoming acutely focused on appearance, dress, style and other emphemera. Perhaps the most we can hope for is build confidence in our kids by relentlessly helping them develop their talents so they can use them more effectively to fulfill their own needs and the needs of others. And we can help them begin to ask the right questions as they try to know themselves. Questions like “Do I fit in?” or “How do I look?” end up being misdirected because it drives the seeker in directions beyond her control. But questions like “What am I doing?” and “Am I doing it well?” have a focus within specific knowable domains.

As Brooks puts it, we should not say “Believe in yourself.” Rather, we should say: “Look accurately at what you have done.”


  1. Brooks, D. (2014, May 12). The Problem with Confidence. The New York Times Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com Link

  2. Kay, K. and Shipman, C. (2014, April 14). The Confidence Gap. The Atlantic Retrived from http://www.theatlantic.com Link

  3. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.”

  4. This is the anatman (अनात्मन्), the non-self.