Thursday, December 2, 2010

OPINION: Confidence and Incompetence, an American Challenge

Magdalena Potluck
By Margaret Wiltshire

In our culture today, confidence is everything. Since Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book “The Power of Positive Thinking” was printed there has been wave after wave of “positive” philosophies.
Some people go so far as to feel if someone says anything not positive about themselves they lack confidence and might lack competence. Dress for success, wear your confidence everywhere and in every way.
I read about American school children who did very poorly in a reading evaluation.  When asked how they thought they did, they expressed complete confidence in their reading abilities. I found this sad and distressing.
The wonderful thing about reading is it’s the beginning of a conversation. The writer names the subject and gives their take on it. The reader chooses the subject to read. Then the reader either agrees, disagrees, or spins off in their own thoughts.  It’s the same as viewing art and theater. Scientists and explorers of all kinds use this stimulation and sharing.
Socially, wonderful conversations often begin with “Have you read anything interesting lately?”
It makes me sad that American children on the whole are not reading well. It doesn’t promise much for future conversation and achievement.
One of my teachers noted that I was a person whose glass was always half-full and always half-empty. For me, that is always the way it is. That’s the equality of reality, the balance. For the most part that’s just fine, but sometimes it is troubling.
Now that our cultural cup is full to the brim with confidence, we might be missing something. That something might be competence.
Competence comes from being able to assess skill, risk, limitations, and possibilities. It’s fed by the desire to improve, achieve, learn and excel. It’s a constructive response to success and failure.
Both success and failure are equal stepping stones toward achievement. Self criticism is not easy. You bake a pie, build a bench, paint a picture, write a paper. Your best help is to be able to see it clearly. All the good, all the bad evaluated objectively leads to better and more rewarding things. Guilt and emotional whippings or conceit and denial are walls in the path to achieving more.
In other words, self criticism does not mean self contempt. Actually it’s more like building a house on rock instead of sand.
Thirty to 50 years ago, we had one of the highest skilled labor forces in the world. Is that true today? For 30 years now or more we’ve been told our value lies not in what we can do and build but in what we can buy. Are we making ourselves useless but conceited?
We are suppose to run our government but do we? The taxes we pay are for the government to serve our needs, does it?
Did former President George W. Bush say he was spending money we didn’t have for a war in Iraq we didn’t need? We’ve had a decade of tax breaks for the rich. Are you wealthier for it? Want to do it again? Do you have a choice? Do you know?
History is a fine teacher given realistic attention. As Rome perched ready to fall, the Romans went to the coliseum. We don’t feed Christians to lions, only Muslims, Jews, non-believers, gays, etc. Have you bought the Black Ops games available for this Christmas? We are sending the police into our schools for protection and teaching our kids how to be sociopaths and killers. Hate and destruction is becoming a national pastime.
What makes negatives so destructive? Judging, usually judging others. It can get pretty mean. This is not about realities, this is about fear. No one instills fear and is so full of fear than the boastful bully. Abuse sires abuse.
Rick Brenner, in an email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting, writes that we usually assume a confident manner is evidence of competence. Studies at Cornell University show this is not so. Now called the Dunning-Kruger effect (after those who led the study) this study shows a paradox.
Incompetent individuals often overestimate their abilities and performance. Incompetent individuals are less able to recognize competence in others. As incompetent individuals gain competence they gain ability to have insight about their true level of performance.
Humility is not self-hatred. Conceit is not success. We are so attuned to choosing the most boastful as the best, we are blind and crippled.
Basically, a living human is a success. From there whatever else happens is up to us. Really knowing who you are now will help get you where you want to go. Fake it, you lose.
In Magdalena, the school offered another wonderful Thanksgiving lunch to the village.  Many are responsible but the kitchen staff gets the biggest nod. Thank you, all.

Margaret Wiltshire is a Mountain Mail columnist. She can be reached  at

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