“You can do anything.” “Nothing’s impossible.” “You’re a superstar!” These confidence-boosting phrases, now required Pablum for child-rearing, are engendering an alarming exponential and unrealistic growth in the sense of self-worth abroad in the land. The result is a plague of overconfidence worming its way through every crevice of our society — and it’s getting worse.
Why even bother to improve or succeed when coaches are passing out trophies before junior even slips on his soccer jersey? Swathed in unearned accolades and wreathed with wilted laurels, our little baby Einsteins are all grown up now and convinced they’re the next supernovas. Once rejected by the latest televised talent show, surely it’ll be everyone’s fault but their own. What our culture has created is a stockpile of pseudo-savants incapable of enough self-judgment to even properly dress themselves to leave the house.
Is overconfidence in greater abundance than in years past, or is it merely more visibly on display? The American Freshman: Forty Year Trends, a study published by UCLA, shows that hours per week spent studying are down, whereas self-assessment of academic prowess has risen. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s 2010 book, The Narcissism Epidemic, argues that child-centric parenting and other factors are leading to a broad increase in narcissism. The book goes on to outline its deleterious effects.
When Governor Romney saw the polls clearly in President Obama’s favor in the swing states, his team dismissed the results saying the system itself was flawed. The Romney campaign, in light of all polling to the contrary, didn’t admit that the race would be tight but rather claimed that the governor would win “decisively.” So confident was his team in a Romney victory, they had already organized a tremendous fireworks display in celebration. And when all was said and done, the governor rode to the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston — where he believed he was going to give his triumphant acceptance speech — in a fifteen-car Secret Service detail. Hours later he left “shellshocked” in a single-car motorcade with his son Tag at the wheel. People with over-confident personalities cannot accept failure; instead they cloak their shortcomings by blaming circumstances beyond their control. And that is precisely what the governor did a few days after the election when saying Obama had won because he gave “gifts” to minorities.
Televised punditry is another venue where overconfidence is put boldly on display. Unremittingly, on the twenty-four-hour news channels – and especially on Fox News, pundits brashly predict the future with no reckoning nor acknowledgement for their prior false predictions. The entire field could be decimated in an instant if only we required prognosticators to be evaluated and labeled using their historic rate of success. Few, if any, would reach more than 20 percent. Perhaps the pundits could be letter-graded like New York City’s restaurants: “A,” “B,” “C,” and “Closed By the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.”
Reality television provides a rich medium for observing pathological cases of overconfidence, especially shows that are built around auditioning formats. How large is the percentage of Americans who are convinced they are pop stars waiting to be discovered? The numbers are seemingly endless. Invariably, the most terrible applicants are the most brashly confident, as well as the most defiant when rejected.
It’s not surprising that a string of recent studies from Scientific American to Psychology Today has proven that social media sites are now brimming petri dishes of narcissistic personality disorders. When flipping over a table on a reality show is enough to garner you 500,000 Twitter followers, it’s no wonder heads balloon beyond recognition. Feed the beasts and watch them breed tiny tyrants with simian foreheads convinced they’re supermodels. And when their spawn gets the boot from the top agencies, they foot-stomp all day long while tripping over their lower lip; meanwhile, Mama Bear simply can’t grasp why her troll-faced tot is not yet on the cover of Vogue.
The slightest reflection provides the pin that pops the bubble of self-credulity. Are artists good critics of their own work? Does confidence correlate with success? On the contrary: one’s assessment of oneself is notoriously unreliable.
Confidence that dares not question itself and lacks introspection springs from weakness. Doubt is pushed away, and self-criticism is considered neurosis. The most likely scenario, which is that one is neither much better nor much worse than the average person, is considered not at all. And the most horrifying aspects for these limelight chasers is that perhaps they’re simply not that special, not that different, or worse: maybe they’re just not all that.
Why does chutzpah not fall into this category? Chutzpah requires daring, but it needn’t preclude reflection. One may attempt, even while doubtful of one’s chances, and all that’s required is bravura.
Hubris, on the other hand, is directly related to overconfidence. The Greeks had it right: Hubris is the root of human tragedy. The original sin wasn’t the pursuit of knowledge — rather, that pursuit is our highest calling. Instead, our first mistake is too much belief in our own understanding, and too little recognition of our mortal limitations.
Overconfidence can be found on the social and national planes as well. What is nationalism, exactly, but a blinding confidence in one’s country? You may believe you live in the “greatest country God has given this Earth” (as if God were a cartographer of political boundaries). Yet, just as self-assessment is dubious, so too is your critical assessment of your native land. History will make its own judgments, and the opinions of the historical actors in that drama will have very little impact.
All that is really required is to withhold judgment. One should always be skeptical about one’s own appraisal, especially when one’s stake in the matter is so great. The critical emotional commodity is hope, not certainty. Even if we’re not really certain of the value of ourselves or our actions, so long as we’re hopeful that we can do better, we’re able to act and move forward.
Or we can simply blame someone else for being rejected after we warbled and wheezed our way through “I Will Always Love You.” Hey, at least we’ll be famous.