On Confidence

Welcome back from Thanksgiving break, and best of luck as you move into the wind-up phase of the semester. I promise to keep this blog entry brief—proceed with confidence.

I’ve been musing on confidence and its origins. Etymology provides no sure guide to words’ current meanings, I know, even if words do seem to remember their pasts, but just the same I’ll offer some amateur Latinity as a starting point. You’ll notice immediately that confidence has confide built in. “Con” means “with” or “together”; fidere means “to trust.” Confidere, then, means something like “to trust together” or “to trust in one another.” Confidence, this etymology suggests, has a built-in relational aspect. However, we don’t always use the word that way. Instead, we often describe confidence as a personality trait, so much so that self-confidence seems tautological. In short, two of the word’s most common meanings pull against each other. Confidence holds in tension what happens within the individual (one trusts in oneself or doesn’t) and what happens between people (we trust in each other, or we don’t).[1]

While I hope we all have courage to share our best selves, try new and difficult things, stand up for righteous causes, and so forth, I have, at least for the purposes of this post, little interest in what seems to be our culture’s most prevalent concept of confidence: “reliance on one’s own powers, resources, or circumstances.”[2] Self-esteem has undisputed value,[3] but we probably don’t need more of what passes for confidence in, for instance, most political rallies, celebrity SM posts, and advertisements. Ads ask if I have the “confidence” to go to the beach with no shirt or wearing a bikini, but they’re selling something different from what I’m contemplating. Similarly, messages about “speaking your truth” and “doing you with no apologies” have little to do with the virtue I wish to promote. Such calls for confidence, even when offered with good intentions, tend to celebrate attitudes that easily slip into self-centeredness, discourtesy, defensiveness, and other dispositions unlikely to do us good. Self-assurance can be a virtue only when balanced by and compounded with other virtues. The kind of confidence that interests me has little to do with chest-pounding or radical individualism, even if it does require a healthy self. It’s a social binder rather than social solvent.

Ads ask if I have the “confidence” to go to the beach with no shirt or wearing a bikini, but they’re selling something different from what I’m contemplating.

I thought when I started this post that it might be about the essential role of confidence (in self and God) in individual learning—a subject worth our attention—but I quickly felt pulled to consider confidence in terms of working and learning in community. BYU operates in a matrix of trust that includes faculty and students, administrators and staff, ecclesiastical leaders, alumni, and many other stakeholders, including our students’ families and tithe-paying church members all over the world. Confidence must run in all directions in order for the university to function to its potential. When problems arise, they often have to do with confidence breaking down along one or more of the crucial vectors—people losing trust in others and/or feeling that they are not trusted.

Each vector of confidence deserves consideration more robust than one can offer in a short (I promised!) blog post. For now, therefore, I mainly hope to spark reflection as a prelude to more conversation. To achieve a Zion university—a “beloved community”—we need to work at community confidence. Yet some of the human structures that give the university its character also make ruptures in confidence likely, if not inevitable. And, if I may suggest it, the consecrated element of our university life, which offers the only ultimate cure to confidence problems, also magnifies them at times. This may sound strange, but I trust you to understand what I mean. Community confidence matters at all universities, but here it’s a spiritual mandate, not just a pleasant aspiration. The stakes of confidence are high, and we feel its failures with special sharpness. Sometimes working at BYU hurts because we care about it so much. Criticism stings because we have poured our hearts into our work. On the other hand, the rewards of confidence are potentially tremendous at BYU—a sense of common cause that’s covenantal as well as intellectual, joyous synergy in aligning of our deepest goals with our daily efforts and helping our students, as well as each other, pursue perfection and eternal life. I have tried to explain this to people over the years (I, like you, am often asked what it’s like to work here): the worst and best thing about BYU are the same thing—it’s more than a job. Therefore, to embrace BYU is to make oneself vulnerable. We feel that our successes and failures matter beyond our personal careers, being linked to the great cause to which we’ve dedicated our lives. This is powerful motivation and cause for gratitude, but sometimes it’s also a weight.

We have to do all we can to deserve confidence.

“If ye are not one ye are not mine”[4]: we understand this, yet we can’t help wondering what kind of oneness might be possible in our current state of awkward imperfection and differing perspectives. Confidence-damaging situations may develop at all scales, from a single classroom to the entire university. When confidence frays, we hope to renew it. But how? Tangible efforts, repeated and sincere, will be required by all parties. I believe that we (meaning especially the faculty) won’t make much progress by stewing over grievances in our offices or by retreating into small groups of likeminded people with whom we may complain confidentially. On the other hand, public complaining usually won’t help and will often make things worse. And yet, we can’t simply put our heads down (either in avoidance or in prayer) and trust that everything will turn out right without our best efforts. Arguably, all of these strategies produce confidence of a sort, but not of the sort we want. We may find temporary psychic comfort in them, but ultimately they are dodges or substitutes for the deep community confidence we desire.

Unable to discuss in detail the myriad community confidence challenges that rush to mind as I write, and hungry as I am for affirmative prescriptions, I find myself turning to basics that apply to most situations. First, obviously, we have to do all we can to deserve confidence. Second, we need to keep fundamentals in view (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, the Mission Statement, and the Aims document). From there, I believe we need to engage in more frequent, honest conversations: to confide in one another. Because we can’t manage problems if we don’t feel safe talking about them, we will need the scaffolding of trust, presuming goodwill while embracing each other’s vulnerability. My active listening and openness (the social psychologists call this conversational receptiveness)[5] can give others permission to be open. I have found this to be true over and over in the hallways of the JFSB. I don’t always have to agree with my colleagues; I do have to trust them.

I believe we need to engage in more frequent, honest conversations: to confide in one another.

These basics fall under the “all that we can do” category, opening channels for grace.[6] Most of you will know the Rogers and Hammerstein song “Confidence” from The Sound of Music—a song that has, irritatingly, been running through my head throughout the drafting of this post. You’ll remember that Julie Andrews’s character, trying to screw up her courage to leave Nonnberg Abbey, sings her way through multiple (tentative) reasons for confidence, culminating in “I have confidence in confidence alone” and “I have confidence in me,” but breaking in, comically, with “Oh, help!” That spontaneous mini-prayer is generally the right one. It will take plenty of help for us to achieve full community confidence—help from each other and help from heaven. If we put in the work, I’m confident that we can make progress and claim the blessings. Confidence also means proceeding cum fide!

This blog post was written by Paul Westover, a Humanities Center Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of English at BYU. 

[1] If the etymology dictionary I consulted and the OED are correct, both meanings in English go back to the fifteenth century, so the tension was there more or less from the start.

[2] This definition (self-assurance) is one of several from the Online Etymology Dictionary: https://www.etymonline.com/word/confidence. Corpus linguists might be able to test my impression that this is the most common meaning of the word. At any rate, a Google search for books with confidence in the title suggests a coherent cluster of cultural preoccupations—high values as well as insecurities. I have no desire to criticize these particular books, none of which I have read and some of which readers may find empowering. I merely note that their titles tend strongly to individualism. Here are a few: Unstoppable Self-Confidence: How to Create the Indestructible, Natural Confidence of the 1% Who Achieve Their Goals, Create Success on Demand, Live Life on Their Terms; Fearless Social Confidence: Strategies to Live Without Fear, Speak Without Insecurity, Beat Social Anxiety, and Stop Caring What Others Think; Self-Confidence for Men: Stop Being the Victim and Boost Your Self-EsteemThe Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Confidence—What Women Should Know; You’ve Got This: The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself.

[3] Insofar as confidence means what Elder James E. Faust described as “self-respecting, unconceited, honest self-esteem” (BYU Devotional, 23 August 1993) it is of course a need of every person, and readers may find a valuable library on the subject by searching the BYU Speeches archives.

[4] Doctrine and Covenants 38:27.

[5] A friend recently pointed me to a Hidden Brain podcast on this subject: https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/relationships-2-0-how-to-keep-conflict-from-spiraling/.

[6] 2 Ne. 25:23.

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