Confidence, Rebellion and Schools

A swot and a rebel’ was how Mary Beard described herself when I interviewed her last week for Churchill College (you can listen to the full interview here). She seemed to think this was a common pairing of terms but I’m not sure I’d agree. She, like me, was a Cambridge undergraduate – although a couple of years later and at Newnham College not Girton – and has spent most of her academic life here. We talked a lot about how her career developed and how, when and why this rebellious streak mutated into the forceful, respected and outspoken public voice she represents now. But I remain slightly puzzled by this combination of attributes: indeed, for me in my first year in Cambridge I think I would have described myself as ‘trying to stop being a swot and ending up just very confused’.

Many Cambridge undergraduates come up as industrious swots. For some this wears off fast as the wider joys of freedom in a university hit home. Maybe it’s Footlights that takes your fancy (think the Monty Python crew) or rowing (Cambridge is home to many Olympic rowers who must have spent less time in the library than perhaps they first intended). Perhaps it’s the Union, although Oxford has a far higher proportion of Cabinet ministers of whom to boast than our own debating society. Many erstwhile swots find their energies diverted into activities perhaps a little less intellectual than they’d anticipated. They may or may not be rebelling against school or family when they permit this diversion; they may even barely notice it has happened so absorbed have they become in these new spheres.

Other students manage to achieve first class results apparently effortlessly, without the sweat and swotting whilst simultaneously singing in every choir going and doing volunteer work in far-flung parts each summer. Are these ones rebelling or just continuing in a contented straight line to whatever it is they deem to be success? Yet another bunch arrive and find that they are no longer a big fish in a small sea and that their school accolades are no protection against the hurly burly of intense study in Cambridge. These can really struggle with their confidence as well as their studies.

And confidence is hugely important to students as to the rest of us. Where does it come from? A recent Sutton Trust Report (A Winning Personality) seems to suggest schooling is key – as no doubt it is – but then, at least if you believe the Guardian analysis, the authors gets confused between confidence and being an extrovert. The Sutton Trust report indicates that future earning potential is all intimately tied up in this too, so getting to the bottom of what works would be important – if it could be done. It seems to me, from a cursory reading of the report and other worthy writers (e.g. Quiet by Susan Cain) that these are murky waters where many terms are thrown around but hard science and evidence (as opposed to anecdote or statistical averages of self-reported terms) is rather more difficult to come by.

You can be a confident rebel, which perhaps describes Mary Beard, or a rebel who is rebelling in order to cover up vast insecurities. You can be extrovert and yet still incredibly insecure, since extroversion only means you are energised when surrounded by people. This effect could be because that way you feel appreciated rather than because you’re overflowing with self-confidence: such appreciation may mean that the hollow at your centre where self-confidence should sit can be temporarily plugged. You can be very quiet, shy but nevertheless steely, full of both confidence and determination – and quiet is not, I understand the same as introversion anyhow (which crudely means other people exhaust you even if you like them). And you can be just middle of the road, confident in some areas and not in others.

Which all means attempts to teach this stuff at school. as is being advocated for the socially disadvantaged now, is likely to be an uncertain blessing. Does confidence come merely from attending the right school? Or does it come from no one ever pointing out your fallibilities? The two may be linked but that’s far from certain or likely to be ubiquitous. So, once you get to university you may arrive uncertain and insecure and blossom as you find your talents are finally appreciated and that you can cope with new challenges. Or you may find you can indeed cope with new challenges and yet remain the same totally uncertain and insecure person. These labels may really not be very helpful anyhow. I stick with my own personal belief that one is best off faking  confidence regardless of what is going on inside. That way, you may convince others even if not yourself. I do not think this is necessarily a gender issue, or down to having been to the right school. But I do think self-awareness of what you are doing matters.

There will be some people – a lecturer who intimidated you as a student perhaps, or a colleague whose intellect you just know trumps yours by a mile or two – who will always make you feel small. Whatever your subsequent successes I am not sure it is ever possible to eradicate a sense of awe so engendered. Whatever your confidence in general, you may be reduced mentally to the ignorant student whenever you meet that lecturer in later years, even if you are both by this time full professors. However such reduction to your shivering former self will only matter if you let it. And perhaps that is where confidence really comes in. If you can admit to yourself Professor Beta has that effect on you, but you know why (you were a dunce in his lectures, for instance) but what you are doing now has no connection with that former interaction, then maybe you can still ask his advice about funding opportunities, conference talks, or policy directions without feeling embarrassed.

In academia, as elsewhere, the ability to do the job in hand matters. But that ability does not need to equate to self-confidence so much as getting on with it, with a fake smile, enthusiasm or bravado if necessary. It doesn’t mean you have to be rebelling – although in some instances you may well be going counter to received wisdom – nor does it have to mean that you are sure inside yourself that you are the equal of all around. Which school you went to is unlikely still to be of interest to other people by the time you’ve hit 30 (at least in academia0, although privately you may feel it is indelibly inked on your forehead. But one thing is sure. If you let nerves overwhelm you to the point of paralysis you will never find out what you are capable of.

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2 Responses to Confidence, Rebellion and Schools

  1. Elspeth Gass says:

    I enjoyed reading this – well said and true

  2. Mark Field says:

    Having mentioned your fictitious Professor Beta, I feel a Hans Bethe quote is obligatory here. For those who don’t know, Hans Bethe was a German-American nuclear physicist who won the 1967 Nobel prize, and whose name is pronounced ‘Beta’.

    From Wikipedia, so exercise the usual caution.
    “When he met Wolfgang Pauli for the first time, Pauli told him: “After Sommerfeld’s tales about you, I had expected much better from you than your thesis.”[20] “I guess from Pauli,” Bethe later recalled, “that was a compliment.”[20]”

    So even Professor Bethe finds some other professors can make you feel small.

    reference [20] is: Schweber, Silvan S. (2012). Nuclear Forces: The Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-06587-1.