True confidence is freedom to change

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
At the end of term, I chaired the annual Wester Hailes Lecture, delivered by Carol Craig on Creating Confidence.

During the informal chat after the lecture, a woman approached her to say that a friend who was unable to attend had given her a question. But, having heard the lecture, she had torn up the question.

The question was: "Can't some people have too much confidence?" The absent questioner assumed that Ms Craig would reiterate the Polyanna pap that suggests you can succeed if you believe you can.

Ms Craig's lecture started from a very different assumption. In 1970s California, low self-esteem was identified as the major cause of many social ills. Empirical research, however, suggests that there is not a correlation between self-esteem and success. Indeed, while low self-esteem can lead to teenage pregnancy and suicide, high self-esteem can lead to aggression, bullying and road rage.

She quoted Martin Seligman, who posits that "feeling good" rather than "doing well" is setting up young people for depression and narcissism rather than for mastery and success. Indeed, success builds confidence, but overprotection undermines the potential for success.

False praise, and its resultant cult of individualism, may well be responsible for a generation which believes its own feelings are the centre of the universe. If false praise undermines resilience, so also does praise and condemnation for fixed characteristics.

In other words, if we see people as intelligent, as skilled sports people, as natural artists, as caring, and praise them for what is fixed, or if we see them as selfish, or poor at sport or unimaginative and condemn them for such fixed characteristics, we deny their potential for change and growth.

Ms Craig sees condemnation for fixed characteristics as a powerfully destructive Scottish trait. "You can tell the criminal from the face in the cradle" exemplifies the strong instinctual certainty that the elect are a predetermined set, saved by grace and not by works.

She used quotations from Bill Duncan's The Wee Book of Calvin to illustrate the helplessness and pessimism which can flow from such a mindset. What chance for change if "your sins are written doon in the book o' no-rubbin'-oot"?

We live in Scotland in a time when, tentatively, we might be seen as taking greater responsibility for our personal, social and political lives. Perhaps the pessimists who see good events as temporary and beyond control are today facing a challenge and perhaps the Scottish mindset can change.

Perhaps we can reject the fatalistic tradition of Calvinism and develop that other characteristic which sees life as a serious matter in which we have a duty to harness our skills and attributes to the common good.

Perhaps we can create schools which see the potential for change and growth in all young people. Perhaps the fact that more than 120 people gathered in Wester Hailes to hear that message is itself cause for optimism.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh

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