Zig Ziglar said that if you increase your confidence, you increase your competence. I think that’s generally true. Of course you could be an idiot and become a more confident idiot. In that case confidence just makes things worse [1]. But otherwise when you have more confidence, you explore more options, and in effect become more competent.

There are some things you may need to learn not for the content itself but for the confidence boost. Maybe you need to learn them so you can confidently say you didn’t need to. Also, some things you need to learn before you can see uses for them. (More on that theme here.)

I’ve learned several things backward in the sense of learning the advanced material before the elementary. For example, I studied PDEs in graduate school before having mastered the typical undergraduate differential equation curriculum. That nagged at me. I kept thinking I might find some use for the undergrad tricks. When I had a chance to teach the undergrad course a couple times, I increased my confidence. I also convinced myself that I didn’t need that material after all.

My experience with statistics was similar. I was writing research articles in statistics before I learned some of the introductory material. Once again the opportunity to teach the introductory material increased my confidence. The material wasn’t particularly useful, but the experience of having taught it was.

Related post: Psychological encapsulation

[1] See Yeats’ poem The Second Coming:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


4 thoughts on “Confidence

  1. I’ve found a similar thing to be true, though not relating to confidence. Often, I’ve found the best way to learn something is to get in over my head by going to the advanced stuff too soon. Then when I learn the pieces that go into it, I already see where they’re going with respect to the material I’d previously learned and how they’re useful. Perhaps this is a limitation on my part, but it’s heartening that others have found a similar pattern, albeit in different terms.

  2. “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
    ― Eleanor Roosevelt

  3. This is very true in my experience. Nothing builds your confidence like being able to complete a task you initially believed to be over your head. Of course, the fact that you’re given such a task in the first place probably means that someone else has confidence in you, and knows you are capable of doing it.

  4. I have so many tools (mainly analytical/statistical math techniques) I use so rarely that I never trust my mastery of them. So with each use I find I need to drill down to the basics to ensure I understand the results I’m generating.

    What amazes me is that I intuitively know what techniques I’ll need in a given situation, even if I haven’t used them in 5-10 years. It’s as if my internal search engine generated a result, but I have to exhaustively validate it before I’ll trust it.

    It’s like I remember the abstract for every paper I’ve ever read (the “what”), but forget everything else the paper contained (the “how”). Google is my friend.

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