I recently spent a day with a group of second year undergraduates – from different universities, on a broad range of courses. They were bright, happy, enthusiastic and optimistic about their individual futures. That’s not to say they knew exactly what they would be doing after graduation 18 months from now – in most cases they had no idea. They weren’t oblivious to the current economic climate, and they knew that many people are facing a tough time. But they were optimistic.
Probing a little into their optimism, I found it was based on the most magical ingredient – confidence.
When tempered with humility, and in the absence of arrogance, can there be a more alluring characteristic in young people than confidence? Confidence enables people to open doors for themselves; it allows them to explore, and reach out further to extend their experience, knowledge and understanding; it gives them a basis for further personal development. And better than that, it is self-perpetuating, providing an ever-increasing baseline from which to develop.
The confidence I observed in those second year students was not founded purely on an ability to do things. It was based on an understanding of personal boundaries; on a good understanding of what they couldn’t do. Instead of seeing this as a limiting factor, they looked at this much more positively – “It’s not that I can’t do something, it’s more that I can’t yet do something. If I need to be able to do it, I will learn how to do that. And until then, I will get help“.
As we urge the next generation to work hard and tell them that they can do anything if they want it enough, we should also remind them of the importance of self-knowledge and self-understanding. I wonder whether we sometimes do too much of the former, and too little of the latter. After all it’s easy to be encouraging, enthusiastic and optimistic. It’s less easy to demonstrate where personal boundaries lie without appearing to be negative.
Failure to recognise boundaries in one’s ability and knowledge can so easily lead to arrogance. But understanding those boundaries; where they are, and what they do – that is rather more useful, and is an essential step in delivering the confidence which we find so appealing.