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A Crisis of Overconfidence

The unattainable dream?

I always hated talking in class. Nothing struck fear into my heart like reading that “participation points” would count for 25% of my grade. I used to chalk it up to the fact that I’ve always been on the reserved end of the spectrum. Yet I read an article in the New York Times a couple of days ago that got me wondering whether my disinclination to speak up had deeper roots. It was never talking in itself that scared me—it was the fear of making an inelegant statement, of stumbling over my words, of giving an incorrect answer to a question. I needed to be perfect, and this perfectionism, perhaps, has its origins in social hierarchies and my uncertain position within them.

We’ve all met that person who, despite questionable competence, seems to have an easy ride through life, who reaps all the rewards without putting in any of the work. Family wealth and connections doubtless play a role, yet research suggests that we also need to consider the overconfidence of the wealthy to understand their stranglehold on educational and employment prospects. Those who overestimate their abilities tend to perform better in interviews; they get the fancy jobs and solidify their place in society’s upper echelons. It’s easy, after all, to be the loudest person in the room when you know that you’ve got reliable financial backing if you fail. When you’re from a non-elite background, though, there’s a limit to how far you can push your luck.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the idea of class, never quite sure of where to position myself. I grew up in a non-rich family in a poor swath of mid-Michigan. The population of my hometown was about 15,000 when I lived there, and I’m sure it’s shrunk since then—it’s the kind of place that people leave. It’s also the kind of place with a church on every corner, where the local lunatic exercises his “right” to openly carry an assault rifle around town. Local lore has it that it’s one of the meth capitals of Michigan, and even though I’ve never been into drugs, I always knew where the meth houses were.

Yet despite these roots (or perhaps as a reaction to these roots), my parents are exceptional, and they gave my sister and I an exceptional upbringing. They prioritized travel, scouring the internet for low-cost airfares. I’d been to Europe three times by the time I was ten year old, and I developed an early understanding of the world that didn’t quite correlate with the external markers of location of residence and parental income. I was always encouraged to read books and learn to play instruments. I took ballet lessons. The walls of my parents’ house were hung with photos of their trips to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. I could certainly never have been classified as “disadvantaged.” Yet at the same time, my parents’ income (coupled with my obsessive pursuit of good grades) meant that I received a degree from the University of Michigan completely for free, with living expenses included.

An outside observer may have seen me as privileged, but I always knew that I was working with limited resources.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not lamenting my position in the world. Even though my hometown is a graveyard of opportunity, I have the assurance of knowing that I can go back if absolutely necessary. I’ll never be homeless; I’ll never be without food. I may have to give up that lofty goal of working internationally as a researcher and writer, but I would survive. Still, it stings to think that a return to middle-of-nowhere Michigan is a possibility. I’ve been fed a narrative that, as long as I educate myself and develop my skills, I’ll be able to carve out a place for myself in the world of privilege. Of course that narrative was nothing more than a fantasy.

My first awareness of my position within the United States of Inequality came when I was 17. I spent a few weeks of the summer at Princeton taking AP US History (I was one of those kids), funded by my hometown’s local millionaire. One of the course activities was to debate W.E.B. DuBois’ and Booker T. Washington’s theories of race equality with a classmate. My opponent was from New York City, and attended a high school where the mission was to get every student accepted to an Ivy League university. I, by contrast, came from a town where buying a study guide for the SAT raised some eyebrows. At the end of the debate, the class voted, and my opponent was declared the winner. The professor, however, voted for me. He pulled me aside later to tell me that I had a “first-rate intellect” but just needed to find my confidence.

Try as I might, I would never attain my classmate’s innate, rich-kid, unconditional self-assurance. I made a habit of passing for privileged in the way that I dressed and spoke and conducted myself, yet I always knew that I would have to work twice as hard for half the results. This perhaps wasn’t so apparent during my education, but it’s become abundantly clear since moving to New York and beginning the job search. I may have three degrees from competitive universities and years of work experience in research and advocacy, yet I don’t know the right people, nor have I mastered the art of confident self-expression. Therefore I am nothing.

So why am I writing all this? Why did that New York Times article resonate so strongly? My move New York from London has brought a lot of reflection social inequalities, spurred on by the grinding realities of precarious employment. It never ceases to astonish me that I accomplished more on my own merits in the UK—one of the most stratified societies in the world­—than in the supposed meritocracy of the US. What I’ve found in the US is that money talks, and everyone's fighting to be loudest person in the room. If you want a decent standard of living in New York, you’d better have the financial means to take on a few unpaid internships, and then you’d better have the confidence to constantly trumpet your achievement. Quiet competence means nothing.

I write this because this is a system that needs to change. We need to end unpaid internships and stop the commodification of education. We need to elevate working class kids to the same playing field as those with mountains of family money. And in the meantime, we need to re-evaluate our societal reactions to overconfidence, to become more critical assessors of a person’s message and, perhaps, to give some new voices a chance to be heard.


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