It's Presidents' Day here in the US, which normally makes us think of George Washington, our first official president.
Today, however, I've got Abraham Lincoln on the brain. Part of that may be how close I am to finishing up Lincoln in the Bardo. Part of it, however, is based on an article I read a few months ago, which has stayed with me and which I often mentally refer back to.
The article, entitled "Lincoln's Great Depression," details Lincoln's experience with clinical depression, which the author (Joshua Wolf Shenk) argues would make Lincoln a political liability today but enabled Lincoln to 'save the nation'....then.
The article is a wonderful read in itself, but for anyone who's ever struggled with failure, confidence or the sense that one is too sensitive, this article is really a must-read. It gave voice to a feeling I'd been playing with for years but which seemed so simple and outlandish I never voiced it aloud.
The idea is that confidence is overrated.
If you're reading this, and if you're American, you may have just balked. We value confidence in America. We value and feel safe with people who can come into a room with an air of certainty and begin delegating/commanding/ordering action with a sense of complete confidence.
But....what I've learned over the years, having spent a good amount of time with people with swagger, is that confidence is often just bluster and the people who seem to have it in spades are often not confident but delusional.
I worked in Washington DC for a few years before having kids. I interned at a big think tank there, and my boss was a pretty big name in the policy world. He once wrote a letter of recommendation for me for another job, which I was later offered. My boss there told me what the letter said - basically, I was great except for one thing: I could be more confident.
I felt bad about that letter for a long time. I wondered why everyone else seemed to hustle around Washington with swagger, eyes wide-open, shoulders back, barreling down K Street with a sense of not just purpose but destiny. I was always chin tilted slightly down, thinking about the next report I needed to write, quiet at luncheons and shyly sitting in the back of Congressional hearings.
Then, I was asked to write a short policy brief/paper on an global health issue relevant to the department I was interning with. I agonized about that brief. I didn't know what else could be said about something the UN and the WHO had already detailed, ad nauseam. I spent hours on two short pages. When I finally handed it in, I was pretty sure the guy who'd asked for it would go to our boss and have me fired. I was downright shaky.
I heard nothing.
A few months later, I got a phone call from one of the other interns, who said, "I shouldn't even be telling you this, but I figure you have a right to know. That brief you wrote? He got it published under his name."
I looked it up. There it was, my writing, verbatim, under someone else's name.
Beyond feeling a little duped or angry, my overwhelming feeling was: those two pages got published? Those two pages are now being cited in other briefs? Those two pages were discussed in a Congressional hearing?
The brief was okay. It was basically a regurgitation of what everyone else had already said on the subject, distilled into two pages. The grammar was on-point. That was it.
I had no idea people got stuff like that published. I thought being published meant you were brilliant, that you'd found a new way to view a subject, that your thoughts were fresh and your writing stellar.
I realized that day that people were walking all over Washington, shoulders back, chins lifted not because they were brilliant people serving a greater purpose but because they just had the confidence to do that: to walk with their shoulders back and chins lifted. That the confidence didn't seem necessarily linked to performance or ability didn't seem to matter.
People see confidence as a sign that a person is right and responsible and can take care of things, but my experience has led down some disappointing roads in that department. More often than not, those people with all that swagger never measure up to their promises. They over-promise while they under-deliver.
I am now much more cautious of confidence. I am now skeptical. Give me a person with swagger, and I take a step back and wonder if that person isn't the mentally unsound one.
Give me a person with pause, a person who isn't certain, a person who needs time to think, and I get real confident about that person's ability to deliver. It takes a lot of courage to say: I don't know. It takes mental fortitude to recognize our own limits, and then it takes a bit more fortitude to push beyond them.
Lincoln was acutely aware of his failings, even if they were only in his mind. Lincoln also made a conscious decision to go beyond his personal limitations, to make better what he was sure was less-than, to work harder, to pour over it, to question his decisions and to finally give the country he best he had to offer.
What would today be defined as weak turned out to be, perhaps, one of our greatest leader's ultimate strength: he was never so confident that he didn't question everything, including himself.
What that boss of mine in Washington didn't realize was that my 'lack of confidence' wasn't a weakness or a problem to be solved; it was a legitimate realization that I was a newly-graduated, 27-year-old woman with little experience in real-world policy making, who needed to think and listen hard before she could walk into a meeting with swagger.
That isn't lack of confidence. That is reality.
Some people don't seem to know the difference.
I hope everyone is enjoying the day off. My daughter had to go to school to make up for a snow day. The rest of us are still in pajamas.