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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Self-Reliance Deception

When this article came out, I remember thinking how many people would appreciate it for confirming the obvious: self-confidence and incompetence are usually co-occurring:

Yet, we are constantly berated for not having enough 'self-confidence' and how we're supposed to 'feel better' about ourselves.  Really?  Is that what its all about?  All my problems are just because I don't feel good enough about myself?

This study demonstrates what we already know: feeling good about yourself and super-confident is usually an indication of incompetence.  The study found that the incompetent are stuck because they do not have the skills necessary to accurately judge their own performance, nor are they able to judge the work of others.

It seems as though Jesus' words are proved true: judgment is a sticky topic for those are more likely to be condemned.

As much as we should seek not to condemn or criticize others, we should seek to be judged.  Yes, I meant to say that: we should seek out the competent to examine us and make good evaluations.  The trap is this: can I tell who is competent if I am incompetent?

Yes, and no.  What we must do is approach the topic of competence is a gradual manner.  Our first step is to renounce our own sense of competence and the need for self-reliance.  This is the key.  If you do not believe that you must be perfect, but rather you are on a path to perfection that you have not achieved yet, then you can be open to seeing your errors.

We often set our sights on perfection, but Christ did not come preaching 'perfection' as an achievable condition for men.  He came preaching repentance, which means a defeat of incompetence.  There's a difference.  For example, you can clean your house because you like a clean house, then you can also clean your house because you are afraid of dirt and the slightest thought of it drives you crazy.  One is positive, the other is negative, though both result in a clean house.

If you seek perfection because you fear not being perfect, then you are missing the point.  Perfection as established by Jesus is attained through God, which means we repent so that He can fill us with His perfection: we are perfected, but not perfect.  

If we are being perfected, then we will need outside assistance and the ability to admit that we are imperfect and in need of help.  Self-reliance becomes a hindrance, and confidence a dangerous game.

I recall hearing the story of a young sailor fresh out of nuclear reactor school.  In his first sea deployment, he did his 'by-the-book' tests and came out with a reading that the reactor was having problems.  He took it to the Lead Petty Officer, who laughed it off.  He redid the test, got the same reading, and went to the Chief.  The Chief laughed it off, and so did the reactor Division Officer.  Then he took it to the Captain.  The Captain then watched him do the test, saw the results, ordered the reactor shut down and had them towed back to port.  The sailor got a commendation, and the others got put on shore for the durations of their foreshortened careers.  The problem was one of confidence: the others thought the test was the result of the young sailor's inexperience, and so they had no confidence in him.  The problem was that they should have had confidence in the test itself, no matter who does it.

And this leads us to the other problem: can we receive the truth from people in whom we have no confidence?  This is also the problem of recognizing competence.  Some people can appear foolish, yet they have great wisdom.  St. Paul talks about his preaching as looking foolish.  Christianity has often been quickly dismissed because so much of it does look crazy.  This is often why heresy can look very reasonable.

In the end, we must be able to see the fruits of something in order to determine its truth. The competent person is competent because of the fruits of his actions: he does the job well.  How does he do so well?  Very often it is by having a healthy sense of self-doubt, which leads him to take great care.

If we cultivate an inner self-doubt, rather than self-confidence, we can absorb sound advice and helpful correction.  If we cultivate self-confidence, then we risk moving into over-confidence.  This will cause us to miss critical information, and lead to an inner 'nuclear incident' which might have been avoided if we did not look down on others.

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