A few years ago a Centre for Confidence was launched in Scotland. At the time I thought this was another pointless initiative, a waste of money that could be better spent on essential services. However on reflection I’m not sure it is such a bad idea. I’m not aware exactly what the Centre has done in the last few years, I haven’t seem much publicity of its activities, but I do think that addressing the poor self-confidence and self-belief of my fellow Scots is something that is badly needed.
I was thinking about myself recently, and how my lack of confidence has probably held me back in many ways. I am not particularly shy or retiring in general, but neither am I outgoing or extroverted. Whatever innate personality traits I may have been endowed with there is also something in my upbringing and in the culture that surrounds me that contributes to this lack of confidence.
Neither of my parents are particularly confident. My father still hates making calls on the phone to people other than friends or family. My mother has her comfort zone and rarely strays outwith this. My extended family are all generally quite quiet, reserved people. Our family gatherings never turn into wild parties, dancing on tables or karaoke. Weddings never feature drunkenness, fights or smashed glasses. So I wasn’t brought up in an environment where people were outgoing, loud or forward.
Even at school I didn’t encounter a culture of self-confidence or self-belief. Primary school laid much more emphasis on order, discipline and conformity than expression, exploration or individuality. I left with a good basic education, I was well-behaved and had a respect for authority. Don’t get me wrong, these things all benefited me in numerous ways and I wouldn’t have wanted to be without them, but it would also have been nice to have been nurtured into developing my creative side, or having instilled in me the thought that the world was my oyster.
Instead, aged 12, I went on to Secondary School where all thought of oysters were beaten out of me and even the order and discipline had vanished. When I hear people now talk of their schools being all about pressure to do well in exams, the organised trips to universities, visits from ex-pupils who have gone on to be doctors, scientists or artists I am somewhat envious. My secondary school memories include a teacher getting attacked by a pupil with a brick, my chemistry teacher getting set on fire while another pupil got locked in a cupboard and being told by the careers teacher that I should be a glazier and by the depute head that I should be a secretary. Add into this mix that I was short, had a bad haircut, eczema, unfashionable clothes, liked weird music (weird to the other pupils who all liked Take That and 2 Unlimited, I liked Deacon Blue and REM) and you have one teenager distinctly lacking in confidence.
Ok the school was in a bit of a rough area, and most pupils were from “deprived” backgrounds, but that’s no excuse for not building a culture of confidence and self-worth in pupils. Some teachers were excellent and inspiring as teachers should be, but others were lazy, uninterested and ablaze. There was no particular expectation that any of us would go to university, most people in my year left after the minimum 4 years, others stayed on because they couldn’t think of anything else to do, but most eventually drifted off to various courses at the local college. There was no culture of dreams, achievement or belief that if you worked hard you could reach the top. Back then I didn’t really even know what the top was. I wanted to be a journalist, but would have been happy with a job on the local paper. It didn’t occur to me to aim for anything more, because no-one around me was doing that, or suggested that I could or should. I didn’t have the confidence or self-belief to imagine anything else would be possible.
I did realise that I had to get out of my home town, in fact I got out of the country and spent a gap year working in Sweden then came back and started at university in Glasgow. I got involved with the student newspaper but soon realised that I was in an ultra-competitive environment where I just didn’t have the confidence or self-belief to stand out. I knew I was a decent writer and I had desk-top publishing skills that not many people had at that time (remember this was 1998, we had about 5 computers between us, no-one had laptops, we barely had dial-up internet and only the rich kids had mobile phones) but I didn’t have the balls to march up to the president of the student union and demand an answer, or blag my way into King Tuts to cover the latest band. I was up against people who had gone to private school, were Head Boy and Chief Prefect or whatever, who had fathers who were solicitors and who had landed an internship with the Scotsman for their summer holidays. I had barely even read the Scotsman before I was 19. I did that for 2 years then got frustrated that I was being bypassed by people who were not as good as me but who could shout louder.
My degree was in Politics, but I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to become a professional politician. Again the kind of students who got into student politics or local politics were the ones that could blag, smarm and push their way into positions and curry favour with those in power. They knew how to walk the walk and talk the talk. I didn’t and didn’t have the faintest clue where to start. I have since met people my age who have succeeded in politics and they come across are rather over-confident, arrogant, smug individuals so maybe it’s a good thing that didn’t work out for me?
Things have definitely improved for me in recent years, as I’ve got older and gained more experience in life I have found I am more self-assured. Forging your own path in life and being in a workplace of your choosing rather than a school or university setting where you are surrounded by peers that you constantly compare yourself to makes a difference. But the fact remains that I am not alone in this, I think the Institute is correct in saying that we have a crisis of confidence here, mostly affecting young people from less well-off backgrounds, and this goes hand-in-hand with under-achievement.
Well this has turned into a far longer post that I anticipated and it has definitely got more biography in it that I wanted. Oh well, congratulations if you have read this far, please make use of the comments box to add your views!