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I have had a few conversations with folks recently about the difference between arrogance and self-confidence.  I think there is a distinct difference, but I also think that it is difficult for an outside observer to tell the difference.  This means that the two are frequently viewed as almost interchangeable descriptors.

What is the difference?  In my opinion, self-confidence is based on self-knowledge and an accurate self-image.  This is the person who looks at a situation and says to himself or herself “I can do this.  I have faced a similar situation before and/or I have the specific skills, knowledge, and opportunity to succeed.”  The self-confident person is also not afraid to look at any given situation, evaluate it honestly, and conclude that they can’t accomplish the task on their own.  Arrogance, on the other hand, is based on a self-image that is inaccurate.  This is the person who looks at a situation and without stopping to evaluate their own strengths in the given situation dismissively concludes “Of course I can do this.”

It’s a nuanced difference, but it is a difference.  Americans are often viewed as “arrogant” when we travel overseas because we fully expect that people will speak our language and will bend over backwards to ensure that our journey is enjoyable.  A traveler who has traveled internationally, traveled in and through big cities and major airports, and speaks another language and believes he or she will be fine making a trip to Europe is not arrogant, they are self-confident.

Michael Jordan was frequently criticized by some (mostly jealous) basketball pundits as seeming arrogant, but the truth of the matter was that he was exceptionally skilled and he knew his limitations.  A player with a similar attitude who did not have the skills to win 10 scoring titles, 5 MVP awards, six NBA titles, six NBA Finals MVP awards, and all his other accomplishments would be arrogant.  Michael Jordan was self-confident.  He had phenomenal skills that he had honed for a specific purpose, and when challenges arose he met them head on.

One of the major problems in our society today is that instead of building up our children to have skills and to be confident in those skills, the public school system builds up our children’s self-image regardless of capability.  They teach our children that acquiring the skills to be able to accomplish their goals isn’t as important as feeling good about themselves in any situation.  Don’t get me wrong, I think self-esteem is important, but if it is not tied to an accurate self-image it will doom you to disappointment.

There are articles and studies about the fact that American kids are supremely confident in their abilities even while ranking significantly lower than their international counterparts.  Why don’t we change this?  Because teaching skills is hard and teaching self-esteem isn’t.  This is one of the many reasons we chose to homeschool our children.  Our daughter feels pretty good about herself and where she is academically, but then again she just turned six, can count to a couple hundred, do addition and subtraction in her head, and wakes up most mornings to read a few chapters from a Nancy Drew novel.  Is she arrogant?  I would argue she isn’t.

The funny thing is that this whole discussion started in my head because I had a conversation with someone about writing a book.  Lots of folks can sit down and say “Oh yeah, I’ll write a book.”  Most of those folks are arrogant.  I told some friends I was thinking about writing a book.  I had written a 30 page “short story” and had written numerous papers on various topics as well as columns and manuals and all sorts of other pieces of prose.  I knew I had the skills and that, given enough time, I could write a book that would be entertaining and uplifting.  I’m fairly certain some of my friends thought I was being arrogant.  I think I was displaying an appropriate level of self-confidence.  I’ll let you be the judge, but to do so fairly you’ll have to click on one of those links at the side of this blog and read Book One of the Vergrinn War series. (so, if you read my book and still think I’m arrogant I win because I got you to read my book while if you don’t read my book I don’t think you’re capable of forming a valid opinion on the subject – is that more arrogance on my part?)