Islam: Day 9 – Beyond the Confidence Gap

David Brooks wrote an excellent op-ed piece in reaction to the Atlantic article  The Confidence Gap. The Confidence Gap authors makes the argument that while there is some inequality between men and women in the workplace due to societal attitudes and such, much of it can be attributed to women’s lack of self-confidence relative to men.

While men are routinely over-confident, meaning they estimate their abilities to be far above what they actually are, women are under-confident, which means they routinely under-estimate their skills and abilities.

The article explicitly calls for women to be less self-effacing and more confident like their male counterparts so that they can achieve rewards commensurate with their actual abilities, not perceived abilities.

David Brooks doesn’t believe that women’s under-confidence is the problem, it is men’s over-confidence.

“So my first reaction when reading of female underconfidence is not simply that this is a problem. It’s to ask, how can we inject more of this self-doubt and self-policing into the wider culture. How can each of us get a better mixture of “female” self-doubt and “male” self-assertion?”

This struck a chord with me as my primary goal for Islam month is to develop humility, primarily to counter my naive overconfidence in some parts of my life that I believe have negative effects on me.

Brooks writes,

“The self-help books try to boost the “confidence” part of self-confidence, but the real problem is the “self” part. The self, as writers have noticed for centuries, is an unstable, fickle, vain and variable thing.”

Confidence today is overly associated with the self and one’s ego. Without linking confidence to some sort of external, task oriented criteria, it becomes abstract and almost meaningless.

“When you try to come up with a feeling for self-confidence, you are trying to peer into a myriad of ever-changing mental systems, most of them below the level of awareness. Instead of coming up with a real thing, which can reliably be called self-confidence, you’re just conjuring an abstraction. In the very act of trying to think about self-confidence, your vanity is creating this ego that is unstable and ethereal, and is thus painfully fragile, defensive, boasting and sensitive to slights.”

Now consider this passage from The Illuminated Prayer, a Sufi guide to Salat.

“The ‘I’ that so many have defended to their dying breath might be likened to a slightly unstable computer operating system. It’s got wonderful features, but it still crashes and needs regular upgrades. Ultimately, it is nothing more than a swarm of charged particles, or rather, it’s only the pattern of charges, completely ephemeral, subject at any moment  error messages, erasure, viruses, random power surges….even unfixable crashes.”

The “I” or “self” is inherently fragile, and rooting confidence in the self is destined to end poorly.

Brooks writes that confidence shoot be rooted in objective, external, criteria, rather than confusing notions of the self.

“The person with the self-confidence mind-set starts thinking about his own intrinsic state. The person who sees herself as the instrument for performing a task thinks about some external thing that needs doing. The person with the confidence mind-set is like the painfully self-conscious person at a dinner party who asks, ‘How am I coming across?’ The person with an instrumentalist mind-set is serving a craft and asks ‘What does this specific job require?’ The person with a confidence mind-set is told ‘Believe in yourself.’ This arouses all sorts of historical prejudices and social stereotypes. The person with an instrumentalist mind-set is told “Look accurately at what you have done.’”

Islam would agree that confidence should be rooted in something outside of the self, something external. However, Islam doesn’t suggest just picking any random task in which you can objectively measure your competence to build your confidence. Islam provides explicit guidelines on how to live your life in a just and moral manner. Islam says you should pray five time per day, donate 2.5% of your capital every year to worth causes, fast for one month every year, etc.

They also prescribe guidelines for how to conduct yourself in worldly affairs so that your actions in your day-to-day life are consistent with Islamic principles. Prayers are a reminder that you should live your life as if you were a servant to God, not a slave to your ego.

“Each of the prayers is said at a different strategic time so that no matter what we are doing or how busy we get, we are always aware that we either prayed a few hours ago or will pray again soon. This keeps the mind fresh and aware of our duty to God, and we become much less likely to want to break one of His laws.” – Yahiya Emerick

However, Islam goes beyond just serving God. The ultimate goal is to achieve complete dissolution of the self.

I believe most of us have this desire to “dissolve the self,” we just don’t recognize it. We might identify it as boredom, and think the solution is more entertainment. We might think it’s loneliness, and seek out a lover. We might identify it as a desire for the exotic, so we travel.

But I suspect that most of those desires are really a desire to dissolve the self and be one with God.

“A wicker basket sank in the Ocean, saw itself full of seawater, decided it could live independently. Left the ocean,

and a not a drop stayed in it.

But the ocean took it back. For God’s sake, stay near the sea! Walk the beach. Your face is pale.

I am sinking in the ocean of this subject.”

Like the wicker basket, we desire independence, but we cannot hold water. We are not designed to be separated from the ocean. It is only when we are subsumed by the ocean i.e. God, are we truly fulfilling our deepest needs.

The so-called confidence gap is really a symptom of a deeper problem. The problem is deeper than the problem of male hubris and female meekness; the problem is an excessive focus on the self and separation from the divine.

Men are separated from the divine by their over-confidence; women are separated from the divine by excessive worry about what others may think of them.

Instead of a confidence gap, perhaps we should call it the “God gap.”