Ego and confidence

A little filthy lucre . . .

I always enjoy writers writing about writing. John Keegan, a military historian reflects on The Writing Life in a new bit from the Washington Post. It seems that paying his children’s school fees was his primary motivator, but in the discussion of his foolish confidence regarding success he teases out an important distinction:

So what sustained my wildly unrealistic optimism that I could make up the difference between what an academic salary paid and what private schools cost? Most of all, I think, blind self-confidence. Not self-esteem; I constantly wonder why the difference between the two is not more widely recognized. I had no opinion of myself, indeed rather the opposite. I did, on the other hand, think I could do certain things rather better than other people, and one was to manipulate the English language. I thought that because I had noticed that my essays were better, as pieces of writing, than other people’s had been, at school and university. I also noticed that such small things as I had written were, occasionally, not inferior to the sort of writing I admired in books and literary magazines. If they can do it, I can do it, I thought. So I set off.

This further supports my notion that the first step toward competence in any field of expression is becoming a critic. You first size-up the field you’re contemplating, before you enter it. Making distinctions between yourself and other people is a gesture of confidence in your critical ability, not an egotistical assertion of self-esteem. I do think he’s right that this is a commonly confused attribute of the creative personality. It’s possible to be confident, without any real connection to the ego.