“Never mistake a wish for a certainty!”
– Violet, Dowager Duchess of Grantham, Downton Abbey
If you are a fan of the show Downton Abbey, you will be familiar with the Dowager Duchess’ directness and her sharp retorts. They’re usually a highlight of every episode. Her wisdom, however, gets overlooked at times because it’s usually less overt or funny than her indelible sarcasm and timely gibes, but it shows up in lines like the one above.
Talking yourself into certitude is easy when an ambition or a passion sneaks into your subconscious and gets you to rationalize and downplay inconvenient facts. You can just will yourself into believing. When you’re more logical, you’re usually more realistic than when you’re emotional. But, when you want something badly enough, you can talk yourself through just about any obstacle, like the boy in the old story who dug feverishly through a pile of manure insisting that a pony just had to be in there somewhere!
I could have used a bit of the Dowager Duchess’ wisdom back when I was in fifth grade and my home county was holding its first countywide spelling bee. I wanted to win it and I wanted to win it badly. VERY badly! So badly that I convinced myself that it was inevitable that I would win, that I could just kick back and expect my victory. I expected it like the son of the king expects his own coronation.
Grandiose that may be, but my confidence wasn’t completely without reason. Fourth grade was a highlight of my early years. My teacher was in his first year of teaching – new, energetic and very supportive – singling me out for special praise several times in front of the whole class. Impressed, deeply appreciative of his attention and validation, I badly wanted to perform well for him, and he played right to my strengths by holding a spelling bee for the class every Friday of that school year.
English was my best subject area, and spelling, reading and writing came easy to me. Those spelling bees gave me my chance to shine, and I made the most of it, winning every one of those Friday spelling bees. It got me the recognition of my teacher and my classmates, but it also caused me to be totally puffed up with an overly-confident pride.
You may know where this is headed. A comeuppance was to be expected, of course, and I got mine. I’ll never forget the moment when I was called on to spell the word that I couldn’t, the word that I had never even heard of before. I had never heard of it because I was so sure of myself that I didn’t study the word list we’d been given. Standing there in my fifth grade classroom, all eyes on me, I was shocked to realize that I got bounced in the first round, that I wouldn’t get anywhere near the title. Fortunately, my seat was at the back of the room, letting me hide the pain and embarrassment that must have been all over my face.
Sometimes I think of that moment when I see awards shows and the camera cuts away to spare the loser from having to face the whole public. I think I know how glad of it they are. I ALWAYS think of that moment whenever I have to read the word fallacious.
The lesson from this is that confidence is not enough. It has to be backed by something. Sometimes you hear people say that you have to believe in yourself, and at times I think some people expect that their self-confidence is all they need. That assumption is behind some of the thinking about self-esteem, which is important, but which needs a foundation in character, ability, integrity and demonstrated achievement.
Practice and dedication were what I really needed. I’d already developed my spelling skill. A solid foundation for self-confidence was in place, but I went too far with it and got tripped up by confusing my wish with the certainty that it would be fulfilled, just as the Dowager Duchess warned not to.
That day I learned a helpful lesson that I am no more likely to forget than I will the spelling of fallacious.