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The Difference Between Arrogance and Self Confidence

I remember my college art professor asked our class which one of us thought we could create the best abstract from the assignment he’d taught that week. Whoever did would get extra-credit. All of us had egos. Every one of us believed we were good artists—but none of us raised our hand for this project. We were too modest.


photo credit: Helga Weber via photopin cc

A friend just reminded me of a statistic about freshman students today.

The American Freshman Survey is given every year to first year students. Question 41 asks them to compare themselves against “the average person your age,” rating their strengths and weaknesses on a list of nineteen characteristics.

According to journalist Michael Overall, when the annual survey was launched in 1966, most college freshmen had a pretty high opinion of the average person. Or, they just had a realistic opinion of themselves. Between 60-70% marked themselves “average” or “below average” in most categories.

Since then, over 15 million students have taken the survey, designed to give colleges a demographic picture of their incoming class. Evidently, the average person “just ain’t what he used to be.” Three out of four freshmen now consider themselves “driven to succeed” more than most people. Two thirds think they have more leadership ability. Three of five actually describe themselves as more intellectual.

“It’s like everybody grew up at Lake Wobegon,” Overall writes. We want our kids to have healthy doses of self-esteem, but even water can kill you if you drink too much.

Twenty-five years ago, half of all students spent at least six hours a week studying for class. Today, barely one out of three put that much effort into it. Ironic for a group that considers themselves so “driven.”

Self-confidence is knowing you can succeed if you work hard enough.

Arrogance is thinking it will be easy.

What do you think we can do to teach students the difference between arrogance and self confidence? Click here to leave a comment.


  1. Irene Reid on January 16, 2013 at 10:44 am

    I’m not convinced that this is learnable except by life experience both at home, socially and at school. So as teachers/parents of young people we surely have to allow young people to experience situations and take responsiblity for the consequences of their actions. We must give honest, critical, and integrous feedback to them. We can also create situations in which they are guided to a realisation of that difference, albeit perhaps with a few hard knocks along the way!
    Today some Grade 12 learners that graduated from school last year came back to talk to the new Grade 8 learners about what they had learned as valauble for academic success at school….
    It was refreshing to hear the following:
    consistency; hard work; balance; prioritise; relax and have a sense of fun; eat healthily, rest; plan your study time; reward yourself; exercise; get good sleep; dream and strive for your dream; study; listen in class;
    Best of all, these girls were those whose personal and school lives, reflected those values and whose results showed the fruits of their confident approach to high school. No arrogance here just good solid practical confidence about the route to achieving a goal.

    • Tim Elmore on January 16, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Irene, thanks for adding to the conversation. You make a great point about how much of this has to be learned through real-life experience. Having 12th graders share their experience with 8th graders is a great way to start the conversation and put it on those younger students’ radar.

  2. Jeremy Boone on January 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    What a great post and one that I find quite true working with young athletes for sure!

    In my experience, I would also say that there is quite a gap between what a young athlete (student) wants to believe to be true about themselves versus what they really believe to be true about themselves.

    This is one of my issues with self-reflection ‘surveys’ and young adults. In my research of now over 4,000 athletes this gap continues to get wider.

    Thanks for all you are doing to impact today’s youth culture!

    • Tim Elmore on January 18, 2013 at 11:10 am

      Interesting insight, Jeremy. Fascinating to know that the gap is getting wider. Have you identified any causes for this trend?

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The Difference Between Arrogance and Self Confidence