A loyal reader of this blog wrote me a very simple question: What is confidence?
This opens up an issue important for lots of us. A huge issue.
So many of us are hungry to feel confident in so many parts of our life: talking to strangers, standing up to our boss, having sex, asking for something, doing something new or hard, raising a child, learning something new, managing a new project…you name it.
So of course most of us would love to know the secret of confidence. What do all those seemingly confident people out there have that we don’t have?
First of all, believe me!: the vast majority of those seemingly confident people feel much less confident on the inside than they project on the outside. What we call confident people is mostly just people who are good at faking confidence.
Second, and more important, most people don’t really understand what confidence is in the first place.
Confidence is not a feeling. Instead, it’s a form of near-certain knowledge that you can do something or a set of somethings. And it’s based on real experience with those somethings. I’m confident I can ride a bike, even tho I haven’t done so in a long time, because I just know it’s something you don’t forget. In some cases, you’ve been challenged by a wide range of somethings and have figured out how to do them. For example, I’m confident I can answer your question. Meaning that confidence is something that I’ve thought about, taught about to grad students, used clinically, and understand well. I am warranted in thinking it’s in my wheelhouse.
I know I can’t fix a plumbing problem, due to a long run of disasters when I’ve tried. So when it comes to plumbing, there’s this knowledge of what I CAN’T do! Since I’m not a plumber, this isn’t a problem. If I were a plumber, it’d be a big problem.
Here’s what a truly confident guy, who built and ran a big business, said to me once: “I make as many bad decisions as good decisions, but I’ve found that most of the time when I make a bad decision I don’t just sit with it. I fix it.” It’s not how he felt. It’s what he knew about himself from experience.
People who don’t have confidence feel trepidation, worry, as if they were walking out on very thin ice.
But people who do have confidence don’t feel some sort of warm glow of confidence. I don’t think there is such a feeling. What they have is just the knowledge that they can do X. If they say, “Let me do that. I know how,” they, well, just know how, tho to others they may seem confident.
An experienced obstetrician won’t be basking in confidence. She’ll just know that she’s delivered a bunch of babies, including some difficult deliveries, and in almost every case it’s turned out as well as could be expected.
One more point. There is a big difference between having confidence and knowing you’ll succeed. If you’re a skilled, experienced pilot and your plane starts acting up at 37,000 feet, you may know for sure that you’re well equipped to deal with the problem, perhaps better than most pilots. But you CAN’T know you’re going to be successful. Only that you’re capable of being successful if that’s a realistic possibility. Tom Brady can be confident he’ll be a very good quarterback a week from Sunday. But he can’t be confident he’s going to win, tho he might reasonably be confident of winning if I were the Falcons quarterback.
There is one other category. People like Trump DO feel confidence, but it’s unreal and unwarranted. It’s an internally felt false bravado based on self image, not real experience. This kind of feeling confident is a mental defect.
So do I think of myself as confident in general?
No! That’s the point. Speaking for myself, there is no “in general.” All any of us can do is give you a list of our skills and abilities. For example, I grew up speaking Yiddish. I’m pretty confident I could sharpen up my Yiddish-speaking ability back to the point where I was fluent again. Would I ever become a master of Yiddish? I can’t say I’m confident about that. I have no basis on which to be confident about that. But I don’t need to be confident about that. All I need is to work at sharpening up my Yiddish and will see how far I get.
So confidence on a broader level is about having a skill set solid enough for the things I’m likely to allow myself to encounter. Certainly when that’s the case, we can have an inner glow of competence, but it’s to some extent an illusion. I’m competent at some things, but I’m not omni-competent. All most of us do is arrange our lives to fit our skill set.
I’m sure you’ve learned a lot that you now use all the time. So don’t worry about confidence. Just know that you know what you know. But much, much more important, LEARN MORE!! The more you learn, the more you can do, the more confident you’ll become. And this is where so many of us get stuck. We worry about confidence. So we’re reluctant to learn more, because the learning process always puts us in a place where we’re much less good at what we’re learning than we are at the things we’re already good at. So we feel, for a while, less confident! Will I really be able to learn this new material?
BUT if you keep learning new things, keep putting yourself in learning situations, you’ll become confident about who you are in the learning process itself. And if you feel comfortable learning new things, the whole world belongs to you.