Confidence: how does it develop?

Imagine a child arriving at an amusement park for the first time. Even before getting out of the car, the big curves of a colorful roller coaster are very prominent in the distance. The child says “What is that? Can I go on it?”

If the child has never been on a roller coaster, then they may be quite relaxed and genuinely eager to go on it- maybe not as excited as if they were more familiar with roller coasters. They have no experience with what it will be like to ride it. They are very sincere about their interest. However, they are completely unfamiliar with the reality of what the ride would be like for them.

So, are they confident? If so, how? They may be confident about their curiosity. They are certain that they are very curious or even intrigued. However, they can be much more confident about how they will like actually riding a roller coaster after they have actually been on one.

How about after the first few seconds of the ride? When the roller coaster slowly starts to climb up to the level of a single-story building, then up to the height of a two-story building, is that enough? Until they have climbed high and come speeding down (or maybe looped upside down twice in a row), then they are not actually experienced with roller coasters- no many how many stories they have heard or how many books about it they have read.

However, after they complete an entire trip, then they can be confident about more than their sincere curiosity. Maybe they will love the ride and maybe they will not. But does a lot of initial optimism guarantee anything?

How about if they begin very skeptical? Does that guarantee that they will never like riding any roller coasters?

I think that one of the most challenging experiences for me has been learning the reality of confidence. I learned early in life that confidence could be important. People who were confident could be recognized. People who were recognized as confident could be treated differently.

I was eager to be respected like those people who were perceived to be confident. So, I was interested in how to display what other people would perceive as confidence. The actual experience of confidence was less important to me than attracting respect. I was competing for respect, including competing with people who actually were confident. Sometimes I received it and sometimes I did not.

Only later in life did the experience of confidence itself become a focus. I had experienced the lasting stress of promoting a perception of confidence. I had earned respect in a variety of settings, some of which I found to be of no
lasting value.

Maintaining a persona of confidence could be especially exhausting in personal relationships. I learned a set of expectations for how people should seem, then attempted to present myself in conformity to those expectations. Sometimes that worked as hoped. I also failed to be convincing on occasion or even succeeded in promoting a particular perception but was not rewarded for it.

For example, I remember telling someone much older than me that I was very interested in social responsibility as in keeping the beach clean (picking up trash that people had left behind). She was not impressed.

She asked me if there were young ladies my age that were also part of the “beach clean up.” I said yes. She asked me if I had ever gone to clean up trash from the beach without a bunch of young women my age. I said no. She asked if I had gone to the beach with those same companions just to enjoy their company at the beach and not to pick up trash. I said “not yet, but yes I do like that idea.” She tapped her forehead and said, “yeah, I thought you might.”

Imagine a confident young man walking up to a young lady that interests him and saying “Hey, I have one quick thing to say to you, so stop texting your so-called boyfriend and look at me when I am talking to you. So, here is what is happening. You and I are going to the beach together this weekend- just the two of us- and I want to go with you in particular because what is really important to me is the environment and so we will take some garbage bags with us to pick up a bunch of trash and I have seen that you are really good at that kind of thing. You really know how to spot trash quickly and pick it up and then place it in to a bag until it the bag is too heavy for your thin little arms to carry. Also, we can take a whole box of bags, too, so we can really get a lot done in one day. Anyway, I want you to know that I respect that you really care about social responsibility rather than trivial things like social status or personal relationships. Instead of being horribly selfish like the snobs that should be more jealous of me for my excellent citizenship, you and I will be good people and get in to heaven when we die because we helped to keep the beaches clean for everyone until the following weekend when more people will throw a bunch more trash out there. One more thing: you do have a car, right? Don’t worry about paying for gas though because I will cover that. Wow, this is going to be really fun. It will be just like when the convicts from prison clean up the
trash from the ground except it will just be the two of us alone plus no one will be standing over us with a gun to shoot us if we try to escape. Cool, huh?”

The point of all that was that when I figured out a good script for appealing to some of the people around me, like the young ladies in my familiar social circles, that same script was completely unimpressive to a certain more mature woman. My grandmother was not impressed by my appeal to social responsibility. She did not come and join me on any beach clean-ups. She did not even say “I see that your grandfather needs to take you out more to show you the basics of courtship.”

Instead, she demonstrated that she saw through my pretenses. I did not care about any particular stretch of beach or even about social responsibility. I cared about social perceptions of me. I wanted people to think of me as a good person. I did not want condemnation or criticism. I wanted validation.

She demonstrated that she recognized that I was craving validation and she neither criticized me nor encouraged me in my environmentalism. She saw my desperate attempts to present confidence as well as my inexperience and ineffectiveness. What actually happened is that she changed the subject and she asked me how many push-ups I could do. Incidentally, her husband was a retired military officer. Also, I am pretty sure that they did not meet at a beach clean-up.

So, now you have heard a few stories about going to the beach to pick up women… I mean to pick up garbage. Before that was a story of a child seeing the exciting curves of a roller coaster in the distance. All of this was to contrast some points about what confidence is and what it is not.

To review, confidence is not eagerness. It is not sincerity. It is not interest. It is not openness. It is not just being relaxed about something.

All of those may be very attractive. They are just not the same as confidence.

Real confidence requires experience, and not just “more than none.” When someone has extensive experience with something and consistently gets the same outcome, then we can call that confidence. Also, if they are confident in their ability to produce a result, but are anxious about whether people will LIKE them or not for their extensive skills at, for instance, doing tricks on a motorbike, then that is being confident in a skill without being confident socially “in one’s self.” People can learn tricks and then attempt to “trick” others in to liking them. Sometimes that works very well, at least for a while….

Much of my life so far, confidence has been something that I desperately wanted other people to think that I had. If I was terrified, I wanted to be able to hide it. If I was inexperienced, I wanted to able to distract people from that detail. “More importantly, let’s talk about how the world should not be how it is and how most people are too naive.”

In fact, through lots of practice, I got reasonably effective at pretending to be confident. I grew more confident specifically in my ability to fake confidence in general.

Of course, I developed other kinds of expertise. I was confident in my ability to read and to ride a bike and to find my way around my own neighborhood. If the book was one that I had read several times and memorized, I was so confident that I did not even need to look at the little shapes of ink on the page in order to “read” the book.

Confidence comes from repeated demonstrations of skill. When there is skill, then criticism and validation will not be very interesting. When there is a lack of skill (or lack of maturity), criticism will be threatening and validation will be a relief.

However, there is no substitute for competence. When competence is clear, then there is no need for insecurity. Risks can be welcomed and measured and addressed. The best solution for insecurity is not just calming down and changing nothing else, but recognizing practical priorities and then effectively getting relevant assistance.

It is useful to accurately recognize one’s own skills as well as to be able to evaluate exactly how skilled other people are. Since it is impossible to be a master of absolutely everything, it is better to be very good at some things and then to ally with people who are very good at other relevant skills.

What is a good way to assess the skill levels of other people? What results can they demonstrate? What reputation do they have, especially among their competitors (other experts in their same field)?

Further, if someone is intensely criticized by several competitors, why? What is the nature of their criticism? Are they simply threatened by the exceptional skill of that competitor? Have they reviewed the competitor’s actual results or are they just dismissing the methods as unfamiliar (“impossible”)?

How clear are you on what you value most? If you are clear enough to identify a clear priority, then you could consider what kind of assistance you would like from possible allies, then begin to sort through some candidates for the best ally or allies.

Or, perhaps what is most relevant to you now is one or more allies who can assist you in prioritizing. What do you value most? What is most relevant to you? What is most repulsive to you? What exactly is most attractive? Who can provide you mentoring and coaching for you to efficiently get clear, stay clear, and fulfill your priorities?



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