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Chapter 4: self: Confidence

Aphorisms on Confidence

The topic of confidence is too often neglected by serious people: we spend so much time acquiring technical skills, so little time practising the one virtue that will make those skills effective in the world.

We tend to regard the possession of confidence as a matter of slightly freakish good luck. Some people simply are very confident, we believe, for reasons that neuroscientists may one day uncover, but there isn’t much we can do about our particular situation. We are stuck with the confidence levels we were born with. This isn’t in any way true.

Confidence is a skill, not a gift from the gods. And it is a skill founded on a set of ideas about the world and our natural place within it. These ideas can be systematically studied and gradually learnt, so that the roots of excessive hesitancy and compliance can be overcome. We can school ourselves in the art of confidence.

At the heart of a lot of under-confidence is a skewed picture of how dignified a normal person can be. We imagine that it might be possible to place ourselves beyond mockery. We trust that it is an option to lead a good life without regularly making a complete idiot of ourselves.

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The way to greater confidence isn’t to reassure ourselves of our own dignity; it’s to grow at peace with the inevitable nature of our ridiculousness. We are idiots now, we have been idiots in the past, and we will be idiots again in the future – and that is OK. There aren’t any other available options for human beings.

We grow timid when we allow ourselves to be over-exposed to the respectable sides of others. Such are the pains people take to appear normal, we collectively create a phantasm – problematic for everyone – which suggests that normality might be possible. No one is normal.

Once we learn to see ourselves as already, and by nature, foolish, it really doesn’t matter so much if we do one more thing that might look quite stupid. Failure won’t be news to us; it will only confirm what we have already gracefully accepted in our hearts long ago: that we, like every other person on the earth are a nitwit.

The road to greater confidence begins with a ritual of telling oneself solemnly every morning, before heading out for the day, that one is a muttonhead, a cretin, a dumbbell and an imbecile. One or two more acts of folly should, thereafter, not matter very much at all.

The root cause of impostor syndrome is a hugely unhelpful picture of what people at the top of society are really like. We feel like impostors not because we are uniquely flawed, but because we can’t imagine how deeply flawed the elite must necessarily also be beneath a more or less polished surface.

We know ourselves from the inside, but others only from the outside. We’re constantly aware of all our anxieties and doubts from within, yet all we know of others is what they happen to do and tell us, a far narrower, and more edited source of information. We are very often left to conclude that we must be at the more freakish and revolting end of human nature. We’re not.

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The solution to an impostor syndrome lies in making a crucial leap of faith, the leap that others’ minds work in basically much the same way as do ours. Everyone must be as anxious, uncertain and wayward as we are. Self-disgust shouldn’t ever be a reason not to move forward.

‘No man is a hero to his valet,’ remarked the 16th-century essayist Montaigne – exhibiting a playful lack of respect which is at points deeply encouraging, given how much awe can sap our will to rival or match our heroes.

Montaigne again: ‘Kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies’. A helpful reminder that everyone who intimidates us is, at heart, very much like us in their underlying vulnerabilities. And therefore not really so frightening at all.

 

Everyone is afraid – even those who frighten us.

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Feeling lost, making a mess of things, taking longer than seems warranted is very normal.

No one gets through this life without making dramatic errors. By committing some, we’re not proving our wayward nature, we’re confirming our membership of the human race.

 

We pay others a strange but helpful compliment when we accept them as versions of the same complex and imperfect creatures we know ourselves to be. No one is as strong as they seem – or as daunting as we fear.

Any one of us has a theoretical chance of being an agent in history, on a big or small scale. It is open to our own times to build a new city as beautiful as Venice, to change ideas as radically as the Renaissance, to start an intellectual movement as resounding as Buddhism.

The present has all the contingency of the past – and is every bit as malleable. How we love, travel, approach the arts, govern, educate ourselves, run businesses, age and die all are up for further development. Current views may appear firm, but only because we exaggerate their fixity.

The majority of what exists is arbitrary, neither inevitable nor right, simply the result of muddle and happenstance. We should be confident of our power to join the stream of history – and, however modestly, change its course.

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One of the greatest sources of despair is the belief that things should have been easier than they have in fact turned out to be. We give up not simply because events are difficult, but because we hadn’t expected them to be so. The capacity to remain confident is therefore to a significant extent a matter of having internalised a correct narrative about what difficulties it is normal to encounter.

We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles. Every great achievement was monstrously hard.

The successful artist or skilled entrepreneur go to great lengths to disguise their labours and make their work appear simple, natural and obvious. ‘Art lies in concealing art,’  knew the Roman poet Horace. We should keep in mind the agony and struggle behind all ‘art’.

‘Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance…do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire. Confidence means forgiving ourselves the horrors of our first attempts.

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We finally get down to work when the fear of doing something rather badly is overwhelmed by the greater (better) fear of doing nothing at all.

Confidence isn’t the belief that we won’t meet obstacles. It is the recognition that difficulties are an inescapable part of all worthwhile contributions. We need to ensure we have to hand plenty of narratives that normalise the role of pain, anxiety and disappointment in even the best and most successful lives.

Hesitation is grounded in a sense of risk, a sense that a new move presents us with appalling dangers. But our inaction is not in itself cost free, for in the wings, out of regular conscious awareness, there is something arguably far more frightening still than failure: the tragedy of wasting our lives.

We too easily ignore the most stupid yet deepest fact about our existence: that it will end. The brutal fact of our mortality seems so implausible, we live in practical terms like immortals, as if we will always have the opportunity to address our stifled longings – one day…

By stressing the dangers of failure, we underrate the seriousness of the dangers lurking within passivity. In comparison with the horror of our final exit, the pains and troubles of our bolder moves and riskier ventures do not, in the end, seem so terrifying. We should learn to frighten ourselves a bit more in the area around mortality to be less scared in all others.

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Confident people accept the role of crises in their lives: relationship, career, family, religious, political crises… Worrying about where one’s life is going should be treated as an admirable and important characteristic. We should – ideally – overhear people saying: ‘I really like X, they’re always in a crisis and worried about wasting their life.’

Memento Mori: we need regular, forceful encounters with reminders that there is something else we should be far more frightened of than embarrassment around inviting someone for dinner or starting a new business.

Confidence requires a sense that we would, if everything fails, still be OK. Or still be doomed. Whichever way one likes to look at it.

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We cannot change the presence of an enemy, but we can change what an enemy means to us: these figures can shift from being devoted, impartial agents of the truth about one’s right to exist to being – more sanely – people who have an opinion, probably only ever a bit right, about something we once did, and never about who we are (that is something only we decide).

For paranoia about ‘what other people think’ : remember that only some hate, a very few love – and almost all just don’t care.

If we saw someone else treating us the way most of us treat ourselves, we might think them despicably cruel.

When we worry about the verdict of the world., we can remember this analogy: ‘Would a musician feel flattered by the loud applause of his audience if it were known to him that, with the exception of one or two, it consisted entirely of deaf people?’ Arthur Schopenhauer.

The benefit of thinking a lot less of everyone can be calmer attitude towards the specific meanness of a few.

We should keep in mind a confident distinction between the hater and the critic, aim to correct our genuine flaws – and otherwise forgive the injured, roaring types that seek to punish us for injuries that have nothing to do with us.

Anyone who deliberately harms us must be a highly damaged and therefore an unreliable witness. We should do ourselves the favour of not always thinking too well of our enemies.

We are familiar enough with the fear of failure, but success can bring about as many anxieties – which may ultimately culminate in a desire to scupper our chances in a bid to restore our peace of mind.

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We should stop thinking we don’t deserve success: the universe does not distribute its gifts and its horrors with divinely accurate knowledge of the good and bad within each of us. Most of what we win is not quite deserved – and most of what we suffer isn’t either.

We should watch out for our tendencies to self-sabotage: when we aren’t overly convinced of our lovability or virtue, we’ll be experts at making sure we keep missing out. We aim for a frustration that feels familiar, not a triumph that could make us strangely happy.

We might assume we really want to be confident, but in our hearts, we may find the idea of being properly confident strangely offensive – and secretly remain attached to hesitancy and modesty.

If we fail, we will only have returned to our own long-term fate.

Confidence is in large part an internalised version of the confidence that other people once had in us.

An inner voice always used to be an outer voice that we have absorbed and made our own. Many of our inner voices need editing out.

We should strive to ensure that the way in which we speak to ourselves becomes more conscious, less the result of accident and that we have henceforth planned for the tone we use in response to the challenges we’re confronted with. We should speak kindly to ourselves.

We have taken self-criticism too far when it no longer has any effect on our level of achievement, when it simply saps our morale and our will to get out of bed.

We’re so aware of the dangers of self-pity, we overlook the value of calculated moments of self-compassion; we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious and fruitful life.

Confidence is in its essence entirely compatible with remaining sensitive, kind, witty and softly-spoken. It is brutishness, not confidence, we should hate.

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