Scott H Young

The Confidence Myth


You stand up to speak in front of the audience. Your palms begin to sweat and your feet tremble. For some reason you forget what your opening line was. At this point your self-talk begins to shift. It begins to doubt your ability to perform. It makes up fantasies about the crowd booing you or getting up and leaving their seats. You wish you only had more confidence.

Unfortunately, self-confidence can also be incredibly limiting. Too much self-confidence and you may not try hard enough to excel in a situation. The entrepreneur who is overconfident in his ability to succeed may not work hard enough to keep the business alive. Even if the confidence doesn’t cause you to fail, it may be cutting off your potential ability. We tend to work hardest when we are close to victory, not when we feel it is a sure thing.

I used to believe in the magic and importance of self-confidence. I once thought that if I could only have complete and perfect self-confidence, I would have a much greater level of success in most situations, particularly social situations. Self-confidence, it seems must be the antidote to my problems as this was the most obvious distinction between the people getting results and myself.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I had an incident that gave my self-confidence theory a huge shakedown. Although there were many situations where I lacked confidence, I always did very well in school. I was very confident when it came to writing tests and exams. For most of my highschool career I went into exams with a great deal of confidence and often a lot less studying. For the most part, my strategy worked well. While others were scratching their heads and making frustrated noises, I sat back comfortably, focused in and got a great mark.

One day, however, I had a test where this strategy failed me miserably. Because of my lack of foresight I completely forgotten one of the major equations needed to write the fairly short test. As a result I got a big fat F. This incident, aside from shocking myself slightly, started settling doubt in my mind about my past theory of confidence, or what I now call the confidence myth.

The confidence myth is simply that self-confidence is an incredibly critical ingredient to success. That is, the belief in your own success, is necessary to harness and in some cases outweighs other attributes such as skill, experience or talent. So much self-help has been spun about the necessity of confidence, that I think it is finally time to put it to rest. You don’t want or need self-confidence.

The myth of self-confidence is so subtle and deceptive that you may at first have trouble believing what I just wrote. I mean, all those people who are really successful, they are all really confident. And what about those situations where confidence and charm makes up a huge portion of the outcome like delivering a speech, making a sale or asking someone on a date. You can’t honestly be saying confidence isn’t important, can you?

The problem isn’t that confidence is bad, it is that people assume it is the cause of success. This isn’t true. Confidence is correlated with success, that is true, but it isn’t the cause of success. What is really the cause of success in any situation, no matter how dependent it may seem to be on confidence is really three attributes: aptitude, beliefs and emotional control.

Having confidence can give you a temporary boost of control, but whenever you encounter a situation where you fail because you misjudged the ease of the encounter, your confidence crashes and you have to start rebuilding it again. By instead focusing on these three other aspects you can maintain a cool, calm and collected exterior, internally handling failure with ease and greatly increasing your ability.

Aptitude

The first factor that you need to cultivate if you want the benefits of confidence without the negative effects of arrogance is rather simple. Skill. In order to successfully handle any situation, the most important aspect is the level of skill or aptitude you possess. If you are incredibly skillful at making sales calls, then you don’t need confidence, you’re just good.

Building skill comes in three parts: experience, practice and talent.

The first factor that builds aptitude is simply experience. You are far more skillful when approaching situations that you have experience with. If you have started dozens of companies, then you are far better at starting a new one than a first time entrepreneur. If you have asked out lots of women on dates before, you will be better at asking out another one then you were your first time.

So in order to increase your aptitude in an area you simply have to start grabbing a lot more experience. Want to master your communication and public speaking? Join a Toastmasters club and start speaking. If you want to be better at sales calls, make more of them. Experience builds skill.

The next factor that builds aptitude is practice. Unlike experience which means random exposure to a situation, practice involves consciously trying to improve with each encounter. If you simply get experience making sales calls, but you don’t practice improving your technique, you won’t get any better. Practice means constantly trying to improve with each experience.

The final factor that builds aptitude is simply raw talent. There are some things that you were born good at and other things that you will have to work hard to get. This explains why some people can be great public speakers their first night at Toastmasters and others barely scrape by doing a one minute speech for their first six months. If being successful in this area is important to you, ignore talent and just resolve to make up for it with more practice and experience, otherwise you might want to consider other opportunities.

Unfortunately, aptitude isn’t the only thing that is important for success, which is why it is an incomplete ‘replacement’ for confidence. You can have all the skill in the world but without the next two factors, those skills will lie dormant. What aptitude does do is it helps creates confidence as a by-product. You won’t need to lie to yourself that you are good at something, you will know it internally.

Beliefs

Beyond your own level of aptitude, another factor controls your success and that is your personal beliefs about yourself. With poorly constructed belief systems about yourself and others you can’t use any skill you might have. You can be an incredibly talented comedian, but if you are too depressed about yourself to tell jokes effectively, it won’t matter.

Now at this point you might be thinking I am simply replacing the word confidence with beliefs. Isn’t confidence just your beliefs about yourself? Yes and no. Confidence is the belief that you are a skillful and successful person, but that is just one belief system. Although that belief system can allow you to operate effectively, it leaves you open to situations that are too difficult, and you didn’t prepare enough for.

A better belief system to follow than one that blindly promotes your ability (existent or not) and lulls you into a state of false security, is one that keeps you centered no matter what happens to you, but also takes an objective look at your current situation (good or bad). This belief system involves a few key beliefs:

Intrinsic Worth – Beyond your abilities and success, you must believe that you are intrinsically worthy. This doesn’t mean you think that you are better or worse than you actually are. It just means deep down, beyond your skills, possessions, physical body and even ego, at the level of consciousness itself, you are worthy.

Complete Responsibility – Along with intrinsic self worth you need to believe that you and you alone are responsible for your destiny. One of the benefits of confidence is that it makes you feel powerful and in control. You must ultimately believe that you are in control of your life. So no pity parties or complaining, you are responsible, so deal with it.

Adopting these two beliefs fully is very difficult to do and takes a lot of time. But once you have adopted these beliefs, you no longer need to feel confident about something to be successful. With this belief structure you can operate at your utmost effectiveness, regardless of what you think your odds of success are.

Emotional Control

So far I have discussed how aptitude and beliefs are critical to your success in any endeavor, with or without confidence. You may understand how these two forces shape your actions but you know that sheer self-confidence adds something else as well. Even if you believe you are worth and in control and you have skill, occasionally your body seems to ignore this information and get fearful and nervous anyways. In other words, confident people have a high degree of emotional control.

Emotional control is just another form of skill. The ability to control your emotions is a critical component of confidence, but when combined with true aptitude and empowering beliefs you don’t need to deceive yourself to make it work. If you can control your fear and nervousness so that it doesn’t paralyze you, your aptitude and empowering beliefs can be utilized.

There are several ways you can start improving your emotional control in situations:

Physiology

Your bodily movements and external actions have a powerful effect on your emotions. By controlling the external factors of your body, breathing rate, facial expressions and movements, you can substantially alter your emotional state. To feel more confident simply adopt a posture and physiology that a confident person would have. I wrote more about this technique in this article.

Enthusiasm

Unfortunately, sometimes the emotions of nervousness will still show through when you are trying to act cool, calm and collected. Instead, my favorite approach is to become really enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is an incredibly expressive emotional state, so it tends to wipe out just about any other emotion you might be experiencing from showing through. I wrote more about how to use enthusiasm here.

Hesitation

Time is a killer. The longer you have to let your mind create negative images, the more emotional you will become. Some sources on dating advise a three second rule when deciding whether to approach a member of the opposite sex. Any longer than that and your mind and self-talk have time to ruin you. If you act quickly and get it over with you will have less time to sabotage yourself. By locking yourself into a commitment of action as soon as possible, you reduce the chance that you will feel the need to back out due to poor self-talk.

Like all skills, though, emotional control is best done with practice. By practicing making changes to your emotional state regularly, you can achieve a much greater level of success with it. Although I have briefly listed three tips, there are hundreds of techniques for emotional control that are available.

Confidence Shattered

Ultimately you don’t really want confidence, you want success. You don’t want to try and deceive your subconscious and conscious minds into believing that you are better than you actually are. Worse you don’t want to have to struggle using worthless confidence building techniques to make up for the true contributors to success.

With aptitude, an empowering belief structure and emotional control, you can be smooth and successful in all your interactions. Not only will you be able to operate with class, cool and charisma but you will be able to comfortable knowing that you aren’t trying to lie to yourself. Even better, this system is more stable because while a failure can shatter confidence, these qualities are sturdy and can allow you to handle such situations with an objective outlook.

Don’t aim for confidence. Aim for skills so you can be great. Aim for an empowering belief system so you can brush off failures and look objectively at successes. Aim for emotional control so you can control the self-talk and feelings that try to sabotage you. Because if you reach these three things, confidence will come by itself. But instead of an unnatural confidence begot from affirmations or elixirs you will be confident because you know you will be successful, not because of a myth.


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14 Responses to “The Confidence Myth”

  1. Bradley Tupe says:

    wow this is a very interesting article. I think it applies to me wholesomely. but can you be overconfident and realize that you aren’t exactly perfect in a certain area? keep it up scott i read your blog everyday =)

  2. Ririran says:

    The cynic says, “One man can’t do anything”. I say, “Only one man can do anything.” – John W. Gardner

    I steel think I want confidence, I mean that kind of confidence that gives me a feeling of certain success even when my knowledge suggests I should expect to fail.

    As Steve Pavlina wrote in one of his posts:
    “Even if you’re extremely skilled and talented, a lack of self-confidence can prevent you from performing at your best in pressure situations. I mean, if you work in sales, it’s one thing to read a book and learn and understand some new sales techniques, but it’s a very different challenge to actually go out and apply those techniques when face-to-face with a prospect.”

    Thank you for the read.

  3. Scott Young says:

    Ririran,

    My point simply is that culturally, it seems we are all chasing down this thing called self-confidence. Self-confidence is great, but in many situations, too much self-confidence can lead to an attitude of relaxed expectancy, you expect to win so why bother trying hard. When you focus on aptitude, strong beliefs and emotional control, you are far more likely to be both objective in your reasoning and still retain the ability to handle yourself.

    True confidence can’t be faked, it can only be something gained when you rationally believe you have a good chance for success. If you follow this strategy you will have more confidence, but it will be a real form of confidence, not one that is falsely created through affirmations.

  4. Lyman Reed says:

    Thanks for writing this. A deeper confidence will come from developing the characteristics you’ve outlined. The surface ra ra go get ‘em level of confidence is like a spark… great to get a fire going, but it won’t last long without some real fuel.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Thanks Lyman.

    You understand the point of the article. Most people try to focus on improving confidence, rather than improving the things that lead to it. When you do this you create an unnatural confidence that rarely lasts. By focusing on the three things I outlined you can have the feeling of confidence but it will be real.

  6. Dwai says:

    The article is very insightful. I guess my two cents in this matter are related to what some call being “Natural”. The matter of Confidence vs. Lack-of-Confidence comes into being when the thing that is most artificial (yet) most loud (of one’s personality) is given forefront (namely – Ego).

    If one refuses to acknowledge the noise that his/her Ego creates (the incessant internal dialogue that works all the time to reinforce the supremacy of this Ego) or merely sees it as an amusing distraction, he/she would be better equipped to deal with almost any situation.

    This rolls into the world of Meditation and what one seeks to achieve there. Being “Natural” is easier said than done — but in order to be that way, we’d have to drop every mask that we wear (namely pretending we are of a certain nature/type) and coming to terms with who we really are — it is a long and difficult journey for most, but it is also perhaps the only way to be overcome the limitations of the Egoic world.

  7. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the thinking points, Dwai.

    Confidence is a limitation of an egoic world. My post was actually a little deceptive however. I argued incessantly about how you don’t want confidence, but this is actually a bit of a lie. You do want confidence, just that aiming for confidence directly is a foolhardy path. Confidence should come naturally, not through other techniques. There may be some situations where pure confidence will matter more than explicit skill but these situations are incredibly rare so my advice still applies.

  8. Al E. says:

    Interesting article. I also wrote something on the topic. What do you think?:

    Below is a copy of an email essay I sent out to a few dozen people in the “self-help” industry about 2 years ago. Predictably I only got a handful of responses. And of course they all insisted I was wrong. After all, their livelihoods depend on maintaining the myths I debunk. But they offered no evidence to disprove me, nor any useful insights.

    THE MYTH OF CONFIDENCE

    If I had a dime for every time someone told me to “be confident”, I’d probably be a millionaire by now. And as a millionaire, I’d probably have a lot of women throwing themselves at me and a lot of men respecting & admiring me. And the inevitable result of all this would be… You guessed it!.., Confidence. So the next time you feel like telling someone to be confident, just throw them a dime instead. It’d be a thousand times more useful.

    In fact, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the last few years. All of a sudden, everyone’s talking about confidence. (or it’s pseudonym, “self-esteem”) Everywhere I read, every show I watch, every dimestore shrink I consult. Everyone’s advising everyone else to be more confident.

    (a hypothetical: What if everybody took this advice and suddenly everyone had perfect confidence? Wouldn’t it just level the playing field right back to where it already was, and thus, not make a damn bit of difference anyway???)

    Suddenly, all the women on the dating shows and in the advice columns are telling us how much they’re attracted to this mysterious new quality called confidence. And conversely, how the lack of confidence is a big turn-off. And predictably, men now feel the need to brag about how confident they are. And the confidence fad seems to be growing at a rapid pace. But I’m about to point out how it’s all just the psychological equivalent of the Pet Rock fad from the 70’s. Like the Pet Rock, advising someone to “be confident” is useless and does nothing. But like the Pet rock, it allows the giver to feel like they did something nice. They didn’t. Yet people keep buying it & buying it & buying it.

    The reality about confidence is so simple and so obvious, it amazes me that otherwise intelligent people haven’t figured it out. Or maybe they have figured it out and they’re too dishonest with themselves to admit it. Perhaps the reality is too uncomfortable. After all, it’s much easier to sell books and self-help courses with fantasy than with reality.

    So here’s the truth about confidence: You can only have confidence when other people give it to you. When others in your age group like you, respect you, admire you, and are attracted to you, you get confidence. When they don’t like you, scorn you, and reject you, you lose confidence. Therefore, the level of confidence you have is controlled by others, NOT by you. You can not just decide to be confident. Confidence is not a choice or decision you can make. You can’t just snap your fingers and, Abracadabra, you’re confident. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way. Social confidence, by it’s very definition, requires support and acceptance from others (in your own age group) before it can exist.

    (on an important side note: When people mention confidence, 98% of the time they are unwittingly referring to one specific kind: Social Confidence. So please don’t argue with me about other forms of confidence. They are irrelevant to this issue. For example, if you’ve mastered the Klingon language or are an expert in stamp collecting, you may be very confident in your ability. But that confidence CAN NOT translate into social confidence unless others respect, admire, and reward you for your abilities. The average Klingon speaker is more likely to be shunned, particularly by the opposite sex, rather than admired. Thus, please keep in mind that the kind of confidence I discuss here is only the most commonly discussed kind: Social confidence)

    Confidence is merely a byproduct of success. You need some kind of social/sexual/romantic success before you can have genuine confidence. Confidence without success is delusional and/or dishonest, thus fake, and others will quickly recognize it as such. Here’s why: It’s not really the confidence itself that people are attracted to. Confidence is merely what results when someone has the qualities that are really attracting us. Obviously, if someone is good-looking, or wealthy, or funny & quick-witted, others will be attracted to them. This, in turn, will give them confidence.

    So when someone tells you they are attracted to confidence, they are lying! (whether consciously or subconsciously) What they’re really attracted to are the traits that make confidence possible. After all, we all know that wealth, good looks, and strong social skills are attractive to others. Are we to believe it’s just a coincidence that these are the very same traits that lead to confidence? Obviously, someone who is successful will have more confidence than someone who is unsuccessful. So when someone says they’re attracted to confidence, what it means is that they’re attracted to success & the factors that make success possible. The confidence itself merely exists as a sign that those other factors (the real attractors) are present.

    So if you know or care about someone with low confidence, how can you help them? First, the worst thing you can do is to just tell them to “be confident” or give them a verbal list of traits they should be confident about. That’s just insulting their intelligence and it’s going to frustrate and depress them even more. Words are hollow and meaningless when not corroborated by actions. So if you truly want to help someone increase their confidence, here are the areas you should focus on improving:

    1) Physical Appearance
    2) Social Skills
    3) Wealth

    1) Physical Appearance

    (So you think this is shallow? It is. Get over it. Physical appearance is, of course, the first thing people notice about you. And if they don’t like what they see, it will be much, much harder to win them over.)

    If the individual has flaws in their appearance, the worst thing you can do is to tell them they “look fine”. Instead, help them improve their appearance. If they’re overweight, don’t deny it. Help them lose the weight. If they have bad hair, help them find a stylish cut. If they have unfashionable or ill-fitting clothes, help them find better ones. And if you are not qualified to help them in these areas, find someone who can.

    2) Social Skills

    This one could easily become a chicken-or-egg argument. Many would point out that a person does poorly socially because they lack confidence. While this may be true in certain cases, I’ve found in my own experience and observations that usually the reverse is true. When a person has poor social skills, they will of course do poorly socially & inevitably, their confidence will suffer. When confronted with this fact, the lazy-minded will regurgitate such hackneyed social advice as “be happy and smile more”, “just be yourself”, “be upbeat and positive”, “just be nice”, or something equally trite, short-sighted, and useless. Being nice is fine. I’d encourage it. But it’s simply not enough on it’s own to succeed socially. If all you are is nice, you will be walked on like a doormat, used, and thrown away. To truly succeed socially (in the absence of looks and wealth), one needs two things: Material and Execution. They need strong, interesting conversational material and they need to be able to execute this material in a smooth, charming manner. How can you expect someone to have social confidence if they lack this ability?

    So if you honestly cared about someone suffering from low social confidence, you wouldn’t waste their time with empty “be yourself” pep talks. You’d help them learn and practice conversational skills in a supportive, rejection-free environment. However, if you are outside of their age group, find someone closer to their age to help them. This is because what is acceptable for 50-year olds is not acceptable for 20-year olds and vice versa.

    3) Wealth

    Unless you are in a position to give someone a job earning $50K+ a year, there’s not a lot you can do about this one. But if you focus on the first two (appearance & social skills), increased income is virtually guaranteed to follow.

    To recap my main points:

    – Confidence is merely a byproduct of success.

    – No one can just decide to be confident. It has to come naturally from others.

    – Our level of confidence is determined by the level of regard others have for us.

    – Hollow “be confident’ pep talks don’t work. If you honestly want to increase another’s confidence, it will require genuine care and effort.

    – Therefore, stop advising people to “be confident”! If you aren’t willing to put in the effort to help them gain that confidence, then you are just insulting them and wasting their time.

    Please forward far and wide and help debunk the confidence myth.

  9. [...] have doubts that complete confidence is the answer. Yes, there may be some psychological benefits to believing you’re without flaws, [...]

  10. Winston says:

    We have a great thread debunking the myth of confidence as well, with reality, truth and common sense. See our discussion here:

    http://www.happierabroad.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=9050

    Confidence is not a light switch and it can’t just come from nothing. It has to be based on something and justified in some way, or else people will see you as delusional if you confidence is not backed by any attributes.

  11. Carly says:

    Personally, I am a huge advocate for self-confidence, so I find this article to be complete BS. I can honestly say that my life (test scores and successes included) has improved due to my recent goal of attaining self-confidence. As someone in the Theatre and Fashion industry, confidence is huge. If you can’t carry yourself correctly into an audition or meeting, you’re as good as gone. As far as fashion goes, confidence is highly, highly important in being able to dress in new trends, and I can say quite honestly, confidence has gotten me where I am today. This is not to say that arrogance is the answer, but simply being comfortable in your own skin and having an air of confidence around yourself can change you for the better. All in all, I pity the people who read this and believe it, for their successes will almost definitely be severely reduced thanks to this belief in a lack of confidence.

  12. cubeangel says:

    “Along with intrinsic self worth you need to believe that you and you alone are responsible for your destiny. One of the benefits of confidence is that it makes you feel powerful and in control. You must ultimately believe that you are in control of your life. So no pity parties or complaining, you are responsible, so deal with it.”

    Scott, I do not follow the train of thought of complete responsibility. How is anyone truthfully in control of his life and destiny if there are external entities that can influence what set of choices a person has? For the most part people live in societies with social rules and laws. We are governed by these things as well as the laws of time, space and other possible constraints as well like knowledge, ability and wisdom. How does this hold up?

  13. Basil says:

    I agree with you when you say that success is the ultimate goal that we all strive for. However I do believe that affirmations can calm you down in pressure situations which in turn help you perform well and demonstrate aptitude.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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