- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

The Myth of Confidence

This is why I love you guys, you make the content for me. A reader going by Al E. posted this fascinating comment in regards to my post, The Confidence Myth [1]. His major point is that telling someone to “be confident” is a waste of time. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t like advice that doesn’t have a practical strategy. Unless you can tell someone how to be confident, such advice is a meaningless cliche at best.

Here it is, courtesy of Al E. :

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.


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.

I agree with him partially. I believe that the temporary feeling of confidence can be created artificially. It is possible to temporarily project a sense of false confidence. But while this may help before giving a speech or asking for a date, it isn’t going to create lasting confidence. Lasting confidence comes from success, or at least interpreting your results as success.

I would also disagree with him that confidence isn’t a desired trait. Confidence is important. It is attractive, charismatic and magnetic precisely because it is difficult to falsify. Those lacking self-confidence can easily swing between the extremes of projecting arrogance and deep insecurity. But the process of getting it takes time. It is the process of setting small, achievable goals and focusing on growth so that you can build your self image.

I disagree with Al that confidence is entirely bestowed by others. Confidence is interpreting your past results in a positive way. Confident people ultimately have learned the skill of emphasizing moments of success and downplaying moments of failure. Although giving this advice to someone who lacks confidence is pretty useless.

Despite a few minor points of contradiction, I basically agree with Al. Can we please banish the “be confident” along with other ridiculous preachings without practicality? Without a practical solution, a concept is meaningless. Kudos to Al for taking a stand here.

What are your thoughts on confidence? What are your thoughts on creating confidence where you currently lack it? Cheers to Al for sharing such an thought-provoking piece!