In his book, Resilience, retired Navy SEAL Eric Greitens shares letters that he wrote to a fellow veteran, Walker, who was having trouble adjusting to life back home. In one of the letters, he tells his friend the story of a phone call a boxing coach he knew once received. On the other end of the line was a heavyweight champion the coach had trained. Greitens relates how the conversation unfolded:
“Hey man,” the champ said, “I need your help.”
“Okay,” the trainer said. “What do you need?”
“I need you to take care of something for me.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Well, there’s this guy,” the champ said, “he’s in the other room, and I’m gonna take the phone in and I want you to talk to him.”
“Who is it you want me to talk to?”
“He’s my gardener.”
“Yeah, yeah, he’s in the other room and he’s got this bill and he’s trying to overcharge me.”
“The trainer realized at this moment,” Greitens explains, “that the heavyweight champion of the world was afraid to confront his gardener over a bill.”
How could a tough-as-nails athlete who had gone toe-to-toe with boxing’s fiercest opponents be unable to face up to his gardener?
Greitens explains it to his friend this way: “Everyone, Walker, has uneven courage.”
What he labels courage, we could also call confidence.
This story likely seems eminently relatable and yet surprising at the same time. Relatable, because we all know that while we’re confident in some areas of life, we’re fearful in others. Surprising, because confidence is popularly thought of as an all-pervasive quality — we think you either have it or you don’t, and that if you have it, you have it for everything.
That’s not the only aspect of confidence we have mistaken notions about. Most of us aren’t sure how you gain it either. Is it something you’re born with? Something you can get only by doing things like standing up straighter and dressing better? Are there different kinds of confidence? If so, how do you develop its truest form?
For many, confidence seems like something of a mystery. But it doesn’t have to be. We’ll unlock its secrets below.
What Is Confidence?
Confidence is a term that gets thrown around in a lot of different ways to mean a lot of different things. It’s sometimes grouped together with other qualities like self-esteem and optimism, with which there’s certainly overlap.
Yet confidence is its own distinct quality, and is defined by the experts and scientists who study it professionally as the sense that you possess the skill and competence to successfully do a certain task — it’s having faith in your ability to make something happen or in the path you’re taking. It’s not just generally feeling good about yourself, or feeling that things in life will work out; it’s a belief that specific actions will lead to specific outcomes — that if you do X, you’ll be able to get Y. When you feel confident going into a race, it’s because you believe you have the ability to do well. When you feel confident about a decision, it’s because you believe you made the right choice.
Thus, what’s often missed about confidence is that it’s “domain specific.” That is, just because you’re confident in your ability to succeed in one area, doesn’t mean you’re confident in all areas. You might be confident when speaking in front of large crowds, and yet feel anxious when making small talk one-on-one. You might feel confident when working on your art, but nervous when entering a gym.
Since confidence is the belief that your ability matches a certain task, and we don’t have equal ability for every task, we all have “uneven confidence.”
Your Confidence Calculator
Confidence includes both an objective/rational component and a subjective/emotional component.
Research has shown that in predicting how well we’ll do something, or if we made a good decision, the brain conducts a statistical assessment of sorts. It looks at the data — the evidence of our competence, contextual circumstances, and so on — and then makes a forecast as to likely performance or outcome.
We make these kinds of confidence calculations every day. You don’t even have to think about reaching into a cabinet to grab your coffee mug in the morning, because your brain is completely confident it will be there. How your boss will react to your asking for a raise is a bigger unknown. But your brain will look at the data — the feedback he gave you at your last review, the quality of the work you’ve been doing lately, the trajectory of the company’s profits — and then generate a forecast as to your chances of getting a yes.
From this objective calculation we then get the feeling we think of as confidence. If the confidence calculator generates a gloomy forecast, we’ll feel unconfident and unsure, and be unlikely to move forward, make a decision, or try something new or hard. If the resulting forecast is sunny, we’ll feel confident and bold, and be likely to take a risk, make a choice, or attempt a difficult task.
In other words, thoughts lead to judgments, judgments lead to feelings, and feelings lead to action (or inaction). The more sure you are of your ability to do something, the more confident you’ll feel, and the more confident you feel, the more action you’ll take.
This fact obviously has huge repercussions for our happiness, success, and ability to reach our goals. Leveling up in any area of life invariably involves going outside our comfort zone and taking a risk. Without confidence, we’ll fail to take action, and our lives will stall out instead of progressing on.
It’s thus vital that we understand what influences the “algorithm” the brain uses to make its confidence calculations, and how we can feed it more positive data in order to generate more confident feelings, and in turn, more bold and life-changing action.
The sources that feed the confidence calculator can roughly be broken down into three influences: The first two we commonly rely on (sometimes without even knowing it), but are inconsistent, unreliable, and not entirely within our control. The third, as we will see, is the surest, steadiest, most harnessable way to fuel our confidence.
Inconsistent/Unreliable Sources of Confidence
If you’ve ever thought that some people are just born more confident than others, you were right. Researchers think that our general confidence levels are about 50% genetic in origin. Some folks simply have a mix of resilient, optimistic, daring DNA that comes together to form a perennially high level of confidence.
These genetics may influence their brain’s confidence calculator, so that it’s miscalibrated and makes less than objective assessments of ability. These folks end up overconfident — more sure than they should be about their chances for success in tackling tasks for which they’re not fully qualified. They’re confident, despite a lack of competence.
You might think this is a recipe for disaster, but studies have shown that as long as someone doesn’t get too far out in front of his skis, overconfidence usually results in positive effects like greater social status, respect, and influence, without negative consequences.
Researchers in fact consider a little overconfidence to be an adaptive trait. It makes someone an action taker, which, as long as they don’t totally run off the rails, is a trait people are drawn to; we prefer charismatic go-getters, even if they’re wrong a lot, to those who passively play it safe.
How many ding-dongs at work who don’t know what they’re doing, but project firm confidence, get promoted over solid employees who are competent but seem less sure of themselves? How many confidence-exuding politicians win great popularity during an election and yet seem grossly unprepared for their office? Overconfidence only turns into a liability when the gap between confidence and competence grows too wide, and the emperor is revealed to be wearing no clothes. Otherwise, it’s a boon.
Confidence without having to earn competence may seem like a winning plan, but I’m sorry to say that if you didn’t score in the genetic lottery, it’s a feeling nearly impossible to generate on your own. The reason people don’t mind overconfidence in someone with a miscalibrated confidence calculator, is that it’s absolutely genuine; it may not be accurate from an objective standpoint, but the person sincerely believes in their abilities, and that’s attractive. If you’ve got a more realistic confidence calculator, trying to gin up confidence in the absence of competence will be almost impossible to do; phony bravado can be spotted a mile away.
If you’re not genetically wired for greater confidence, you can’t just think your way into it. In fact, it can be harmful to try. In a study that asked participants with low self-esteem to repeat the mantra “I am a lovable person,” people actually felt worse, rather than better, after the exercise. The gap between how they actually felt, and what they were reading, just reminded them of how far they were from that ideal.
Another source of confident feelings for both the genetically blessed and the average joe is getting validation and support from other people. Pep talks, golden performance reviews, applause, good grades, Instagram likes, and encouraging words and gestures of all kinds can make us feel great about ourselves.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Compliments set off the status-sensitive parts of our brain and release feel-good neurochemicals that really do make us feel ebullient and emboldened. And this boost can kick-start a virtuous cycle of greater and greater confidence: you start lifting, one of the strongest dudes at the gym gives you props on your gains, which increases your confidence, and makes you want to push yourself more, which gets you more props, and increases your confidence further.
While external validation can definitely be helpful in boosting your confidence and spurring you on, it’s an ultimately fragile source for three reasons:
First, it often increases your self-esteem more than your confidence. Remember, while these qualities are related, they’re also distinct. Confidence concerns how you feel about your specific ability to perform in a specific domain, and it leads to action. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is more “global,” and has to do with how you assess your general character and value as a person. While feeling good about yourself is essential to your well-being, it doesn’t necessarily lead to action. Being told you “look nice,” or are “a really great guy” may make you feel good, but what do you do with that information? Sure, feeling good about yourself overall may bleed over into feeling more confident about taking a new step or trying something out, but not necessarily. Plenty of folks think they’re a great person, but haven’t accomplished anything of note, and remain quite risk-averse.
Second, even when people pump you up about your ability to perform specific tasks, this confidence is vulnerable and doesn’t have a lasting impact. External validation might get you to take the first step and put yourself out there, but it often evaporates once you’re in the arena.
Let’s say you’re nervous to talk to women, but your friend gives you a pep talk about how girls aren’t scary, and you’ll be fine. In that moment, your confidence calculator gives your friend’s words heavy weight, and you walk into the bar alone to try your luck. “I can do this!” you think. But a moment later, your confidence calculator takes in the new circumstances, assesses your ability to be a success based on your current level of social skill and past, lackluster experiences, and proffers a new, much gloomier forecast. “There’s no way I can do this,” you think.
Or, while you’re dating your girlfriend, she makes you feel like you can do anything in the world, but then, when you break up, your confidence walks away with her, and you crumple into a shell of your former self.
Finally, if you base your confidence on the approval of others, you’re going to become much more risk-averse — fearful that if you fail, the applause will cease and you’ll be left with the silence of your inner emptiness. If doing what you’ve always done gets you a decent amount of hugs and back pats, you’ll just keep on doing it.
The unstable, topsy-turvy vulnerability of confidence that’s dependent on external validation ends up taking a toll on your mental and physical health. According to a study of college students, those who based their self-worth on external sources like appearance and validation from others had more stress, anger, academic problems, relationship conflicts, and higher rates of alcohol and drug consumption than those who based it on internal values.
The Truest Source of Confidence: Mastery
If you’re not genetically wired for bravado, and you want to enjoy the praise of others without basing your worth on it, where else can you turn to increase your confidence?
To competence. To skill. Ideally, eventually, to outright mastery.
If your confidence calculator relies on evidence that your ability matches the task ahead, then give it something strong, immoveable, and entirely within your control to hang its predictions on.
Mastery means the attainment of full command over some domain. Author Robert Greene breaks up the path to this kind of command into three phases: Apprenticeship, Creative-Active, and Mastery. Each phase solidifies your confidence into something rock-solid:
Apprenticeship. You first choose a field that matches your unique inner calling — your vocation — or you seek out a problem that you want to solve. You don’t choose a domain based on what you think you should do, but on the compass of your personal values and goals. Further, you choose your first job in this field not based on prestige or money, but on where you think you’ll learn the most, and your skills will get the greatest opportunities for growth.
You enter the Apprenticeship phase excited, yet intimidated and out of your depth. There’s a ton you don’t know, and you don’t even know what you don’t know. So you put aside your ego, and humbly set out to learn everything you possibly can about your field. You observe what leaders in your domain are doing, absorb all the information that comes your way, study diligently, and practice consistently.
You make mistakes with regularity while learning the ropes, but you treat these setbacks as important learning experiences. You actively seek feedback on what you could be doing better, and don’t take this criticism personally.
You experience your first encounters with what author Stephen Pressfield calls the “Resistance.” Sometimes you’re bored, sometimes you’re frustrated, sometimes you’re confused into paralysis, and sometimes you just don’t want to work, especially on the tedious tasks that every apprenticeship involves. But you learn to manage these emotions, to push through them, to work hard every day, even when you don’t feel like it. You learn to work like a professional.
You slowly begin to figure out the rules of engagement, what works and what doesn’t. You start seeing connections between things you never noticed before, come to understand the dynamics and relationships between your associates and your competitors, and get a more holistic grasp of the subject you’ve immersed yourself in.
As you master the basic skills of your work, your confidence in your ability to overcome challenges strengthens, and as a reward, you get new, and increasingly interesting, challenges to tackle.
Creative-Active. In this phase, Greene says, “you move from student to practitioner.” Your understanding of the complexity of your field has grown, and rather than just copying how others do things, you take what you’ve learned so far and begin to experiment with doing things in your own way.
Having figured out the rules, you can start bending them, and trying out your own ideas. With more experimentation comes more success, but also more failure. But you learn to “fail fast” — making small bets, seeing how they pan out, learning from the duds, making corrections, and moving on to another idea. Through this cycle of attempt and recovery, you get better at predicting what will work, and become comfortable with taking risks — seeing failure as a natural part of the creative process.
As you continue to practice the skills required to successfully navigate your field, those skills become increasingly sharp. Your tasks become more natural — you can do them faster, better, and more efficiently. You gain confidence in your competency.
You can recognize the Resistance as soon as it shows up, and have developed rituals and methods for banishing it immediately. You’ve developed a record of achievement that you can draw upon in order to do so; you’re able to tell yourself, “I did this before, and I can do it again.”
Looking back over how far you’ve come from day one until the present, the improvements you’ve made are obvious and tangible, and you feel enormous confidence in the fact that through diligence and consistent hard work, you can continue getting better and rising to a higher level.
Mastery. Finally, you arrive at the Mastery phase. Your behavior and decision-making shifts from natural, to intuitive and practically automatic. You don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy to perform the basic tasks of your job, and this comfort level with your work frees you up to focus on the big picture.
You’ve gone from being a foot soldier, who can only see the immediacy of the trenches, to a commander, who can stand over the battle map, and take in the whole sweep of the field. Because you’re no longer caught up in the details, you have a greater ability to spot opportunities, think abstractly, and innovate.
You’re familiar with the ups and downs inherent to the landscape of your domain, and know that peaks will lead to valleys, but that the valleys, no matter how deep and long they extend, don’t last forever. You have supreme confidence to improvise when things go awry. You’re not afraid of uncertainty and are willing to try things without fear, knowing you can pivot and regroup no matter what happens.
You have an even longer record of accomplishments — of challenges faced and overcome — to reflect upon. Knowing what you’ve already done, and are capable of, allows you to push into even harder and deeper realms of creativity and excellence.
You’ve surpassed your old mentors, and are carving out an original path for yourself.
You have achieved mastery and gained the great power that comes from attaining the truest kind of confidence.
Take the First Towards Developing Confidence Through Mastery
While the language used above to explain the process of mastery centered more on the field of work, it is a process that applies to any domain in life. You can strive to become a master lover, husband, father, athlete, financial steward, socializer, or hobbyist.
No matter the domain, the process is the same. You take the first step, approaching the subject as a humble apprentice, and then you build slowly from there — studying, practicing, and experimenting your way to master status.
That first step can be a small one. If you wish to become a master conversationalist, start out by reading some books and articles on social skills. Then practice the techniques of good listening and talking with your family and close friends, where there is little risk of failure or embarrassment. Then practice by making small talk with cashiers and waitresses. Every day. Attend parties where you know people and pick certain conversational techniques you specifically want to work on. Observe the way different approaches elicit different reactions. Read some more books and articles. Keep experimenting and practicing. Eventually, you’ll be able to carry on a warm, interesting conversation with anyone, anytime, anywhere. You’ll have the confidence to be able to walk into an event where you don’t know a single soul feeling perfectly calm and comfortable.
While confidence is domain specific, and few can become master of many domains, still there is some confidence-carry-over from one domain to the next, and to your life in general. Having already gained mastery in one domain, you know you have the determination and discipline necessary to stick with something and see it through, and that bolsters your overall self-esteem and changes how you carry yourself. And while mastery of one domain won’t give you the confidence to perform well in another, knowing you can begin anything as a neophyte and steadily improve with diligence, will give you the confidence to take the first step in trying something new.
When you develop confidence through mastery, the world opens up to you. It doesn’t depend on your genes, it doesn’t rely on other people’s opinions, and nobody can ever take it from you. There’s no truer confidence than the knowledge that no matter how you were born, or what life throws at you, you can make of yourself whatever you will.
Mastery by Robert Greene
The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (this book is primarily geared towards women, but highlights research that’s been done about confidence that applies to both sexes)
Last updated: December 1, 2017