Confidence is a vital ingredient in successfully beginning, pursuing and completing difficult undertakings. Lack of confidence is the primary reason for lack of implementation of good ideas. If we delve into the etymology of the English word “confidence,” we find that the prefix, “con,” is Latin meaning “with” or “together.” The root, “fido,” translates into “trust,” “believe,” “confide in.” Whenever you see an English word that begins with “con” or “com” it very often indicates that the original meaning of the word involved a concept that was communally formed: the word was intended to convey that other people were inextricably interwoven in what happens to the individual.
We often refer to “self-confidence.” However, according to this analysis, this term is actually a redundancy. The word confidence is sufficient to express one’s positive attitude toward personal competence, capability and self-sufficiency. The word confidence literally means to trust or believe together with others in an interdependent community. An individual will find it difficult to be confident without the positive input and support from others.
The existence of confidence in any member of a community indicates that that community has an established culture of mutual trust and respect among its citizens. This does not necessarily hold true for all cultures and communities that a person happens to be a part of. For instance, you could be totally confident of yourself within your home environment but totally lacking in confidence within any number of other organizations and associations of which you are a member. This has as much to do with the kinds of input from others in these respective environments as it does with one’s membership qualifications of family, ability, preparation, experience or knowledge, for example.
We weave our personal realities mainly from the multiple inputs from others. A boy was struggling to move a large rock. His father walked by and asked, “Son, are you using all your strength to move that rock?” His son replied, “Yes, Dad.” His father retorted, “Son, you are not using all your strength because you have not yet asked me to help you.” Our strength and personal realities are formed and sustained by the contributions from others. We are not nearly so strong or confident without them. When others are encouraging and supportive, confidence builds and you are more likely to stretch as well as strengthen your talents and abilities toward successful and innovative applications and outcomes.
When You Know You Know
One of the ways a community demonstrates its support for its individual members is to provide solid practical information regarding what it takes to succeed within the community and beyond. The knowledge that is passed down and around becomes the foundation for an individual’s confidence in making decisions and behaving in ways that are conducive for success.
After this knowledge is disseminated, the supportive community will then provide practical opportunities for the individual to apply what was learned. These experiences create an internal sense of what works and what doesn’t work. When you know you know how to succeed, your confidence in performing the necessary tasks that lead to successful achievement soars. Your confidence helps you assess risks realistically and to bounce back from failure quickly.
Becoming Confident in All You Do
How do you become confident in all the situations in your life? It’s simple, really. You give to others what you want them to give to you. Life echoes. It ripples. What you give out you get back in waves.
Although confidence is socially constructed, the individual has a large part to play in creating a community environment in which confidence is engendered and nurtured. Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I would paraphrase this slightly to make it more immediate to one’s personal environment and also say, “you must be the change you wish to see in others.” If you wish to be around people who smile more, then smile more! If you want to work in an environment that is characterized by teamwork and mutual respect, then demonstrate to others how these characteristics can be embodied and pragmatically expressed on a consistent basis.
I realize that to adopt this approach is to invite the possibility of failure, perhaps even ridicule. Life is full of risks. It certainly is a risk, albeit rather innocuous in nature, to smile at someone who clearly is in no mood to smile. They might scowl back! Then how would you feel? But it’s not about how you feel. It’s about how you act. If you want to be around people who have more reasons to smile then you should take the risk that the smile you offer will not be returned at that very moment. You might feel awkward and uncomfortable. Big deal! By smiling, even when you don’t feel like it, you’re giving permission for others to do the same, if not now then later. You’re setting the stage for their subsequent behavior toward you and others not just their immediate reaction to your current behavior. Helen Keller, who had more reasons than anybody else in history to be grumpy and sad, nonetheless proclaimed, “Be happy. Talk happiness. Happiness calls out responsive gladness in others.”
Changing Others By Changing Yourself
You’ve no doubt heard that you can only change yourself and not others. This is true if you try to change someone else’s behavior without first trying to change your own. It has been my experience that you can, in fact, alter others’ ways of acting by altering your own first, just as Gandhi noted. William James, pragmatist philosopher & psychologist (1842 – 1910) said, “the greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” I would go further and say that human beings can alter other people’s lives by altering their own personal attitudes of mind, as I’ve described above. When you change your attitude of mind, that is, the way you habitually think (an attitude is nothing more than a habit of thought), then you alter the way you behave and this, in turn, alters the ways others behave toward you.
There are two ways to change yourself that will also result in changes in others. When you change something about yourself, especially your behavior, others are naturally challenged to change their responses to the “new you.”
By changing yourself you are also altering the social environment from which you receive your cues and clues about how to be confident. In effect, you are setting up a “virtuous cycle” (as opposed to a “vicious cycle”) that creates the conditions for perpetual mutual benefit for both the individual and the community.
Here are the two ways to change yourself:
o Think your way into a new way of acting
o Act your way into a new way of thinking
It’s true that habitual behavior stems from habitual thought and that the quality of your actions flow from the quality of your thinking. This is the “garbage in – garbage out,” “excellence in – excellence out” notion in behavioral psychology. Thinking your way into a new way of acting is effective. However, it often takes a long time because you must think the new thought repetitively in order for it to erase and replace the old way of thinking and for this new way to finally change your behavior. Often there is not enough time to allow for this way of changing to work itself out.
More immediate change can be achieved by simply acting the way you want others to behave. It’s a curious fact of life that by doing something, even if you don’t feel like doing it, you make it easier to do again. Smiling elicits a desire, no matter how small or subconscious, to have reason to continue smiling. Treating co-workers as colleagues of equal worth even if they aren’t of equal status creates in their minds a reason to want to collaborate with you in the future. This sort of “risky behavior” engenders trust and tames the tentativeness toward teamwork because it results in the experience of mutual respect that fosters the desire to repeat the behavior. The action gives rise to the thinking that guides and supports future actions. This is the “virtuous cycle” out of which confidence and achievement flow.
“Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead”
General Robert E. Lee, widely respected for his military and personal leadership, said, “You have only always to do what is right. It will become easier by practice, and you enjoy in the midst of your trials the pleasure of an approving conscience.” As a young child, I listened to the song of the story of Davy Crockett countless times while sitting on the floor of my bedroom in front of my little record player. I recall the spoken words that immediately preceded the beginning of the song. “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” This was Crockett’s philosophy of life. It was his personal motto. It shaped his behavior and tuned his integrity throughout his life.
In fact, doing “only always” what you’re sure is right is the only true source of confidence. When you possess “the pleasure of an approving conscience” in all that you do, you feed your soul with the necessary nutrient that keeps it strong, resolute and successful, even in failure. We esteem General Lee today because of his strength of confidence, character and wisdom even though he failed to win a great war that he believed was right to fight.
Doing right means that you do things you don’t always feel like doing. It means that you do things you don’t have to do. But it’s precisely these things that determine what you’ll be able to do more easily and with greater impact in the future. Doing right creates the inspiration to continue to do right and the confidence that you are doing right. The great early twentieth century composer, Igor Stravinsky, said, “Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.”
Self-Made Communities Count, Too
We can now say with confidence that community, within which confidence is born, is not merely something into which one is born and therefore has no control over. It can be more than that. A community can be formed in the mind of an individual by means of reading and meditating. We learn how to be confident from the mental and spiritual communities we form throughout our lives as well as the physical communities of family, neighborhood, city, school, church, synagogue, mosque, associations and job. And we have control over these inner communities in that we can continually modify our sources of wisdom and understanding of what is right and worthy of our efforts.
Getting It Right From the Start
Confidence is telling the truth in advance of experiencing it. You can lead with confidence when you start something even if you’ve never done it before because your confidence is a predictor of the successful completion of the endeavor. Confidence is a term to describe belief in one’s ability to succeed in life. William James comes again to aid our understanding: “our belief at the beginning of a doubtful undertaking is the one thing that insures the successful outcome of our venture.” And again, “be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
In the September 22, 2006 issue of the USA Today newspaper, an article on the “soul of a champion” quotes Patrick Cohn, sports psychologist and President of Peak Performance Sports, on the need for confidence in order to attain championship levels of performance. “Self-confidence is probably the number one mental skill that championship athletes possess. Simply put, it is their belief in their ability to perform. They see themselves as winners.” Confidence is seeing yourself as successfully accomplishing something you haven’t yet done, bringing that future positive self-image into the present and then using it as the impetus and inspiration to succeed at doing it.
So Then, It Works Both Ways
Confidence arises from and is fed by both the past and the future. It begins in the communities that the individual participates in, both visible and invisible. It is nurtured by history and visualization, by experience and expectation, by fact and dream, by knowledge and hope, by achievement and aspiration.
Acquiring and growing confidence is the responsibility of each individual. You are in charge of how confident you feel and how confidently you act by choosing what to focus on in your past and in your future. If you’re sure you’re right in your focus, you’ll be sure to bring about what you’re thinking about. And the realization of this confidence will contribute to the community the confidence others need to do what they’re sure is right. And thus the virtuous cycle is formed that results in increasingly greater achievements and benefits for humanity and the world.