confidenceWe ALL want rock solid self confidence, but what is it and where does it come from? Here are some of my current thoughts on confidence.

I don’t see myself as confident. Most of my life, I’ve attempted things I didn’t feel equipped for, but I tend to put my head down and go for it anyway. Some might call me naïve! Persistent? YES, that’s my middle name! In any case, realizing that I’m not particularly confident but I AM persistent and I am generally optimistic made me wonder about three things.

1. What’s the difference between confidence and optimism?
2. When is confidence blind or naive?
3. Where does persistence come from, if not from confidence?

Confidence and Optimism
Confidence and optimism are in the same wheelhouse, but they are quite different beasts.

The big difference? Evidence. Confidence looks for evidence, and optimism thumbs its nose at evidence.

Harvey Penick, professional American golfer and hall of famer, described this well,

Confidence is when you have hit this particular shot many times in the past with success, and you know you are capable of doing it again. Optimism would be if you had never hit this shot successfully in your life, and are hoping this will be the first time.

That’s a great distinction, but its not the whole story. Confidence is generally your belief in your own ability (based on past experience) while optimism is a big picture perspective. In other words, I don’t know if I can do this, but I will do my best and trust that it will all work out as it needs to.

Confidence depends on me. Optimism depends on me + forces beyond me. Optimism operates despite confidence, but true confidence needs the guiding hand of optimism to make sure ego doesn’t spin out of control. And then when my sense of purpose gives me confidence that I can play a valuable part in optimism’s plans, watch out! That’s confidence I want to sign up for; measured by time and perspective, in service of something more than my own feelings!

This makes me think that persistence partners more with optimism than confidence. I persist as an act of defiance. Even though I’m 46 and stand at a pretty major crossroads in my life, I persist with my direction, often with little reason to believe (confidence) that it’s all going to work out, but driven by a sense of purpose.

So, how do you build self confidence?
With evidence- Push yourself out of your comfort zone and prove to yourself that you have reason to be confident. This is well expressed in this William Jennings Bryan quote,

The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you. Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.

And second, forget the evidence. Keep on keeping on (persistence), and learn to trust the big picture (optimism).

When is confidence blind or naive?
Eoin Colfer wrote in Artemis Fowl, “Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.”

The problem with anything evidence based is that we never know everything there is to know; hence the need to balance assertive qualities like confidence and certainty with more humble, receptive qualities like trust and surrender (and the unsexy quality of persistence).

Confidence can only ever be conditional, based on what you know at the time. In July, 1911, stuntman Bobby Leach survived tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel. You’d think that would give him an air of unbreakability. A few years later, while skipping down the street in New Zealand, he slipped on an orange peel, fell, and fractured his leg. He was taken to a hospital and later died of complications from the fall.
He was well prepared for his tumble over Niagara. He was not prepared for danger walking down the street. How could you be?

A common message from the personal development world is, “Believe you can do it, and you WILL do it easily.” That’s confidence! But is it true? To a point. There’s no question that our beliefs are powerful. But it’s naïve to drive a car without lessons or sky dive without preparation, it’s cocky to think you are unbreakable and it’s narcissistic to think that everything should work out the way you want it to.

A more accurate statement might be, “Believe you can do it, know that’s it worth bleeding for, dust yourself off every time you fall, and trust a time frame and plan beyond your wildest dreams, and everything will work in exactly the right way.” Confidence without persistence and purpose (optimism) can so easily become cocky and self satisfying.

On the positive side, confidence that grows out of persistent optimism can never be naïve. This is the confidence I want to nurture.

Persistence, Optimism and Confidence
Confidence is a roller coaster ride of elation and devastation, based on circumstances, because it looks to success and failure with puppy dog eyes, hoping for a morsel of encouragement. Optimism has a much larger perspective on failure. It’s not tossed around in the winds of change. Another way to think about it goes like this,

For a pessimist, failure is to be expected, its permanent and personal while success is a surprise, its temporary and external. In other words, when things go well there is some other way to explain it. When things go poorly, it says something absolute to and about me.

An optimist, on the other hand, sees success as expected, permanent (because it’s always working itself out) and external (it’s rarely just about us) while failure is a surprise, temporary and in process. In other words, when things go poorly there is another way to explain it (even if I can’t yet get there) and when things go well, it’s the collusion of all the right people, purposes, effort and timing.

Confidence, when coupled with persistence and optimism, holds loosely to evidence. When you think about it, it’s your mind’s voracious desire for evidence of confidence that leads to so much pain. It flirts with you, teases you with great moments before leading you out the front door with your fly down. Confidence needs a sense of humor to balance it’s cockiness (pardon the pun).

confidence bladder

Footballer, John McKay, tells a great story about confidence with a sense of humor. It involves University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant: “We were out shooting ducks, and finally, after about three hours, here comes one lonely duck. The Bear fires. And that duck is still flying today. But Bear watched the duck flap away, looked at me and said, ‘John, you are witnessing a genuine miracle. There flies a dead duck!’”

That’s the type of confidence I want to nurture. I don’t want to be victim to the agonizing twists and turns of fortune and evidence. I want to believe, in the largest sense, that my life has a place in the whole and that undying persistence comes from a deep knowing of this purpose rather than my own brilliance. Sometimes I will be brilliant, sometimes not.

I don’t expect to find a super confident swagger any time soon. But I can live with that. It’s when my persistence starts to wane, that’s when I will get worried. Now, can persistence be naive? Well, that’s a great question for another article.

Subscribe to Grapevine Back to Grapevine page

  1. Patti says:

    Wow, interesting analysis…..I hadn’t thought of confidence  with so many dimensions.   Thanks for this…. ps:a new major crossroad?

  2. bertie says:

    Nicely said – but i still think being a pessimist is better than being an optimist – a optimist can be very upset if things go wrong – a pessimist no surprise.  If things go right we assume that a pessimist would always be unhappy and grey – but that is just an assumption – it is entirely possible that an pessimist would be delighted out of his skull given the right circumstances -  while an optimist would be merely satisfied as it simply fulfilled expectations.Confidence is something else though – given your careful analysis i would say that confidence is something we are given, some of us expect to succeed – a gift from a careful upbringing, others are often not so fortunate in having a supporting background.   The idea that we can do whatever we set out to do if we want to enough is spot on. Today more than ever – forcing it through with sheer willpower though – i like the idea of magic – of destiny – i also like the idea of self programming on a subconscious level .Cheers for the thoughts.

  3. Dixie says:

    Loved this, Ian!  Think of you often and miss you.Dixie & Warren

  4. werena says:

    Great writing you do on your site. Really like the creativity combined with so much wealthy content. I believe my idea of confidence is very similar to yours. I however, have not thought about it this deep as you have reported here. Well done, that does not often that I realise about untouched subjects since I use to be a horrible over thinker. Keep up the great work, I am always happy to do collaborations.