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 CalculatorConfidence 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.