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The illusion of confidence and the road to mastery
Confidence is a watchword of our day. We learn at home, school, work and with friends that confidence is cool and cool is confidence. It is considered an attractive attribute and a basic essential for success in life.
But what exactly is it? You can't put it in a bag and you can't buy it. One way to understand it is that it is the opposite of self-doubt, awkwardness and not knowing what to do. Often, a lack of confidence is based on a fear of criticism by others. Conversely, confidence implies being sure of one's own ability and being less vulnerable to social manipulation.
A problem with confidence is that it easily assumes certainty, stability and detailed knowledge which leads to a state of wilful blindness or blissful ignorance whereby that which is not known is not needed.
And it works. Better than self doubt, at least. It activates you, getting you to at least try when you might otherwise be paralyzed by fear. Confidence also reduces doubt in others as they mistake certainty for knowledge or competence. It is not surprising that it is considered an important skill for leaders.
Yet fake confidence cloaks doubt, which can stubbornly cling on as we project confidence while hiding our uncertainty. But this can cause unbearable inner tension that needs an escape. We want to be confident. We act confident, but doubt. And eventually our minds concede and believe our own propaganda. In this way, we gain real confidence that is not justified.
Overconfidence means ignoring risk. Pride goes before a fall and failure may be denied even as that walls crumble. But what then? If it can't be me, it must be others or external factors. To sustain confidence, we excuse ourselves and blame others.
Confidence does not give space for learning. Or does it?
It seems that doubt is bad, unhelpful and unhealthy. And it can be. Yet it can be healthy too. Healthy doubt does not undermine confidence. Indeed, it makes a great, if paradoxical, partner. It adds realism, humility, and a pause that gives time to consider alternatives.
To be properly confident means taking time to acquire knowledge and skills. It means a long apprenticeship that leads to real mastery. Even then, real confidence means being realistic about failure, indulging in neither excessive doubt nor prideful certainty. What mastery gives is the confidence to cope with variation, surprise and even failure. When you know from experience you can handle whatever happens, you can then be truly confident.
And the big