Today I want to talk a little bit about confidence. It’s probably more a yang (masculine) quality than a yin (feminine) one. But I’ll just assume it’s of general interest and address both the men and the women.
First of all, what the heck is confidence? It’s what linguists call a nominalization – basically a noun that stands in for a bunch of verbs.
Whenever you have a nominalization, you get confusion. Because each one of us defines that nominalization in our own special way. So words like ‘confidence’, ‘courage’ and ‘understanding’ effectively have 6.5 billion definitions.
So however you define confidence, let’s agree on this much: it doesn’t exist. At least not in the traditional sense of existing.
You can’t put it in a wheelbarrow, and you can’t pinpoint its location in your brain in a PET scan. Not even those fancy, souped up fMRI scans can find it.
It’s a state of mind — some mixture of willingness and self-possession. It’s a catalyst to action but not action itself. Whatever it is, like porn, we know it when we see it.
Our discussion today is mostly about social confidence, but it’s applicable to any other kind of confidence that matters to you.
There are four kinds of confidence. The first kind I’ll call unconscious confidence.
This is a bit like ‘unconscious incompetence’, the first phase of learning, except that you’re not incompetent – you’re SUPER-competent!
This is the fearless confidence of kids. They’ll go up to any stranger and engage in conversation. They’ll say “I love you” within minutes of meeting you. They just don’t know any better than to be outrageous and outgoing and do their heart’s desire.
Gradually, through the teachings of parents and culture, they learn that it’s not okay to speak their mind, or just run up to strangers and ask if they want to play. They learn about danger and hurt. They stop being innocent in the original sense of the word, derived from ‘nocere’ – ‘free of harm.’
This is a bit like being informed you’re naked after you’ve been perfectly unaware for years that there’s anything wrong with that. Holy cow! Now what do I do?
So now they become bumbling adolescents, afraid of stepping on the toes of convention and propriety. Many people stay in this state for the rest of their lives regardless of their age. I’m sure you know someone like this.
To overcome this, most people resort to manufactured confidence, which is the second phase. This can come in the form of trappings – playing your music loud, certain clothing or hairdo, accessories – or a devil-may-care, badass attitude.
The ploy works some of the time on some people but is completely transparent nevertheless. There’s the outward appearance of confidence and the fervent hope that the world will buy the act in spite of the cowering little wimp living inside that shell.
But you’ve got to learn to walk before you run, so don’t make fun of people displaying manufactured confidence. It’s a bit like conscious incompetence, the second phase of learning. You don’t have a clue, and you’re acutely aware that you don’t have a clue. But you’re working on it.
Which brings us to the next phase: conscious confidence. This is when you know what’s up. You’re actually a solid person through and through, and you stand your ground. It’s not as much an act anymore as it is a reliable skill, like driving.
So you can call upon the skill pretty much anytime you want. But under great stress, you still could stumble, like with any skill.
If you practice confidence for a while and really believe in yourself, you’ll be consciously confident. It’s an attractive and powerful quality. I’d say a decent fraction of adults get to this phase eventually.
But then there’s a whole new realm of confidence beyond that. It’s interesting because on the surface, it looks like the behavior of the child. The person who is in the fourth phase of confidence has the similar playful fearlessness.
With one big difference: he is fearless in spite of *knowing* about danger, not because he’s unaware of danger.
You’ve all heard about the cliché about becoming a little child again to achieve enlightenment. And I’ve spent many moments gazing into the eyes of my friends’ infant children, lost in their full presence in the moment.
But that little Buddha is not fully enlightened, because it doesn’t know. The key is to get back to that childlike state with all the stuff you’ve got on your hard drive already.
And that, my friend, is a challenge.
This is the phase of transcendent confidence. And outwardly, it can look like any of the other phases without losing its transcendent quality.
It can look like manufactured confidence, since it can don a tough-guy outfit for fun without taking it seriously. Because the essence of confidence is still inside.
It can even look like cowardice. There’s a story about the legendary Japanese sword master Musashi illustrating this point.
A street thug challenges Musashi to a duel. He says he wants to fight him right then and there and kill him, unless he gets on all fours and crawls between the man’s legs.
Mind you, in 17th century Edo (modern Tokyo), that’s the most humiliating thing you can do.
So what does Musashi do? He thinks about it for a second, then gets on all fours and walks through the guy’s legs, soiling his own outfit in the process — and keeps on walking along his way.
Why? Because the alternative would have been to kill the guy. And he just didn’t feel like doing that.
That’s real power.
Transcendent confidence is knowing that you have options, and picking the right one. It’s far beyond living up to any kind of image and just about ‘te’, or right action.
We’ll talk more about the how of trascendent confidence later.