It’s been another busy month with lots of challenges, changes, great opportunities, and much room for growth. I don’t know if it’s the product of the slow, subtle crafting of my own thinking or a cruel joke by a menacing world (…I think it’s more of the former), but one of my greatest challenges and opportunities as of late involved the collision of these things – personal introspection and an opportunity to speak. I spoke on a question that’s been hanging around my mind for years but suddenly became especially – even painfully – relevant to me over the past few months.
“How does one become more confident?”
For the second time this year, I spoke at Ignite Fort Collins. Whereas my first Ignite talk back in January was a playful take on the Anal Bomb, this one carried a heavier weight for me personally. Thanks to some recurring conversations with friends, clients, and strangers, my notion of Honest Confidence is something that I’ve been thinking about and developing for the past two years. But in the months leading up to this event, I had been thrown back into a state of middle school-esque insecurity, feeling not attractive enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, and not good enough in the eyes of certain others (side note: this sudden shift was the unfortunate – and very common – byproduct of being in an abusive relationship). So you can imagine the cognitive dissonance I felt as I was prepared to speak to an audience of over 450 people…about confidence…when I had been feeling decidedly not-confident (side note: I knew my abusive boyfriend would be in the audience, too…yeah, the one who told me I wasn’t worthy of the good things in my life or capable of doing great things).
But, fortunately, for all of the moments when I thought, “Is this totally hypocritical of me to get up there and speak?” and “I wonder if the audience will see through my words and realize my own struggle?” I also thought, “Maybe this is just one of those serendipities of life! Like, of course when I put effort into thinking about a topic that topic will become more relevant to my life than it was before crafting the 5-minute talk!”
Or, perhaps, the chicken and the egg went the other way around.
Perhaps I was actually already feeling not-confident so I started to think harder about confidence. Whatever it was, I took comfort in reminding myself that this is precisely why I talk about philifesophy. For whatever reason, thanks to whatever confluence of events and conversations, I’ve always thought that life and philosophy can and should relate back to one another. In other words, this was the prime time for me to think about confidence. Precisely because it was something with which I was struggling so much. Some might say that’s what it means to “turn into it”…or something like that.
So I prepared and memorized and drew up my little slides. I practiced during my lunch hours and stressed about what to wear. The night of the event, after sweating stinky, adrenaline sweat all day long, I arrived at the venue, tried to breathe, and had to hope that my brain and mouth knew what they were doing without me having to be too conscious. The truth is, I can speak for hours in front of lots of people and feel totally fine but memorizing all the points I wanted to make in five minutes with automatically advancing slides is hard as shit. Now that I’ve done it a couple of times, I know that I kind of black out when I go on stage like that. I remember bits and pieces here and there but for the most part, the time starts and it keeps moving whether or not your thoughts are going with it.
Fortunately, the talk went well. I met some cool folks, wore a new dress, and I don’t think too many people could tell that I was also wearing my day-long adrenaline smell. But, the point of this post is that, as usual, in the process of preparing to give my talk and continuing to live my life, I learned a few extra, unexpected things about confidence along the way:
1. Confidence and Politics: Competing Claims
My thoughts on Honest Confidence were inspired by times when people would ask variations of, “How do you do what you do?” This question frequently came from others who explained that they could never imagine putting themselves “out there” like I would – especially not on the Internet – because other people would surely see them, judge them, and critique them. (Of course, it’s wrong to think that I haven’t been seen, judged, and critiqued. I have. But that highlights how fear of critique isn’t really what’s at stake here.)
I heard stories of people not feeling confident enough in their ideas so they would never have their own blog; worrying that they would say something stupid or ignorant so they would never post a video on YouTube; stressing that they would make a fool of themselves when they spoke in front of an audience; etc.
Beyond blogs and YouTube videos, this is the kind of insecurity that can prevent us from doing things that we really care about and actually want to do. The common thread in what I heard from other people, then, was a matter of doing. Of being afraid to act a certain way. Of being paralyzed by the worry and anxiety around what others will think if you actually, vulnerably, expose your genuine thoughts, feelings, opinions, passions, and ideas. It’s not the same as a photoshop-induced insecurity about cellulite and how you look. It’s more about what others think in terms of who you are. What you believe in.
These worries get at something much deeper. So deep, in fact, that the core issue is really whether you feel like you have a voice that deserves to be heard.
After I realized that this kind of doubt and insecurity really boils down to whether one can feel assured enough in oneself to have their own voice and use it, I suddenly understood why having confidence does not mean that one is immune from critique. If anything, it can bring it on more strongly.
However, hefty amounts of honest confidence can help one receive that critique without it being terribly crippling.
In short, my version on Honest Confidence results from thinking carefully and critically about oneself and one’s values so that one can act with humility and integrity. You provide the framework for justifying and validating your actions so that you can stand up for what you believe in. Naturally, if you say what you think, some people will probably criticize you for your views.
And that’s where it gets interesting.
My recipe for Honest Confidence doesn’t say anything about what you believe in. As a result, there can be two people, two groups, or two parties (or more!) who confidently act with integrity on their beliefs and values. They can all feel validated and justified in how they put themselves out there in the world and let their voices be heard…even if they are voicing totally oppositional, competing claims.
Politically speaking, this is a potential pickle for me because we’re left with a picture where one, by acting with integrity and according to her values, could just as easily work at a clinic that performs abortions or picket it (or write a blog post and make a YouTube video about it). Hence, we’re left with a picture of potentially vehement political disagreements where everyone confidently fights for their side because their values validate their position as right. This is an issue that requires more thorough attention, but I’ll just note one thing:
You can still be confident without being righteous.
The two are not synonymous. In fact, that’s why I emphasize humility as a key aspect of Honest Confidence. Phew. Moving right along then….
2. A Conflict in Confidences
In my talk, I contrast my notion of Honest Confidence against The Lies of the Best (which is the idea that confidence comes from being the best). In some not-so-discrete ways, I favor the model of Honest Confidence for myself and it is what I recommend for and encourage in others.
After the talk, people approached me and noted that their source of confidence definitely followed the model of being the best. I asked one man in particular how it was working out for him and he said, “Okay.”
I might have raised a skeptical eyebrow, but really, who am I to say that he can’t or shouldn’t feeling good about himself because he thinks he is the best? Or, maybe he is the best, and maybe then he has every reason to be confident.
Without saying that being the best can’t be a source of confidence for some people, I think it can present challenges for others who don’t also adopt that model of confidence. For instance, while striving to be the best might work great for that particular man, it might not settle so well with those who are close to him (i.e., his wife was less enthusiastic when I asked how being the best was working out for him), especially if he expects them to also be the best.
This was my biggest realization with respect to my own recent struggle with confidence:
Interpersonal problems can surface when our models of confidence conflict.
For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how it was possible that I could feel confident in myself as a person, confident enough, in fact, to stand on a stage and give a talk about confidence, and yet not feel confident in other respects with those whom I am close and care about so deeply.
And then it hit me: I’m confident insofar as I live with a sense of Honest Confidence. But, after continuously interacting with others who functioned under the model of being the best, I felt a sudden pressure that in order for me to be good enough for them, I also had to be the best. Something that I don’t think I am or really even care to try to be. So even if others actually thought I was the best, that wasn’t how I thought of myself, nor was it how I wanted them to think of me. The fact that they might actually see me that way was more scary than anything, because when you’re the best, you’ve got to work hard to maintain that status and the only direction you can move is down. I think that sounds like a pretty terrifying feeling.
What I learned, then, is that it may be quite possible for people to have different models of confidence that work for them as individuals. However, if we impose our model of how we understand our own value and worth onto others, and if it’s not how they understand it for themselves (particularly if we are operating with a notion of having to be “the best,” it can result in some pretty unpleasant tensions where everyone ends up feeling not-good-enough. And now, finally, something that didn’t occur to me until after I delivered the talk…
3. Confidence in Children
To my surprise, a number of people approached me after the event and asked, “How can we help children be more confident?” With so much of my attention on trying to figure out why I was feeling not-confident, I guess I hadn’t really thought about the implications of what I was saying for how to cultivate confidence in others, especially young people. But it’s a super important question and I was glad they asked it. So we explored the issue together, right then and there.
As it turned out, I (humbly, and with integrity) stood by my word.
Now, I’m not a parent and I don’t get many opportunities to hang out with young children, but I do think it’s important for kids to be confident, and I do think that one way to build their confidence is by encouraging them to reflect on real questions and become more self-aware. Grown-ups can help provide opportunities for children to explore questions for themselves so that children grow with the understanding that they are fully capable of having their own thoughts and that their thoughts matter. Ideally, all kids would learn to confidently embrace their ability to think and speak for themselves.
That might sound a bit like “philosophy is the panacea for all things and everyone,” but on this matter, I’m going to give a nod to the folks out there who do philosophy with children and know first-hand that providing kids with enough space, time, support, and respect to hone their own thinking skills can do wonders for them.
We adults just don’t often give young children enough credit to be able to do it in the first place. And that’s our bad, not theirs. If you don’t believe me, check out what my friends are doing with young philosophers over at The Philosophy Club!
To see other ways that I use philosophy to figure out stuff on life, follow me on Twitter @Cori_Wong, “LIKE” my page on Facebook, subscribe to my YouTube channel. You can also see pictures of my cat on Instagram and then draw your own philosophical connections.