Confidence Archives - The School Of Life

It’s natural and beautiful to strive to be a nice person. In a world full of cruelty and thoughtlessness, nice people are committed to being generous, sympathetic and gentle. They never want to cause anyone to feel defeated or to lose sleep. They will go to great lengths to spare others tears. It sounds especially lovely.

Nevertheless, it seems impossible to go through the whole of life being nothing but kind. Sooner or later, we are all called upon to take decisions that, even as they protect things we very much care about, will ruffle feathers, generate upset and may lead us to be (at least for a time) violently hated in some quarters.

We might, for example, have to tell a romantic partner that, in spite of our deep affection for them, we don’t see ourselves being together for the long term. Or we might have to tell a child that it’s now bedtime and that there can be no more stories. Or we might have to explain to a colleague that we don’t see them fitting into a team and that they might be better off looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Such situations can be agony for committedly ‘nice’ people. There are great temptations to delay the moment of truth or avoid it altogether. The ‘nice’ still deep down hope that they might – while always smiling and agreeing – stay friends with everyone. Their distinctive sensitivity has often have been fostered by childhoods in which the consequences of being honest and forthright were especially difficult. They might have had a parent who flew into a rage or threatened suicide whenever an awkward idea was laid before them — perfect preparation for an adulthood in which there appears to be no option but to tell everyone what they want to hear.

However, being truly nice involves something ‘nicer’ still than constant agreement and emollience. It means signalling to others what one’s value system is and sticking by it, even at the occasional cost of public opposition. It means taking on the burden of telling others where we stand and ruining their afternoon or month in order to save their long-term future and our own. It means accepting that there might be choices to be made between loyalty and sincerity and effectiveness and bonhomie.

Mature people have come to terms with the tragic need to acquire something even more important than popularity: a character.

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A lack of confidence is often put down to something we call shyness. But beneath shyness, there may lie something more surprising, pernicious and poignant. We suffer from a suspicion of ourselves that gives us a sense that other people will always have good reasons to dislike us, to think ill of us, to question our motives and to mock us. We then become scared of the world, speak in a small voice, don’t dare to show our face at gatherings and are frightened of social occasions because we fear that we are ideal targets for ridicule and disdain. Our shy manner is the pre-emptive stance we adopt in the face of the blows we feel that other people want to land on us. Our shyness is rooted in a sense of unworthiness.

Photo by Patrick Pierre on Unsplash

As shy people, when we find ourselves in a foreign city in which we know no one, we can be thrown into panic at the prospect of having to enter a busy restaurant and order a meal on our own. Dogged by a feeling that no one especially wants to know us, that we are outside the charmed circle of the popular and the desirable, we are sure that our leprous condition will be noticed by others and that we will be the target of sneering and viciousness. We unknowingly impute to strangers the nasty comments that we are experts at making to ourselves; our self-image returns to haunt us in the assumed views of others. We imagine that groups of friends will take mean delight in our solitary state and read into it appalling conclusions about our nature. They will see right through our veneer of competence and adulthood and detect the deformed and unfinished creature we have felt like since the start. They will know how desperate we have been to win friends and how pitiful and isolated we are. Even the waiter will fight to restrain their desire to giggle at our expense in the kitchen.

A comparable fear haunts us at the idea of going into a clothes shop. The sales attendant will surely immediately sense how unfit we are to lay claim to the stylishness on offer. They may suspect we lack the money; they will be appalled by our physique. We lack the right to pamper our own bodies.

It can be as much of a hurdle to attend a party. Here too our fundamental imagined awfulness is perpetually at risk of being noticed and exploited by others. As we try to join a group of people chatting animatedly, we dread that that they will swiftly realise how unfunny we are, how craven our nature is and how peculiar and damned we are at our core.

The novelist Franz Kafka, who hated himself with rare energy, famously imagined himself into the role of a cockroach. This move of the imagination will feel familiar to anyone sick with self-disdain. We, the self-hating ones, spontaneously identify with all the stranger, less photogenic animals: rhinoceroses, blobfish, spiders, warthogs, elephant seals… We skulk in corners, we run away from our shadow, we live in fear of being swatted away and killed.It is no surprise if, against such an internal background, we end up ‘shy’. The solution is not to urge us blithely to be more ‘confident’. It is to help us to take stock of our feelings about ourselves that we have ascribed to an audience, that is, in reality, far more innocent and unconcerned than we ever imagine. We need to trace our self-hatred back to its origins, repatriate and localise it, and drain it of its power to infect our views of those we encounter. Everyone else isn’t jeering, or bored or convinced of our revoltingness; these are our certainties, not theirs. We don’t have to whisper in a circumspect manner and enter each new conversation, restaurant or shop with a sheepish air of apology. We can cast aside our introverted circumspection once we realise the distortions of our self-perception, and can come to believe in a world that has far better things to do than to despise us.

Many of us, even the very kind ones, have a habit of walking through the world wearing a distinctly uncongenial and surly expression. If someone secretly photographed us on our way to the station or back from the shops, we might wince at our appearance: how stern our resting face is, how guarded we look, how misanthropic we seem. This would pain us in part because we know this cannot be the whole story; because our outward manner is deeply at odds with a warmer, kinder, more vulnerable and sociable self that we know also exists and that seeks – largely in vain and often rather clumsily – to find expression. We are curmudgeons who harbour some deeply thwarted longings for new friendships.

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Yet it shouldn’t, in a way, be surprising that we have ended up so walled off and uninclined to share any of ourselves with strangers. We have – without quite realising it – been given long training in our attitudes. We have been told a lot about the world outside our insulated, predictable routines. We know that the stranger is, as a rule, pretty dangerous, has nothing much to teach us, is likely to be sinister and may well be demented. Admittedly, we have not generally done our own research; we have let others find out for us and on this score, the media’s conclusions are refreshed on our screens every hour of every day: others are to be feared, the unknown is to be avoided, the world (outside our pre-existing close knit circle) is mad.

However, the reality is that, despite the surface evidence, strangers are in fact always likely to most resemble someone we already know well: us. Beneath the unfamiliar exterior, the distinctive accent, the alien occupation, the unexplored age or social bracket, the stranger is only too often merely a version of ourselves, the same essential human matter squeezed through a slightly different social and psychological mold:

– the stranger is pained by regrets

– the stranger is wracked by longings

– the stranger, despite their impassive appearance, craves love and fellowship

– the stranger is lonely

– the stranger loves to laugh, but hasn’t been silly and playful in a long time

– the stranger was once a baby

– the stranger believes you are a stranger

– the stranger might want to say hello

 

The places where we tend to see strangers – the crowded shopping streets, the airless subway carriages, the airport concourses – don’t tend to lend any plausibility to the above suggestions; they reinforce a message that others must be unfathomable and eerie. Yet feeling at home in the world relies to some extent on going beyond, or to the side of the available evidence, refusing to be cowed by surface details, and insisting on a theoretical capacity to locate the humanity of all beneath the outer casing.

 

This is the trick of that guileless artist of the everyday we call the friendly person. They take an attitude of basic goodwill out into unknown spaces. They assume that the stranger will be open to a smile, a reflection on the season, a supportive glance or an unobtrusive greeting. They will suspect that beneath a surly manner, the assistant might be aching to share something of themselves; that – even when there are only a few minutes available (especially then) – it will be possible to say something heartwarming to a colleague or an official, that one can empathise across the barriers of age, class and profession.

 

Shyness has its insightful dimensions. It is infused with an awareness that we might be bothering someone with our presence, it is based upon an acute sense that a stranger could be dissatisfied or discomfited by us. The shy person is touchingly alive to the dangers of being a nuisance. Someone with no capacity whatever for shyness is a scary possibility; for they implicitly operate with a dismaying attitude of entitlement. They are friendly only because they haven’t taken on board the crucial possibility that the other person might rightly have a disenchanted view of them.

 

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And yet, in most cases, we pay an unnecessarily heavy price for our reserve around people who might well have opened their hearts to us – if only we had known how to manifest our own benevolence. We cling too jealously to our province. The pimply boy doesn’t discover that he and the high school beauty share a taste in humour and a similarly painful relationship with their father; the middle-aged lawyer never unearths a shared love of rockets with the neighbour’s eight-year-old son. Races and ages continue not to mingle, to their collective detriments. Shyness is a touching, yet ultimately excessive and unwarranted way of feeling unique.

Guessing what might be going in the hearts of strangers is a fundamental move of the artist. Without being able to know for sure, these characters bravely and at their best beautifully presume that they might know a key secret bit of you – on the basis of knowing the key secret bits of themselves. The American poet E.E.Cummings didn’t wait to be introduced and didn’t worry about all the ways in which you and he were not going to be identical. He assumed that you would understand one or two important things – and more or less got it right, which is why his poem ‘since feeling is first’ (published in 1926) has continued to resonate:

since feeling is first

who pays any attention

to the syntax of things

will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool

while Spring is in the world

Cummings wasn’t a rare genius, his talent was a species of confidence, a way of imagining a commonality between your deep self and his.

With a little of that same confidence, we should dare – a little more often – to guess at the contents of the hearts of strangers. Without being presumptuous, we might offer a new person some of the reassurance we long for, we might show them a vulnerable part of ourselves, we could express warmth and curiosity; we might go out into the world and share a few tentative thoughts with a stranger and trust that they might one day be a friend.

A lot of discomfort about going to social engagements is rooted in what can sound like a rather high-minded concern: a hatred of small talk. We can develop a dread of parties because we know how likely we are to end up wedged into conversations about the weather, parking, traffic or the way we plan to spend the forthcoming holidays – when there would be so many deeper and more dignified topics to address: the future of humanity, the fate of the nation, or the melancholy state of our hearts. We resent parties for holding up an ideal of community and dialogue while trapping us in unproductive and insincere banter; for making us more lonely than we ever would be in our own homes.

But we are perhaps misunderstanding what small talk is for and how we might gently find an exit from its more airless corners. Small talk exists for a noble reason: it is designed to prevent hurt. It provides us with a rich source of information so that we can safely ascertain the frame of mind of our interlocutor – and therefore gauge what more in-depth topics of conversation might safely be broached. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once darkly reminded us that we should always remember, when meeting new people, that they might be only be a few steps away from wanting to grab a weapon and end their own lives. A few moments of small talk give us the signals we need to find out who we have on our hands; it lends us time to circle intimacy from on high before determining where we might wish to land.

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Furthermore, a rigid hatred of small talk overlooks that it isn’t ever the subject matter per se that determines the profundity of a conversation. There are ways of talking about death that are trivial and ways of addressing the weather that feel significant. A truly deep mind can exercise itself as much on the game of a child as on the puzzles of philosophy – and it is unfortunate snobbery (mistaking the outward label for the inner content) to discount a topic merely because it has never featured in erudite academic curricula.

We should take inspiration from how many great artists have based their work around what were, at heart, versions of ‘small talk’. In the early 1820s, the English artist John Constable painted fifty studies of the clouds above Hampstead Heath in London, finding extraordinary beauty and complexity in the ever-changing quiet aerial drama above him.


John Constable, Cloud Study

With no less open-mindedness, at the end of the nineteenth century, the French artist Paul Cézanne paid close attention to the varied beauty of apples, painting dozens of studies of these modest snacks laid out in bowls and on sideboards.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Seven Apples

Buddhism teaches us that, to those gifted enough to see properly, the whole world can be found in a single grain of sand. We should perceive no insult in a call to glimpse the grandest themes through the lens of small talk.

The skilled conversationalist doesn’t insist that atmospheric or traffic conditions or where a person has been at the seaside are inherently unworthy of discussion. They know that what a person feels about a cloudy afternoon might be a highway to their soul or that their experiences around parking might provide clues as to their attitudes to authority or their relations with their parents. They are not put off by having to work with humble matter; they are deft enough to use whatever is to hand.

The fear of small talk reflects a worry, hugely understandable and with roots in childhood experience, that we will be unable to influence the flow of a conversation by ourselves, that we will be the victims of the obsession or pettiness of others – and that conversation is fundamentally a natural, organic occurrence which happens to us but cannot be created by us; it may at points be very engaging, at others hugely frustrating; but the outcome is not ours to determine. We can feel that when a person says something, we must invariably respond in a similar way: an anecdote about a golf tournament needs to be followed by another; if someone has a story about a booking confusion at a hotel, the other must chip in with a corollary.

But, in truth, we have far more conversational agency than this implies; it is almost always in our power to raise more intimate or profound follow-up questions. And we can do so with the confidence that few of us are ever committed to remaining on the surface; we just don’t know how to descend to the depths. An individual who is currently talking at puzzling length about an airline meal has also inevitably been disappointed in love, had bouts of despair, tried to make sense of a difficult parent, felt confused about their direction – and will be longing, at some level, therefore to stop talking about cheese crackers and share the contents of their heart.

The confident conversationalist does not take fright at small talk and others’ occasional apparently firm attachment to it. They know that the small themes need only ever be the first, understandable and never insulting steps, towards the sincerity and intimacy all of us crave at heart.

A party at the house of a friend, eleven o’clock, on a still-warm evening. A metre away from you, a group of people are chatting animatedly. Someone is telling an anecdote, it might be something about a train ride they took or the mishaps on someone’s bicycle, and their companions break in occasionally with rich laughter and stories of their own. The group as a whole seem confident and attractive and the main narrator especially so. But there may as well be a high solid brick wall or a lamprey-filled moat between you and they. There is resolutely no way you could ever move in to say hello. You smile your characteristic weak, loser’s smile, pretend to study the bookshelf – and leave the gathering ten minutes later.

Much of the advice is about what one might say in the circumstances. It could be better to start somewhere else: with what one should think. Chronic shyness is a guess about what other people are like. Though it doesn’t feel like it when it has flooded us, it reflects a rationally-founded assessment as to the nature and intentions of other members of our species. It is not a chemical imbalance or an impulse: it’s a philosophy – albeit a deeply unhelpful one.

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Its essential assumption is that other people are self-sufficient, that they do not lack for company, that they are not alone with anything, that they understand all they need to know – and that they do not share in any of our frailties, hesitations, secret longings or confusions. This echoes, in an adult form, the assumptions a child might make of their teacher, a competent stern grown-up who appears never to have been young, silly, tender or interested in a pillow fight.

 

This lack of faith in the humanity of others is a natural tendency of our minds. We go by the external cues – and few people feel safe enough to display their vulnerabilities. We therefore come to assume that we are living among superior, metal-plated cyborgs rather than fragile, water-filled uncertain entities. We cannot believe that most of what we know of our own minds, especially the self-doubt, the anxiety and the sadness, must exist in those of strangers too.

We forget that we also give off few signals as to what we’re really like. We too are filled with emotions and interests that we inadvertently end up hiding, that others might not normally expect of us – and that could easily lead a stranger to misjudge us and feel intimidated.

But we’re slow to convert this crucial insight into a social strategy, into a confidence-inducing knowledge that others must also, as we do, harbour requisite doses of warmth, longing, curiosity and sorrow – the ingredients from which new friendships are built. A seemingly happily-married person might have a lot of agony around the course of their relationship; a pugnacious sportsman might suffer from chronic anxiety and shame; a CEO might have vivid memories of their struggles and a lot of space in their imagination for people whose careers have yet to take off. A very intellectual person might – internally – be longing for a new friend who could patiently encourage them to dance (or forgive their inept girations). Our error is to suppose that the way a person seems is the whole of who they are: our anxiety closes off the core fact that we are all much more approachable than we seem.

The key to self-belief – and to the mindset of being able to talk to strangers successfully – doesn’t lie in strenuously insisting on our own merits; its source is a more accurate and less forbidding mode of imagining the inner lives, and especially the inner troubles, of others.

We’re spending a few days on business in a town where we know no one. It’s dinner time and, feeling claustrophobic in our hotel room, we wander the main streets looking for a place to eat. The bars and restaurants are filled with loving couples and animated groups of friends. We gingerly enter a diner but, as we take in the warmth and convivial atmosphere, are struck by acute self-consciousness. We blush crimson and clumsily turn to leave before an approaching waiter has had the chance to offer us a seat. We eventually find a dried-out sandwich at the station kiosk, which we eat furtively on a park bench near some loitering pigeons.

Eating alone in public can be one of the great hurdles of psychological life. It can be an exceptional trial because it forces us to wrestle with a set of thoughts that, for most of our lives, we successfully push to the back of consciousness: that we are in essence an unacceptable being, tainted from birth, an outcast, non-specifically diseased, unattractive to others, an object of quiet ridicule or open mockery, undeserving of love and sinful to the core. We may not have this explicit thesis in mind as we decline to sit down by ourselves, but the scale of our embarrassment speaks of a searing latent suspicion of our own being.

©Flickr/Jack Wallsten

How loveable we feel as adults is, in large measure, the result of how we have been looked after by a few significant figures in childhood. No one is born with a capacity to love and endure themselves on their own; we learn to soothe and care for ourselves by first experiencing the tender gaze of others, and then internalising their reassurance and kindness, replaying it to ourselves in isolated circumstances down the years. The lucky ones among us, those with no compunction about ordering a meal at a table for one, must – somewhere in the distant past – have grown secure through others’ admiration, by which we now ward off suspicions that the head waiter is sniggering and the couple in the corner are teasing us. We, who were perhaps at that time not much larger than a pillow, were lent a powerful sense that we had a right to exist, that we were an asset to the world, that others should be pleased to see us, which means that now, even when the caregivers are long-gone, the charge of love we imbibed lends us an impression that the laughter from the next table is innocent and that we deserve to be brought another basket of bread and the evening paper.

But the less fortunate among us have no such emotional blanket. Whatever our accomplishments or status, we are never far from a sense that everyone is mocking and would have good reason to harm us. We need, with a conscious effort, to do what others have learnt automatically. One side of the mind needs to comfort the other, must make the reassuring noises we never natively received, must soothe us because no one else ever did. Although we’re on our own in the restaurant at the moment, we must strive to hold on to a picture of the rest of our lives: two days ago we were laughing with our friends (of whom we have some great examples), tomorrow we’ll be in intense discussion with some colleagues: we have been loved and held tightly in others’ arms before. We’re on our own right now, but we’re not social outcasts after all.

We should remember – along the way – how little anyone ever thinks of us, in the best possible sense. We are for the most part gloriously indifferent to one another. The person cracking a joke with a group of friends has not rerouted their evening to mock us. The attractive individual deep in conversation with a companion may be talking about how lost they are in their new job. They aren’t speculating on how isolated and ugly we are. Those are voices in our heads, not theirs.

We should take comfort too from the idea that there is at points a distinct dignity and grandeur to being an outsider, to not always being part of the pack, to taking time to step outside the normal social flow in order to consider humanity from an oblique solitary angle. The temporarily friendless and isolated person has privileges and the possibility for insights denied to those always surrounded by the easy chatter of acquaintances. The great champion of the lonely diner, the American painter Edward Hopper, knew how to lend appropriate prestige to those who are on the outside, who can nurture ideas not sanctioned by the crowd, whose loneliness deepens their soul and may make others long for their friendship. The central figure in Automat is far from an object of pity; she is a centre of quiet depth and insight. We might yearn to sit with her – rather than feel sorry that she is as yet on her own.

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927

It’s in the nature of the anxiety around eating alone that we feel we are the only ones to suffer from it. We should take comfort in numbers. Those of us who are timid in this field are neither alone, nor wretched nor pitiable: we are just taking time to contemplate things from the outside for a while and will, in the process, be readying ourselves for the deepest kinds of friendship and self-knowledge.

A central problem of our minds is that we know so much in theory about how we should behave but engage so little with our knowledge in our day-to-day conduct.

We know – in theory – about not eating too much, about being kind, about getting to bed early, about focusing on our opportunities before it is too late, about showing charity and remembering to be grateful. And yet in practice, our wise ideas have a notoriously weak ability to motivate our actual behaviour. Our knowledge is both embedded within us and yet is ineffective for us.

The Ancient Greeks were unusually alert to this phenomenon and gave it a helpfully resonant name: akrasia, commonly translated as ‘weakness of will’. It was, they proposed, because of akrasia that we have such a tragic proclivity for knowing what to do but not acting upon our own best principles.

 

There are two central solutions to akrasia, located in two unexpected quarters: in art and in ritual. The real purpose of art (which includes novels, movies, songs as well as photos, paintings and works of design and architecture) is to give sensuous and emotional lustre to a range of ideas that are most important to us – but also most under threat in the conditions of everyday life. Art shouldn’t be a matter of introducing us to, or challenging us with, a stream of new ideas so much as about lending the good ideas we already have compelling forms – so that they can more readily weigh upon our behaviour. A euphoric song should activate the reserves of tenderness and sympathy we already believe in in theory; a novel should move us to the forgiveness we are already invested in at an intellectual level. Art should help us to feel and then act upon the truths we already know.

Ritual is the second defence we have against akrasia. By ritual, one means the structured, often highly seductive or aesthetic, repetition of a thought or an action, with a view to making it at once convincing and habitual. Ritual rejects the notion that it can ever be sufficient to teach anything important once – an optimistic delusion which the modern education system has been fatefully marked by. Once might be enough to get us to admit an idea is right, but it won’t be anything like enough to convince us it should be acted upon. Our brains are leaky, and under-pressure of any kind, they will readily revert to customary patterns of thought and feeling. Ritual trains our cognitive muscles, it makes a sequence of appointments in our diaries to refresh our acquaintance with our most important ideas.

 

Our current culture tends to see ritual mainly as an antiquated infringement of individual freedom, a bossy command to turn our thoughts in particular directions at specific times. But the defenders of ritual would see it another way: we aren’t being told to think of something we don’t agree with, we are being returned with grace to what we always believed in at heart. We are being tugged by a collective force back to a more loyal and authentic version of ourselves.

The greatest human institutions to have tried to address the problem of akrasia have been religions. Religions have wanted to do something much more serious than simply promote abstract ideas, they have wanted to get people to behave in line with those ideas, a very different thing. They didn’t just want people to think kindness or forgiveness were nice (which generally we do already); they wanted us to be kind or forgiving most days of the year. That meant inventing a host of ingenious mechanisms for mobilising the will, which is why across much of the world, the finest art and buildings, the most seductive music, the most impressive and moving rituals have all been religious. Religion is a vast machine for addressing the problem of akrasia.

This has presented a big conundrum for a more secular era. Bad secularisation has lumped religious superstition and religion’s anti-akrasia strategies together. It has rejected both the supernatural ideas of the faiths and their wiser attitudes to the motivational roles of art and ritual.

 

A more discerning form of secularization makes a major distinction between (on the one hand) religion as a set of speculative claims about God and the afterlife – and (on the other hand) the always valid ambition to improve our social and psychological lives by combating our notoriously weak wills.

The challenge for the secular world is now to redevelop its own versions of purposeful art and ritual – so that we will cease so regularly to ignore our real commitments and might henceforth not only believe wise things but also, on a day to day basis, have a slightly higher chance of enacting wisdom in our lives.

It could seem bizarre quite how long we spend on those strands of stringy keratin that sprout – unreliably – from our scalps. We will, over a lifetime, devote thousands of hours and even more money on hairdressers’ careful attempts to coax and sculpt our coiffure into exactly the right colour, shape and dimension. There are days when our entire mood will be supported by a sense that our hair is cooperating and others when our spirits will be just as powerfully ruined by an unfortunate glimpse of our disobedient locks in an elevator mirror.

Why does it matter so much? Because – however odd this may sound – we are using our hair to speak. We’re trying, through the syntax of coloured protein filaments, to express key aspects of our soul – and to communicate some of the deepest truths about who we are.

It is always precarious for us to transmit our identities to those around us. We need the support of more than words, we rely on other, accompanying details: our shoes, our jewellery, our clothes – and of course, most centrally, those strands of hair.

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Everyone’s hair speaks in a slightly specific dialect, but we can with relative ease define some of the main entries in humanity’s vast and nuanced Dictionary of Hair:

Tightly pulled back:

We’re letting the world know that we are busy, organised and not to be interrupted lightly.

Long, flowing and tangled:

We are reminding society of our opposition to some of the demands of modern work. We’re spiritual beings, our hair is saying, we have a heart and make the time to notice what really counts.

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Emphatic side-parting:

We’re using hair to tell others that we’re careful, modest, patient, sensible and very willing to be realistic. We can be relied upon.

Brushed forward, closely cropped, in the manner of a Roman General:

We’re too immersed, our hair informs society, in the real battles of life to care about trivia; we make our hair obey. We have grown indifferent to criticism and – in a good way – hard to impress.

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Hair truly is a subtle and intricate language. The problem – or even the tragedy – is that other people aren’t necessarily paying very much attention to what it is saying. We encounter this awkward reality in the difficult moments after our return from an expensive and slow-moving hairdresser. We rejoin our friends or lovers with an expectant ‘what do you think?’ only to receive mildly confused responses: ‘those trousers suit you’ or ‘have you lost weight?’

We felt that it mattered so ardently that the locks are now combed just a little more to the left and are one shade closer to blonde: others don’t give a damn, though in the privacy of their own bathrooms, they too will take immense care about what their hair is saying. The conversation we have with hair appears close to an immensely expensive, laborious, self-conscious dialogue of the deaf.

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And yet what we’re encountering, in the limited context of hair, is simply a problem that haunts us throughout our lives: the essential loneliness of the human animal. We have an extraordinarily limited power to get others to care about and understand us the way we so crave to be grasped. And vice versa.

We should not mock others for caring so much about their hair – or berate ourselves for doing the same. We’re just engaged in the poignant business of attempting to communicate who we are. With all those dyes, curlers, tongs and scissors, we’re just trying to make ourselves a little more clearly understood in a world with painfully little inclination to care.

The topic of confidence is too often neglected by serious people: we spend so much time acquiring technical skills, so little time practising the one virtue that will make those skills effective in the world.

We tend to regard the possession of confidence as a matter of slightly freakish good luck. Some people simply are very confident, we believe, for reasons that neuroscientists may one day uncover, but there isn’t much we can do about our particular situation. We are stuck with the confidence levels we were born with. This isn’t in any way true.

Confidence is a skill, not a gift from the gods. And it is a skill founded on a set of ideas about the world and our natural place within it. These ideas can be systematically studied and gradually learnt, so that the roots of excessive hesitancy and compliance can be overcome. We can school ourselves in the art of confidence.

At the heart of a lot of under-confidence is a skewed picture of how dignified a normal person can be. We imagine that it might be possible to place ourselves beyond mockery. We trust that it is an option to lead a good life without regularly making a complete idiot of ourselves.

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The way to greater confidence isn’t to reassure ourselves of our own dignity; it’s to grow at peace with the inevitable nature of our ridiculousness. We are idiots now, we have been idiots in the past, and we will be idiots again in the future – and that is OK. There aren’t any other available options for human beings.

We grow timid when we allow ourselves to be over-exposed to the respectable sides of others. Such are the pains people take to appear normal, we collectively create a phantasm – problematic for everyone – which suggests that normality might be possible. No one is normal.

Once we learn to see ourselves as already, and by nature, foolish, it really doesn’t matter so much if we do one more thing that might look quite stupid. Failure won’t be news to us; it will only confirm what we have already gracefully accepted in our hearts long ago: that we, like every other person on the earth are a nitwit.

The road to greater confidence begins with a ritual of telling oneself solemnly every morning, before heading out for the day, that one is a muttonhead, a cretin, a dumbbell and an imbecile. One or two more acts of folly should, thereafter, not matter very much at all.

The root cause of impostor syndrome is a hugely unhelpful picture of what people at the top of society are really like. We feel like impostors not because we are uniquely flawed, but because we can’t imagine how deeply flawed the elite must necessarily also be beneath a more or less polished surface.

We know ourselves from the inside, but others only from the outside. We’re constantly aware of all our anxieties and doubts from within, yet all we know of others is what they happen to do and tell us, a far narrower, and more edited source of information. We are very often left to conclude that we must be at the more freakish and revolting end of human nature. We’re not.

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The solution to an impostor syndrome lies in making a crucial leap of faith, the leap that others’ minds work in basically much the same way as do ours. Everyone must be as anxious, uncertain and wayward as we are. Self-disgust shouldn’t ever be a reason not to move forward.

‘No man is a hero to his valet,’ remarked the 16th-century essayist Montaigne – exhibiting a playful lack of respect which is at points deeply encouraging, given how much awe can sap our will to rival or match our heroes.

Montaigne again: ‘Kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies’. A helpful reminder that everyone who intimidates us is, at heart, very much like us in their underlying vulnerabilities. And therefore not really so frightening at all.

 

Everyone is afraid – even those who frighten us.

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Feeling lost, making a mess of things, taking longer than seems warranted is very normal.

No one gets through this life without making dramatic errors. By committing some, we’re not proving our wayward nature, we’re confirming our membership of the human race.

 

We pay others a strange but helpful compliment when we accept them as versions of the same complex and imperfect creatures we know ourselves to be. No one is as strong as they seem – or as daunting as we fear.

Any one of us has a theoretical chance of being an agent in history, on a big or small scale. It is open to our own times to build a new city as beautiful as Venice, to change ideas as radically as the Renaissance, to start an intellectual movement as resounding as Buddhism.

The present has all the contingency of the past – and is every bit as malleable. How we love, travel, approach the arts, govern, educate ourselves, run businesses, age and die all are up for further development. Current views may appear firm, but only because we exaggerate their fixity.

The majority of what exists is arbitrary, neither inevitable nor right, simply the result of muddle and happenstance. We should be confident of our power to join the stream of history – and, however modestly, change its course.

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One of the greatest sources of despair is the belief that things should have been easier than they have in fact turned out to be. We give up not simply because events are difficult, but because we hadn’t expected them to be so. The capacity to remain confident is therefore to a significant extent a matter of having internalised a correct narrative about what difficulties it is normal to encounter.

We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles. Every great achievement was monstrously hard.

The successful artist or skilled entrepreneur go to great lengths to disguise their labours and make their work appear simple, natural and obvious. ‘Art lies in concealing art,’  knew the Roman poet Horace. We should keep in mind the agony and struggle behind all ‘art’.

‘Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance…do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire. Confidence means forgiving ourselves the horrors of our first attempts.

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We finally get down to work when the fear of doing something rather badly is overwhelmed by the greater (better) fear of doing nothing at all.

Confidence isn’t the belief that we won’t meet obstacles. It is the recognition that difficulties are an inescapable part of all worthwhile contributions. We need to ensure we have to hand plenty of narratives that normalise the role of pain, anxiety and disappointment in even the best and most successful lives.

Hesitation is grounded in a sense of risk, a sense that a new move presents us with appalling dangers. But our inaction is not in itself cost free, for in the wings, out of regular conscious awareness, there is something arguably far more frightening still than failure: the tragedy of wasting our lives.

We too easily ignore the most stupid yet deepest fact about our existence: that it will end. The brutal fact of our mortality seems so implausible, we live in practical terms like immortals, as if we will always have the opportunity to address our stifled longings – one day…

By stressing the dangers of failure, we underrate the seriousness of the dangers lurking within passivity. In comparison with the horror of our final exit, the pains and troubles of our bolder moves and riskier ventures do not, in the end, seem so terrifying. We should learn to frighten ourselves a bit more in the area around mortality to be less scared in all others.

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Confident people accept the role of crises in their lives: relationship, career, family, religious, political crises… Worrying about where one’s life is going should be treated as an admirable and important characteristic. We should – ideally – overhear people saying: ‘I really like X, they’re always in a crisis and worried about wasting their life.’

Memento Mori: we need regular, forceful encounters with reminders that there is something else we should be far more frightened of than embarrassment around inviting someone for dinner or starting a new business.

Confidence requires a sense that we would, if everything fails, still be OK. Or still be doomed. Whichever way one likes to look at it.

We cannot change the presence of an enemy, but we can change what an enemy means to us: these figures can shift from being devoted, impartial agents of the truth about one’s right to exist to being – more sanely – people who have an opinion, probably only ever a bit right, about something we once did, and never about who we are (that is something only we decide).

For paranoia about ‘what other people think’ : remember that only some hate, a very few love – and almost all just don’t care.

If we saw someone else treating us the way most of us treat ourselves, we might think them despicably cruel.

When we worry about the verdict of the world., we can remember this analogy: ‘Would a musician feel flattered by the loud applause of his audience if it were known to him that, with the exception of one or two, it consisted entirely of deaf people?’ Arthur Schopenhauer.

The benefit of thinking a lot less of everyone can be calmer attitude towards the specific meanness of a few.

We should keep in mind a confident distinction between the hater and the critic, aim to correct our genuine flaws – and otherwise forgive the injured, roaring types that seek to punish us for injuries that have nothing to do with us.

Anyone who deliberately harms us must be a highly damaged and therefore an unreliable witness. We should do ourselves the favour of not always thinking too well of our enemies.

We are familiar enough with the fear of failure, but success can bring about as many anxieties – which may ultimately culminate in a desire to scupper our chances in a bid to restore our peace of mind.

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We should stop thinking we don’t deserve success: the universe does not distribute its gifts and its horrors with divinely accurate knowledge of the good and bad within each of us. Most of what we win is not quite deserved – and most of what we suffer isn’t either.

We should watch out for our tendencies to self-sabotage: when we aren’t overly convinced of our lovability or virtue, we’ll be experts at making sure we keep missing out. We aim for a frustration that feels familiar, not a triumph that could make us strangely happy.

We might assume we really want to be confident, but in our hearts, we may find the idea of being properly confident strangely offensive – and secretly remain attached to hesitancy and modesty.

If we fail, we will only have returned to our own long-term fate.

Confidence is in large part an internalised version of the confidence that other people once had in us.

An inner voice always used to be an outer voice that we have absorbed and made our own. Many of our inner voices need editing out.

We should strive to ensure that the way in which we speak to ourselves becomes more conscious, less the result of accident and that we have henceforth planned for the tone we use in response to the challenges we’re confronted with. We should speak kindly to ourselves.

We have taken self-criticism too far when it no longer has any effect on our level of achievement, when it simply saps our morale and our will to get out of bed.

We’re so aware of the dangers of self-pity, we overlook the value of calculated moments of self-compassion; we need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious and fruitful life.

Confidence is in its essence entirely compatible with remaining sensitive, kind, witty and softly-spoken. It is brutishness, not confidence, we should hate.

One of the greatest sources of despair is the belief that things should have been easier than they have, in fact, turned out to be. We give up not simply because events are difficult, but because we hadn’t expected them to be so. The struggle is interpreted as humiliating proof that we do not have the talent required to carry out our wishes. We grow subdued and timid and eventually surrender, because a struggle this great seems impossibly rare.

The capacity to remain confident is therefore to a significant extent a matter of having internalised a correct narrative about what difficulties we are likely to encounter. And yet, unfortunately, the narratives we have to hand are – for a range of reasons – deeply misleading. We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles.

Some of the explanations for the preponderance of optimistic narratives are benign. If we told a small child what lay in store for them – the loneliness, the fractious relationships, the unfulfilling jobs – they might cave in and give up. We prefer to read them the adventures of Miffy, the adorable bunny.

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Dick Bruna, Miffy

At other points, the reasons for the silence around difficulty are slightly more self-serving; we are trying to impress people. The successful artist or skilled entrepreneur go to great lengths to disguise their labours and make their work appear simple, natural and obvious. ‘Art lies in concealing art,’  knew the Roman poet Horace.

The great stand-up comic does not reveal the time spent agonising over every detail of their performance. They will not tell us of the anxieties around whether it was best to deliver the last line sitting, to convey an impression of stunned passivity, or standing, to imply a stifled energy about to be released; or whether it was preferable to use the word ‘tiny’ or simply go with ‘very, very small’ as the punch-line to the opening joke. Appearing to say the first thing that comes into one’s head is the result of decades of rehearsal.

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As customers, we pay to have news of struggle kept from us. We don’t wish to read the novelist’s early drafts; we don’t want to hear the company’s difficulties setting up the hotel or the engineer’s complains about the hydraulic system. We want to admire the polished surface of the gadget without reminder of the cramped circuits beneath.

But there comes a point, when we move from consumers to producers, that we start to pay in heightened currency for our ignorance, the currency of confidence and self-respect. We see our early failures as proof of conclusive ineptness – rather than as the inevitable stages on every path to mastery. Without an accurate developmental map, we can’t position ourselves properly vis-à-vis our defeats. We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire – and therefore cannot forgive ourselves the horror of our early attempts.

Certain societies have been wiser than our own in communicating the challenges of all noble endeavours. For instance, the ancient temple dedicated to the Goddess Aphaia, on the Greek island of Aegina, was decorated with prominent pieces of sculpture that set out to give everyone a very precise idea of what your life was going to be like as a warrior. Someone would try to stab you with a spear; the person standing next to you in the phalanx would collapse; you’d be pushed over backwards, bash your head with your own sword and a determined adversary would probably fire an arrow in your back as you turned to flee.

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Those who commissioned the temple were deliberately preparing their people for the hardships of battle, so that when they entered the field, they would be ready. At the same time, they were dignifying the lives of those who dared undergo these titanic struggles. The warriors deserved prestige – the temple builders were saying – because war was never a route to easy glory. It was imperative that such statuary would not be hidden away, but displayed right in the centre of town, so that one would encounter it on serious and important occasions from youth onwards. Despite their limited resources, the ancient Greek communities went to astonishing lengths to remind themselves of what the most prestigious job available – spearing enemies – actually involved.

We are, by contrast, recklessly short on detailed, honest and compelling accounts of what to expect around key aspects of our professional lives. To shore up our confidence, we would need regularly to encounter the modern equivalents of the works of the classical sculptors: films, poems, songs and novels that would represent for us the agonies that unfold in the unglamorous but hugely representative hubs of modern capitalism; the world’s distribution centres, tax offices, airport lounges, HR conferences and management retreats.

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The confidence-boosting artists would show us, without reserve or coyness, what a successful life truly involves. They would take us through the tears we will shed in office cubicles, the meetings in which our ideas will be rejected and our projections thwarted, the mocking articles we will read about ourselves in newspapers, the hours we’ll spend in lonely foreign hotel rooms while we miss out on our children’s school plays, the sense that our best insights have arrived far too late, the inability to sleep from worry and confusion.

And thereby, we’d be better placed to meet our own eventual experiences against a realistic set of expectations. Our setbacks would take on a different meaning. Instead of looking like confidence-destroying evidence of our incapacities, they would much more readily strike us as proof that we were on the standard path to what we admire. We’d interpret our worries, reversals and troubles as unavoidable landmarks, not aberrations or fateful warnings.

Confidence isn’t the belief that we won’t meet obstacles. It is the recognition that difficulties are an inescapable part of all worthwhile contributions. We need to ensure we have to hand plenty of narratives that normalise the role of pain, anxiety and disappointment in even the best and most successful lives.