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Sociability • Confidence

How to Be Quietly Confident

One of the reasons why we may withdraw from the entire idea of becoming more confident are the images we carry in our minds about what a confident person might be like. Confidence can seem synonymous with brash arrogance and unthinking boosterism; with the chiselled-jaw jock we knew from university or the garrulous financier we met on holiday. We can end up taking counterproductive pride in underselling ourselves and staying quiet because we cannot find any confident characters with whom we would remotely seek to identify.

Photograph of members of the Bloomsbury group in a garden, 1915
Members of the Bloomsbury Group, a London garden, 1915. Left to right: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Maria Nys, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell

Hence the importance of a group of people sitting on a lawn in a square in central London in 1915. They belonged to what we now know as the Bloomsbury Group, the most influential intellectual movement of their age responsible for pioneering developments in literature, science, economics and art. Part of what distinguished these avant garde thinkers was the extremely cautious and outwardly modest way in which they carried out their revolution. Many were known for their manners and their shyness. The painter and costume designer Duncan Grant mumbled ‘sorry’ whenever he could; the biographer Lytton Strachey (with the beard) spoke in a low, respectful mumble; and the artist Vanessa Bell tended always to ask others questions to downplay her own intelligence.

Nevertheless, these men and women took a sledgehammer to the stifling verities of the Victorian age and ushered in the modern world. The economist John Maynard Keynes invented the welfare state; Virginia Woolf remade the novel, Vanessa Bell introduced abstraction into British art. But they did so with confidence of a particular sort, a kind compatible with politeness, humility, smiles – and tea.

We may be in danger of gravely neglecting our potential so long as we continue to operate with a brittle concept of what confidence might look like. We can, in reality, be quiet and confident, gentle and confident, thoughtful and confident. We can remain ourselves even as we adopt an underlying steeliness that infuses our projects with power and our thoughts with resolve. We can change the world without having to be bullies – or lose our manners.

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