Where Confidence Comes From

This weekend, I gave a talk on bringing out the best in yourself and others at The Best You exhibition in London. After the talk, one of the participants asked me if I had always been a confident speaker or if it was something which had developed over time. In reflecting on my answer, I realized that while I have always been able to “pull off” public speaking, where my confidence came from had changed dramatically over the years.

When I started out teaching and speaking back in 1990, I knew I could “manufacture” confidence by manipulating my physiology (see a fun TED talk on the science behind this here) and programming my mind to imagine positive outcomes and experiences. In a way, I would pretend to be confident until I started to feel confident. While I still experienced a battle with nerves each time I approached the stage, I usually won the battle.

Later in my career, I got to the point where I felt like my confidence came from my preparation. I would plan and rehearse my talks meticulously (often in 30 – 90 second increments) until I felt confident in my material. The more I prepared, the more confident I felt, and I would even mentally rehearse dealing with all the things I could imagine coming up during  the talk, from being asked a difficult question to being chased around the stage by a knife-wielding maniac. (I had quite the imagination… :-)

In hindsight, I used preparation like a kind of mental Xanax, running back through my prep and past success any time I needed to “self-soothe” the anxiety and insecurity that often came up in the days, hours, and minutes before I went on stage.

Then at some point, something dawned on me that was obvious once I saw it and had been completely hidden from view until I did:

From the very first time I could remember standing in front of a group (as the narrator in a 1st grade production of Pinnochio), I was only ever really nervous BEFORE I got in front of a group. Once I was engaged in what I was doing and connected to the people in the room, the nerves somewhat magically disappeared and a sort of natural confidence and enjoyment came through me. This was true no matter how large the audience and even when I was asked questions that hadn’t been part of my preparation. In fact, my favorite bits of the presentations were the demonstrations and Q&A, where I had no idea what would be coming at me or through me.

This realization was a game changer, because I saw that I had been going about things 180 degrees opposite from the way they worked naturally.

  • Instead of trying to make myself feel better when I got nervous, I allowed the nerves to come and go with my thinking, knowing that once my attention was off me and back out into the world, my natural confidence would come through.
  • I stopped trying to predict the future. Since I was at my best when I was fully engaged and present in the unknown, rehearsing and scenario planning was taking me in the wrong direction. Once I realized that I could trust something fresh to come through, the not yet created moment became my favorite place to be.

In fact, in the months leading up to my TEDx talk, Why Aren’t We Awesomer?I had to continually reassure the organizers that my unwillingness to rehearse or run through the talk in advance was not out of a lack of respect for the event but a deep respect for the awesome creative force that comes through us when we get our personal thinking out of the way and get connected to the simplicity of presence.

The analogy that occurred to me in explaining this to the participant was a sailboat. Because we know the “physics” of sailing, we know that if we aim our boat in roughly the direction we want to go and unfurl our sails, the wind will arrive to take us where we want to go. There’s not much value in paddling while we wait for the wind, and there’s no value at all in trying to blow into the sails ourselves.

In the same way, all we ever need do is show up to the moment, aim ourselves in a direction, and “unfurl our sails” by making ourselves as available as we can to the sometimes gentle and sometimes awesome force of our creative nature. In that sense, our confidence comes from an understanding of the physics of the mind – the “wind” of fresh new thinking, the “sails” of consciousness, and the buoyant ocean of universal energy on which we sail.

With all my love,
Michael Signature