Recently, I find myself thinking about confidence and, perhaps more precisely, the lack of confidence.
What is confidence & why is it important?
When you're confident, you can take up opportunities that others do not. You can approach that prospect to close that sales deal, do well for jobs or or pursue aromantic interest.
If there is a magic bullet in life, confidence seems like it. You might not be the best fit for the job or the most attractive mate, but confidence makes up for it. There is a reason why "faking it till you make it" is such a prevalent saying.
People argue that to be confident, we need to get the results which requires hard work. However, sometimes, working in the opposite direction works better. Solving our internal issues first and being confident results in us acquiring skills, wisdom and knowledge, which then affords us the result.
As a society, we are starting to understand the importance of confidence. Gen Zs, in particular, seem to be catching on to the power confidence, creating many words to describe charisma - "Rizz" and "Rizzology". The generation is obsessed with byte-sized acts of charm that can be videotaped.
Sometimes, it is even a moral imperative that you're confident. You might have worked hard to acquire skills and maybe the “best” candidate for the position. However, because of your lack of confidence, people who may be "less equipped" than you might get the job or deal. As a result, everyone suffers.
In short, there are a lot of reasons to being confident.
Purpose of confidence
Confidence allows you to take actions that are outside of your comfort zone. Insecurity is commonly considered the opposite of confidence, but it is the lack of confidence. There is a subtle difference; you can't be more confident by upping your "confidence" if you’re at 100%. You can’t be more than 100% confident. You can, however, be more confident by removing your insecurities.
It is important to note that insecurity should not be despised. It can be argued that insecurity serves as an essential heuristic to help guide the reduction in "mistakes" and "harm". In a way, insecurity is also helpful! It allows you to avoid taking unnecessary risks. There are numerous stories of people being overconfident and paying the consequences. The wisdom in life is to be able to differentiate when your insecurity is valid and when it is a hallucination.
Other than avoiding harm, another purpose for insecurity is to cast doubt on existing processes and motivate you to change for the better. You can imagine that as we evolved, we developed internal doubts to reach for better living standards. A caveman, forming a sense of the passage of time, becomes insecure about his next meal and develops agriculture. Insecurity forces us to be “better” if we are constantly happy-go-lucky - nothing will change.
Arrogance vs confidence
On the other hand, being too confident is commonly considered being "arrogant". Unlike confidence, arrogance usually has a negative connotation. To cover up for insecurity, many over-correct and become arrogant. To make up for a part of ourselves, we feel insecure about, we become arrogant in another aspect. It is okay to be arrogant if you're truly "better" than others. If you're not, then you become an asshole. Even if you're truly "better", consider the following points at the moment of arrogance:
1. It is implausible you're better than others in every other way. Being an asshole is an unlikable trait and won't help you win any favours.
2. Consider the privileges you have used to get where you are. If you're reading this on the internet, an engineer had to design the webpage, browser, OS, processor, memory, materials, lithographic machines, and refine the raw materials... we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Who made the bed that you slept on? Who provided you with food for you to eat?
Many humble and good people don't want to be confident because they don't want to be arrogant. However, they are mistaken; you can be confident without being pretentious. There is a small but essential difference between confidence and arrogance. While arrogance is thinking you're superior to others, confidence is knowing your worth. "I am good" vs. "I am better than you".
The source of confidence
It is possible and even easy to feel highly confident when your peers, family, and society adore your achievements and award you accolades. Be it in the typical competitive championships of academia, career and looks. Indeed, it is the goal of many to pump up their extrinsic accolades. I personally have fallen into this camp unknowingly.
It is possible to feel highly confident based on extrinsic confidence alone. It feels perfect in the moment. However, I warn against solely depending on extrinsic confidence as it is fragile. Extrinsic confidence is temporary. You can have your moment of fame, even for many years. However, eventually, people would stop caring. How many great men and women are lost to history despite their achievements? The truth is that many people do not even care, most people have their own issues to solve and their own lives to live. As for your family and close friends, they probably do not care about your achievements other than that they simply want you to live a good life. No matter how many accolades you collect, you are still a "normal" person when you return home.
Secondly, for those lacking "true" confidence, more accolades and achievements can make them feel even more fake. This is called having an "imposter syndrome". Instead of making them feel happier - the opposite can happen. The more external awards one gets, the more shame and guilt one experiences. If one believes he/she got it via luck or being "smart", via "networking", he/she is petrified of being found out. However, they fail to account that others might equally have done this and do not account for the hard work they have done to put themselves in positions of "luck".
Thirdly, another reason against extrinsic achievements is that the more money and wealth we gather, it is sometimes the case that we become more unhappy. The more we gain, the more we have to lose. Although there seems to be some increase in happiness with wealth, there are diminishing returns to happiness that money can bring, which seems to be about 80k a year.
This is not to say that praise, money, and fame are bad. We should not feel guilty for achieving them. However, to aim for them blindly without considering the downsides is foolish, and to reject them is equally so. We should learn how to graciously accept praise and acknowledge ourselves internally. This leads me to my next point.
Intrinsic confidence comes internally - knowing you're capable of overcoming the challenge.
It is most needed when extrinsic assurance is not given.
How do you achieve intrinsic confidence?
1. Though knowledge, experience and mastery
One way is through actual knowledge, experience and mastery of the subject. For example, if you understand what you are talking about. You will likely be more confident in the face of a "talker". However, actual mastery and gathering of knowledge is a big challenge and requires a lot of effort. I don't know about you, but often, the more I learn, the more questions I have, and the more I realise the amount that you don't know (Dunning-Kruger effect). The effect is the feeling of insecurity. The point is that knowledge helps to increase confidence to a certain point, after which it detracts from it. "Ignorance" is bliss, as the saying goes.
2. Reduction of insecurity
Thinking of confidence in another way, confidence is the lack of insecurity. As stated above. When we're born, we are 100% confident; through life and hard knocks, we learn insecurity. A baby is exceptionally incapable; they can't even walk. Despite their inability to walk - babies still keep trying to crawl around until they can walk. Even if they fall, insecurity be damned. Perhaps in middle school or preschool, when we wet our pants or do something considered "weird", we learn "embarrassment" and shame. These scars in our memory teach us insecurity that we should not be 100% confident. To become more confident then is to work to overcome these scars. Awareness is the first step, and an accurate interpretation of the event helps us to move on from it.
The most common insecurity is that our lives are somehow inferior. Be it missing out on relationships, a lifestyle, experiences and money. Even after achieving something of note, we continue to strive to the next level. This situation can be described as being “anxiously discontented”, or having the fear of missing out (“FOMO”).
Why do we even have these feelings? What is the evolutionary purpose of these feelings?
Potentially, we feel this so that we are motivated to improve our lives. When taken in small amounts, “keeping up with the Joneses” does help to upgrade our lives and society. When we see our friends getting ahead, FOMO motivates us to learn from them/ emulate them, and best practices can be spread around.
Capitalism and marketing feed on these feelings, as there would be nothing to sell if all our needs were satisfied. In modern times, it is Social Media that drives the zeitgeist. At our fingertips, we can learn intimate details of our friends, family, influencers (who seem similar to us enough) and celebrities. Being in a meritocratic society, we are responsible for improving our lives. Perhaps we would have resigned to our fates when born in a less dynamic time. The ability to act, I think, increases our FOMO.
How should we overcome this anxious discontentment?
Firstly, remember that enough is enough. To be grateful for what you have no matter where you are. To be alive can be an enormous privilege, and to acknowledge the unbelievable processes are happening in our bodies to keep us alive. Understand that it is impossible to have everything we desire because human desire is limitless if left unchecked. Our unrealistic expectations make us unable to live happily in the current moment.
Remember that only the positive side of people's lives is shown, and we do not see a holistic picture of others. For example, a friend might show off their holiday once a year on social media but not even mention the hard work, sweat and tears required at his/her job.
Even if some do have “perfect” lives, we should also think carefully if what we observe is what we want in the first place. Mimetic theory states we do not know what we want and look to others for inspiration. Ask yourself this: We love ourselves so much yet outsource our desires to others to decide. Someone might have the most exciting lives, but what if we desire stability or vice-versa? What do we want?
Another common insecurity is the insecurity in our bodies.
We can be insecure about our appearance - our voice, acne, eyebrows, weight, or other issues such as allergies. Our peers, family and society can be very judgmental and harsh. Especially when we are young, the words of a bully can be very hurtful. To overcome this, we can determine if what they say is true. If it is true, maybe it is a signal to try to do as much as possible to manage the “problem”—perhaps some skincare, exercise and diet. However, sometimes, it could be a genetic problem or other factors outside your control. As long as you are satisfied with the effort you have put in to resolve it, do not measure yourself based on the results. Also, why listen to what others say, especially your enemies? You're a fool for listening to your opponent, who is there to irritate you. If possible, maybe empathise with your opponent, as they may have other issues that have caused them to be unkind. The best antidote to unkindness is to be kind. Also, consider if it is even a problem. Something interesting I’ve learnt is that Westerners want to be tan, while East Asians want to be as pale as possible. Westerners want to rebond their hair to be straight, while Asians want to perm their hair to be curly. The grass always seems greener on the other side, and humans constantly wish to modify their bodies to fit a societal ideal.
We learn insecurity from "losing" the various competitions we participated in.
Competitive games like sports, schools, the job market and financial markets teach us ways in which we are deficient. However, labelling it as a loss is unwise. It is a common saying that failure is the mother of success; in that case, was the original failure really a failure? Or an in-between step to success? What if losing a sports competition causes you to pursue something else that you found success in? Also, consider that the label causes you to generalise and put things into a box. Were you a failure at the whole thing and the entire time? Or were there aspects you were good at but unable to defeat the competition overall? Perhaps for a moment, there was success. By focusing on the result, we miss the journey of getting there.
We generally do many things to fit in and be accepted.
Our need for that comes from a primordial desire to be part of a tribe. Ancestors who were alone and lonely died, and the ones who were collaborative thrived because they could better survive in the harsh environment. The effect is that modern humans strongly want to conform, given the choice. Cultural factors play a significant factor, too. For East Asian cultures - the need to fit in and not "stand out" is more significant than in the West. Individualism is less valued. Why do we do this? Most of the time, there is some wisdom in the crowd. If everyone does it, it means it is safe. It can also be helpful for the society to work cohesively. However, in many situations, we do things because it was the way it has been done or for some arbitrary reason. It doesn’t mean it is the best option for you. Determining why you stand out, and if it's good reasons, is a wiser approach than just worrying that you're standing out. It can be great that you're standing out, potentially trend-setting a new system, or standing up for your values.
These are some common insecurities I found that I fell into desire my best efforts. Let me know what other insecurities you face in the comments below.