On Confidence (Book review)
On Confidence, by The School of Life. Pub 2017
Nothing’s impossible, I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.*
I first read On Confidence about a year ago, in the midst of an upheaval and change that rocked my world and my confidence. I saw this book in one of those "if you like X, you'll also like Y" section of a bookseller's website, and then a few days later saw it on display at a local coffee shop. All signs seemed to be saying, “read this now”. So, I did.
This is a short, quick read, with lots of thought-provoking passages that encourage the reader to dig a bit deeper into themselves. Like many good philosophy and self-help books, there are no easy answers or formulae here, and much is very familiar and common sense. The book is written so as to challenge the reader, to say, "you already know this, just think about it a bit more." It has a no-nonsense tone (complete with the odd swear word) that some might find off-putting but is perhaps a reflection of the way we sometimes do (or should) talk to ourselves. It is neither gentle nor subtle, but I enjoyed that approach very much.
Examples of passages I found helpful and provocative:
“In big and small instances, we cave in to the judgements of The System, beside whose might and invincibility our own hopes seem feeble and disposable.”
“We cannot change the presence of an enemy, but we can change what an enemy means to us...from being devoted, impartial agents of 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 we decide).”
“The present has all the contingency of the past, and is every bit as malleable. It should not intimidate us...We should be confident...of our power to join the stream of history and, however modestly, change its course. “
These are powerful statements about imposter syndrome, about giving to others the power to determine our worth. Certainly, there are people and systems who have the responsibility to evaluate us, but when that becomes power over how we feel about ourselves, it becomes damaging. Confidence in ourselves is not about feeling perfect and invincible. It requires an acknowledgement that we have much to give while remaining open and vulnerable to learning new things.
“...inaction is not in itself cost-free, for in the wings, outside of regular conscious awareness, there is something arguably even more frightening than failure: the tragedy of wasting our lives.”
In my own experience, when I see people stymied by choice or afraid to take action for fear of missing another opportunity, that inaction (which typically sounds like, “let’s wait a bit before deciding”) is form of decision – deciding to do nothing. Missing from that is any assessment of the status quo: if you decide to do nothing, you are deciding that the present situation is best, or least acceptable. While prudence and care can still be involved, some level of vulnerability and daring are also needed to advance. To paraphrase, it’s better to have tried than not. In other words, Yoda was wrong – there is always, “try”.
“Our negative view of confidence may be overly dependent on the quirks of our own histories, on the sort of people we first encountered confidence in who were not its best or most reliable representatives...confidence is in its essence entirely compatible with remaining sensitive, kind, witty and softly-spoken.”
A big myth about confidence is that it must be big, bold, and brash. The best confidence in ourselves is considerate, open, thoughtful, and balanced. Like with many strengths, you can have too much of a good thing. Just as we don’t want to yield to under-confidence, we don’t want to stray into over-confidence. We can be strong about what we know and contribute that to others and to the world while still being open to learning from others. It’s not about appearing confident – it’s about BEING confident.
“We should come to terms with...just how hard and unnerving it can sometimes be to get close to the things we truly want.”
This last point reminds me of another favourite inspirational quote, from an unlikely but no less valid source:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you NOT to be?"
From A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson, former Democratic presidential hopeful
When I read On Confidence in 2021, it was at a time when I needed these messages. They reminded me to take time to consider my own worth and work, and to challenge myself to focus on things I CAN do rather than the things I can’t – to give myself the same opportunity to try that I do my best to give others. It offered more questions than answers, but in a way that’s what is needed when we have such doubts (what I call a ‘crisis of confidence’). For confidence to be ours – to be something we can rely on – we need to build it for ourselves. To appropriate a different movie quote, someone can show us the door, but only we can decide to walk through it.
On Confidence is one of those lovely little gift books that you see and want to give to someone (which I definitely will do), but it turns out is also good for yourself. It doesn't take long to read but does require spending a bit more time to absorb and understand properly. That time for reflection and introspection will be well spent, I assure you.
Don’t lose your confidence if you slip
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.*
* From “Pick Yourself Up”, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Back in November 2021, I made a Spotify music playlist for myself, to play when I was out for a walk or needed a boost. Called “Rise Strong” (thanks, Brené Brown), it has among several favourites the Diana Krall version of this classic. In this YouTube version, she rehearses the song with her band; after a brilliant run through, she says, “I have to relearn that.”, showing that even the best and brightest - and confident - need to practice and learn.
How do you “pick yourself up”? What approaches – and songs – have you found to be helpful in navigating through difficult times?
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.