As a friend once said to me: “Confidence is the product of knowing who you are in a given situation”.
We all know confidence is the key to success in many areas, but why is that? Is confidence a product of competence? Or is it possible to fake it before you make it? To illustrate the mechanism behind this complex set of phenomena, let me tell you the story of how I first learned to walk a slackline.
A tight rope looks very difficult. How can someone balance on such a thin cable? A slackline on the other hand is often 2 inches wide. Piece of cake right? Or so I thought! My first time on a slackline was in a public park in Bergen, Norway. The council had a short line, maybe 3 meters, set up along with some other very basic outdoor community gym equipment. “Too easy”, I thought. I started well, but once I got a few steps in, the line started to shake significantly. It felt very loose and was incredibly unstable under my feet. I wished it were tighter so that it would stop vibrating.
I can’t remember if I eventually made it across. I’m very persistent so I probably did in the end, but being only 3 meters it would have been a very uncontrolled mad dash to the finish line before crashing. I left imagining that this was a poor quality set up. The line was far too loose! I guess it’s about what you’d expect from a free installation in a public park.
A few months later, I had the opportunity to try a much better quality line. I was couch surfing in Bettembourg – just outside of Luxembourg City. I was enjoying a relaxing afternoon in the park with two other travellers, an English guy and an American girl. He had a line with him so we strung it up between two trees about 15m apart. I now had the perfect opportunity to finally master this properly, or so I thought! The problem was the line was still vibrating like crazy under my feet. It was like trying to ride a mechanical bull that was bucking two or three times every second!
Here is where confidence comes in. I was going about the whole thing completely wrong! It was indeed impossible to compensate for the constantly vibrating line. Just like how in real life it is impossible to constantly adjust to the demands of everyone around us. I was stuck, as many aspies are, thinking that I needed to modify my behaviour to get along with others. WRONG! That method doesn’t work! Just like I learned on the slackline it is impossible to react quickly enough to adequately respond to every tiny movement.
It was deceptive, because when the line was still, my strategy worked fine. The problem was that most of the time it felt like the line was vibrating out of control and I couldn’t possibly respond quick enough to keep up! Remind you of any real-life situations? Where it feels like the external environment is completely out of control and there’s nothing you can do about it? It’s so easy to blame the environment, but actually it was a problem with my strategy.
So, what’s the alternate solution? Confidence – knowing who I am in any given situation. Instead of trying to constantly react to the chaos, I just decide what I am doing and do it. Execute the plan strongly, confidently, unashamedly – this is who I am! I am solid like a rock and therefore others, in this case the line, have to react to me (not the other way around). Trying this on the slackline, the result felt miraculous! The violent vibrations vanished in an instant! I was so surprised that I nearly lost my balance. haha.
Upon reflection, the reason this works is because the stronger you are, the harder it is to be pushed around. On the slackline there is no net force trying to push me from the line. When I made no resistance, the line was moving back and forward so fast I couldn’t keep up. The second I decided to stop moving, the line did too. Why? Because it didn’t have the energy to move me. For my mechanical engineering minded friends, by increasing my resistance (i.e. stiffness), I change the resonant frequency of the system, and therefore the same driving input no longer results in any significant response.
Confidence is knowing who you are in any given situation. It is doing what you decide to do, rather than constantly trying to be reactive to those around us. Confidence is also essential to building and maintaining relationships because being purely reactive makes a person appear unpredictable and prevents the development of trust, but maybe I’ll write more about that another day 🙂