The Ages of Unconfidence

The Ages of Unconfidence

Readers of the Daily Paradox will know that I return to the subject of confidence from time to time. It is such a vital element in personal success and sustainable self-image. And yet, people ignore it, often for the whole of their lives. Certainly, we have come across many who, even if they appeared confident, did not realize how quickly confidence can slip away. I’ll give you an example.

From aged 18 I had driven a car, sometimes very long distances. I had never had as much as a parking ticket or a scratch to the side of my car. Absolutely no accidents of any kind.  Just after I turned 70 I was driving home one evening. It was twilight and I reminded myself that it is a tricky time to drive. You have to be extra careful at this stage of the light disappearing. I was on a dangerous road – one that was notorious for bad accidents. It had notices saying so. I knew the road very well. I consciously reminded myself that it was a dangerous road.

Within three minutes of doing so I had a serious accident in which my car was written off. The other car was repairable and thank God nobody was hurt. But it was one of those times when you have to believe in miracles. What had happened? I had lost confidence in my understanding of how to drive. It was quite sudden, though looking back I realise that it was sort of creeping up on me for a few minutes before it happened.

We do not always know what precipitates a loss of confidence. Highly skilled horse riders do it, sometimes when about to jump a fence. People handling massively powerful machinery do it for no apparent reason. Very occasionally, airline pilots do it, although the backups are many and they usually don’t precipitate a crash as a result. People in business do it, too. Highly experienced and thoroughly balanced CEOs do it. What precipitates it? Is age a factor?

Or lives are not governed by age but age does present some punctuation points. Each step we take away from the womb faces us with new challenges and uncertainties that can make us long for the safety of home and for quiet and security. How we deal with these life stages is determined by our character, something we are building every moment of every day.

Although habit appears to direct a lot of what we do, in practice we should know that every move, every thought, every inflection of the eyebrow is a building block in our character. In particular, every word we say has an impact on other people – and we forget that its impact is bigger still on us. Strong characters lose confidence less often than weak characters. But even the strongest character has moments of unconfidence that would surprise us all.

I recall a boss on a transatlantic flight suddenly realising that he had lost his credit card. He was a big, bragging sort of fellow – indeed, he kept a photograph of himself with John Wayne on his desk. It was the only picture in his office. His discovery of his credit card loss sent him into a paroxysm of hysteria the like of which I have never seen before or since. His normally icy coolness disappeared and I had to calm him down with soothing words, promises that the company would stand behind any losses and several glasses of Scotch. And I reported to him!

Why did he suddenly lose his confidence? He never knew, nor did I. But I suspect that he saw people gathering around him, including me, who would sooner or later challenge his Machiavellian style of management. The trigger of his own loss was the disappearance of a valuable credit card. It is usually a trigger that sets our unconfidence off. In my case, I suspect that my car accident was triggered by my reminding myself what a dangerous time it was and how tricky a road I was travelling. We create our own triggers even when we don’t think we do.

What can save us from unconfidence? There are no magic formulae, no quick fixes. A strong character is the foundation of confidence. The stronger the better. That doesn’t mean appearing like John Wayne. The strongest characters I have known have been modest, unassuming people who didn’t need the panoply of success to prove their achievements.

They have been people who built their characters minute by minute.

And who, in the process, helped others to build theirs, too.