Recently, someone asked me to do a piece on confidence.
I asked, “what about it?”
She responded, “How do we build it?”
A tall task, particularly for one who hasn’t quite solved that problem for himself. It didn’t take long to connect confidence and fitness and after a few more seconds, confidence and Life. The question is, where would I start and how far should I go? I feel Hemingway’s “iceberg” approach is best; I’ll discuss the visible and allow you to investigate what lies beneath.
A lack of confidence can prevent someone from making the right goal, mislead them into creating the wrong goal, and find difficulty adhering to either one. In more extreme cases, one find themselves glued to the car seat, hands in a death-grip on the steering wheel, petrified to enter the gym, terrified of potential ridicule. Whether the mockery would be real or fantastical is not the issue; the fears are real. Confidence is oil to a flame, the less you have, the dimmer the glow. Those who didn’t apply for that job, who didn’t ask that special someone out to dinner, who passed the ball instead of shooting it or couldn’t bring themselves to leave a hopeless situation, can give testimony of how debilitating a lack of confidence can be.
The perils of overconfidence are well-documented. The Greek poets called it hubris—pride. Mike Tyson, in his prime, was the embodiment of this phenomenon. At the time, no one inspired more dread. His reign of terror was the subject of rap songs and video games; ubiquitous throughout pop culture. Nobody knew if his fights would go beyond the first round; Tyson had the uncanny ability to turn opponents’ guile into pudding before a single punch was thrown. In Tokyo, 1990, the “Baddest Man on the Planet” found himself on his knees, pawing clumsily for his mouthpiece, returning to his feet, legs rubber, only to end up on the wrong side of Boxing’s greatest upset. In one corner was a man with an overflow of confidence, and in the other, a man with hardly a scintilla of it; a 42-1 underdog.
A lack of confidence imprisons us behind bars of insecurity, doubting every decision and afraid of what others may think of the ones we make; a baleful cycle. An excess of confidence places us in a cage of our own making, balking at prudence and prone to recklessness. Somewhere in between, lies the sweet spot. Buster Douglas found his sweet spot, at the expense of Mike Tyson’s chin. In 1941, Ted Williams found his—four times out of ten—the last player to hit .400 in a single season. The sweet spot of confidence doesn’t stand crystallized in place, forever in our favor or eternally in our detriment. It bobs and weaves like a pugilist and makes curves and slides like a delivery from a talented pitcher. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and don’t blink.
I should make it clear that I am less handsome than Will Smith and less curmudgeonly than the late Burgess Meredith. Therefore, don’t expect any confidence-boosting reenactments from the movie, “Hitch,” or any fiery commands telling you to get off the stool ala “Rocky.” I won’t ramble on building confidence or give you a bulleted list of steps. If I gave you a list of ten, the first three would work for some, the next trio for others, six-thru-nine would work for me and the tenth wouldn’t help a soul. The abysmal success of the well-intended “self-help” industry—although financially prosperous—is a clear enough prophecy for me.
Since courage and confidence are connected, it’s not difficult to find stories of warriors or athletes that effortlessly portray confidence. Not all of us have been at the goal line on fourth down, even fewer have charged valiantly into enemy gunfire. However, a great majority of us might remember being wallflowers in a middle school social, scared to death of asking anyone on the opposite wall to dance. If you had no such fear, congratulations. I can speak for all 12-year-old shy nerds when I say, we didn’t like you very much. The image of my hands behind my back, leaning against the decorations, telling my friends about how much I disliked the song; even though I did, is the perfect metaphor for dwindling confidence: standing idle, self-doubting, playing worst-case-scenarios in my head, and grudgingly watching everyone go on without me, one by one.
Before Prince William and Harry obnoxiously confiscated the airwaves with their weddings, there was a wedding worth watching. Not for the groom, the bland Prince of Wales, but for his bride, Miss Diana Spencer. 750 million people from around the world tuned in to watch the Wedding of the Century. I had the privilege of growing up in a world with Sarah Connor, Ripley, Mother Theresa, Diana and my mom; not the worst environment for a boy to learn about the power of womanhood. But, I digress.
On November 11, 1985, she and Prince Charles visited the United States for a gala dinner at the White House, hosted by Ronald and Nancy Reagan. There were international dignitaries and Hollywood icons present at the ball, including John Travolta. Before he shot handguns and heroin in “Pulp Fiction” or played opposite Kirstie Alley as a clumsy-heart-of-gold love-interest in “Look Who’s Talking,” he was Danny Zuko and Tony Manero, characters from pop culture favorites, “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever,” respectively. At some point during the evening, a bashful Diana whispers to Nancy Reagan that she’d very much like to dance with Travolta, something she’d dreamed of since she was 17 years old. Nancy, channeling her inner Emma Woodhouse—Jane Austen’s matchmaker—leans into John’s ear, encouraging him to ask the Princess onto the dancefloor. Travolta hesitating says, “I don’t think I can.”
“Oh yes you can,” replied the playful First Lady.
On one side of the metaphorical wall, stood John Travolta, at the time, a megastar; don’t let the Scientology distract you. The two musicals alone combine for 2.3 billion dollars at the Box Office, adjusted for inflation. Their soundtracks, legendary. Travolta’s acting chops were not as refined as his contemporaries Al Pacino or Jack Lemmon, but it was clear who was the King of the dance floor. To their credit, Lemmon and Pacino held their own in on-camera dancing, coincidentally both in the tango. Lemmon did his in drag during “Some Like It Hot,” unfortunately without the peerless Marilyn Monroe. Pacino blind tangoed his way to an Oscar in “Scent of a Woman.” Still, why in the world would Travolta be nervous to ask a lady to dance?
You could say that it wasn’t just any lady. It was Lady Diana, Princess of Wales. She was arguably the was the most beloved woman in the world, certainly the most recognizable. That may explain Travolta’s nerves. For all his accomplishments, Travolta never had a National Holiday. But, why would Diana lack confidence? If there was anyone to suffer from overconfidence, it’s the future Queen. Not so. She stood on the other side of the figurative wall, unsure if she could keep up with the same man who made it cool to stroll down a sidewalk; it’s hard not to hear the Bee Gees in your head during pedestrian times. Here we have two people that—on the surface—appear to have no justifiable reason for self-doubt, but are nevertheless immersed by it.
What happened next doesn’t have an M. Night Shyamalan twist ending. It went how you’d hope. Travolta, with a lump in his throat the size of Gibraltar, asked the Princess for a dance. Camera bulbs flashed—there were no iPhones then—and the DJ spun music from “Saturday Night Fever.” They twirled and consumed every bit of the floor’s real estate for fifteen minutes. Travolta said it was the highlight of his life and Diana fulfilled a goal she had since watching “Grease” as a teenager; it almost never happened. Even her dress became famous, dubbed the “Travolta Dress,” an exquisite midnight blue velvet. The dress was auctioned off in 2013 for the bargain of $362,424, purchased by a British gentleman who wanted it as a surprise to cheer up his wife. Hopefully, it worked.
You could be a twelve-year-old boy, looking down sheepishly at your tie, or a young girl playing with a meticulously placed bow in your hair, or a world-famous icon with cameras following your every move and documenting every stutter; our confidence rises and falls. Sometimes it’s the fear of what others may think of us or the fear of falling short of the standards we place on ourselves, or both. How can we be confident enough to enter a crowded gym filled with the “beautiful people?” How can we have the confidence to set beautiful goals without a downpour of “I can’t” thoughts, and not give up? Is it possible to do what’s right for ourselves, risking social alienation and still maintain such confidence? How do we get on that dance floor?
What did the Greaser and the Princess do? They did nothing magical that couldn’t be reproduced by normal people. They rose, connected hands and their nerves became a fairy tale. If they tripped and fell, it would be fodder for newspapers worldwide. CNN would have broadcast the folly twenty-four hours a day. Confidence isn’t a lack of nerves; it’s taking a step forward despite them. I never fell on the dance floor at my Senior Prom; I never went. It wasn’t due to a cavalier attitude or non-conformist rebellion but from the lack of confidence that anyone would want to go with me. It would have been nice to have gone, step on that dance floor, alone and risked exposing my two left feet. No one took that moment under the disco ball from me; I took it from myself. Sometimes four out of ten gets you into the Hall of Fame. Sometimes 42-1 aren’t bad odds. They say, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take;” the logic is laughable, yet, there might be something to that after all.