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First Law of Confidence

The First Law is: We lose confidence all the time. The trick is regaining it as quickly as possible. 

This law is derived from the great martial artist Morihei Ueshiba, who was complemented on how he never lost his balance. “On the contrary,” he replied, “I lose my balance all the time. I am just very fast at regaining it.”

Another one of my inspirers, the top Persian Carpet salesman of Australia, Fat Frank Nasre, once told me, “We all get knocked down by life, the trick is how fast you can get back up….once I was down for about two years. That’s too long.”

Losing confidence is in your head. It’s a conversation you have with yourself.

That’s right, though we’ll discover how to get confidence later on, losing what little you have is easy…

I was about to appear on Richard and Judy to talk about my book ‘Being a Man in the Lousy Modern World’. It was the top rated TV show for a writer. If they chose your novel for their book club it was guaranteed a place in the bestseller lists. For a non-fiction writer to be featured meant certain sales and acclaim. I’d already been on the Radio 4 Today Program with fellow writer Kathy Lette. She was funny and quick and expert at being provocative without being hostile; she knew how to joust with someone who had different views.

The Richard and Judy producers didn't want her to appear (Richard didn’t like her for some reason) so they got another woman writer, a nice enough author, but not a pro like Kathy Lette. This woman had never been on TV before and really looked nervous when I saw her in the Green Room before we were due to go on. I was then taken to a room full of shirts and told to pick one; mine was ‘too patterny’. Apparently it might confuse viewers…That was when I should have put my foot down. My shirt was a ‘lucky one’, one that I felt comfortable being in. All the ones they had – though clean or even new – were dorky polyester cotton in single shades of colour. But I wanted to be agreeable, I wanted to be liked. I chose the least offensive green one they had…

That shirt would come back to haunt me.

On the way out to the studio I met my fellow author. She was actually also green- with fear. Her complexion was like someone on a cross channel ferry in a high storm. About to throw up. In fact, as she was on her way back from the toilets, she may well have just finished being sick. As we waited she said mournfully, “I suppose you’ve done this loads of times…”

Beware the victim who speaks humbly of their failings…

But I didn’t know that then. I wanted to be nice and friendly, a proper fellow performer (and in this sense actors are much better than writers who are mostly loner types). So I said, “Nah, this is only my second time, I’m just winging it.”

She stiffened and said in an almost derisive tone, “Oh, I see.” And grew visibly less green before my eyes. I couldn’t believe it. She was using my self-deprecation against me. “I thought you were an expert.” Said flatly, as if she had exposed me as a fake.

But then we were on…

And in those twenty steps to the stage my confidence left me. Gone. Drained away. I’d let someone into my head- to be friendly- and they’d given me a kick. So that they could feel superior. Naively it took a while for me to realise there are people out there who are looking for chances to lord it over others- and they look normal, not like the classroom bully at all. But like all sadists they are masochists at heart. So when they aren’t dominating others they take masochistic pleasure in being a victim. Hence the earlier self-pity she displayed. Which also worked very well as bait…

Goddam it, I started to tell myself, ‘you AREN’T an expert’, ‘You’re a chancer who just ended up on TV’…and then the real killer: ‘what am I going to say when…’

In a second I had talked myself from easy self-confidence, a knowledge borne of experience that I could ‘be myself’ and be funny and interesting to a paranoid fear that I’d fuck up in front of millions (yes millions!) of viewers on live TV…

I’d lost confidence.

Richard tried hard. But I blocked all his invitations to run with the topic. Not quite monosyllabic answers, but close. I was also acutely aware of how much I was sweating in the stupid green shirt, just the sort of shade that showed up massive sweat stains. By the time the interval came Richard was glad to get rid of me, but then the producers wanted me back for a last word. As if intuiting how she had sandbagged me, my fellow author namechecked my book for me in that last segment and offered me the last word. No hard feelings. And, yes, earlier she was probably acting on reflex, hard childhood etc etc…

I was never asked back again. (But the lesson I learned was worth it when I later did multi-day radio and TV tours in Canada and the US.)

Just what made this appearance so different to the sparkling radio interview I had done earlier in the week? (Apart from the shirt.) 

None. In both cases I’d gone in with normal confidence, but I had no method in place to regain confidence if I lost it. And in the second interview I lost it.

You know the feeling. A sort of sagging, a sense of helplessness, a loss of inner pressure as if you’ve been punctured. And maybe your ego has been punctured. I didn’t need a method for the first interview- everyone had been nice to me. But I needed it in the second.

So what tricks are there to regain confidence? And I call them tricks on purpose.

The first is what I call the Nasrudin defence. Mulla Nasrudin is a joke figure from the middle east. They are hundreds if not thousands of funny jokes and microstories about him. In each story Nasrudin is either a fool or a fool who may actually be a wise man. They’re addictive (if you are in a group hearing them, you always want just one more) and they accurately portray in a humorous way how humans really react to things. But one common element of most stories is that no one really verbally gets the better of Nasrudin. Take this one:

Mulla: I was just in Afghanistan last year when I learnt their language fluently.

Friend: So what’s the word for lamb?

Mulla: I left before spring arrived so I never heard it.

Nasrudin doesn’t get trapped by mere words. The first defence is one of the oldest: attack.

Be cocky. In a humorous way. Or maybe in a not very humorous way. But don’t buckle. Don’t let the ball drop. This is the mysterious art of banter where the object is to probe and test another’s carapace. It can be cruel, it can be great fun; it is not a way to find out what someone really thinks. But if someone is attacking you it means they are closed, they are not open for mutual understanding and to let them in is folly.

The evolution of cooperation- tit for tit.

There is fascinating book by Robert Axelrod called the Evolution of Cooperation. In it he shows how antagonists- even in wars- can evolve to cooperate- through action rather than words. He persuaded large groups to play endless games of prisoner’s dilemma. In this game you don’t know what your partner will do. The idea is you imagine you are in two separate prison cells and both of you have been caught doing some crime together. If you both remain quiet you get only a year in prison. If one remains quiet and the other rats then the ratter goes free and the quiet one gets three years in jail. If both rat, then you both get two years in jail.

Now the really interesting question is: what is the optimum strategy for multiple games (over a 100) of prisoner’s dilemma? After all, in everyday life we mostly do 'repeat business'. One mathematician, Anatol Rappoport discovered it was really simple- play ‘nice’ (ie. be the quiet one) first and after that play tit for tat. And then he found that to avoid a misunderstanding leading to endless negative tit for tats at the beginning an even better strategy was ‘nice’ followed by tit for two tats. In other words if you were ratted in the first round you played ‘nice’ a second time to give the other player the benefit of the doubt- two strikes and you’re out.

Banter is based on tit for tat. You play ‘nice’ to everyone. If someone shafts you with a confidence shattering comment you play ‘nice’ a second time just in case it was a mistake. If it happens again you send the ball back with your own barbed comment.

Now this doesn’t sound very mature but then much of what passes for adult conversation is not mature. People play status games all the time- something we will look at in the second law. For the time being it is enough to know that once someone has tried to knock your confidence twice it is time to go on the offensive and banter back with your derogatory comments.

The damage is done?

But what could I really have done once I had made the initial mistake of letting my guard down? And guard is too strong a word, what I mean is really better conveyed with the idea of a sparring sword, maybe made of plastic, not real at all but good enough to keep an enemy at bay.

What I could have done, once I realised I was losing it, was deploy the ‘use the fear’ method. About to perform in front of the All Japan Yoshinkan Aikido Tokyo demonstration I began to feel queasily nervous. Mike Stuempel, one of the sewanin instructors said, “Everyone gets nervous, it’s how you use it that counts. Use the nerves to be sharper and faster.”

Now I had a way to convert any feelings of nervousness in to the mantra, “move faster and sharper”. The REAL benefit was that I had stopped looking inwards and was focusing outwards.

For this is the heart of the matter, once we look inwards we’ve lost it, whatever semblance of calm we had.

Fat Frank again, “When I get a customer to look inside themselves, maybe to answer an innocent question about their childhood, they are ‘open for business’ and usually I can make a sale.”

When we look inside ourselves we are ‘counting the donkeys’ as the Arab phrase goes. This refers to another Nasrudin story where he was taking nine donkeys to market and riding one. He got nervous from time to time, counting them but forgetting that he was actually riding one too- the result being that he was always a donkey short. He would then dismount and laboriously herd them together and count them again- and of course there was the full number again. This happened so many times he thought he ought to walk them to market- the result being that he arrived footsore and tired and frustrated, andtoo late to sell them.

In other words- a failed mission. And this is what happens when we introspect in the middle of doing something- we drop the ball, we lose confidence, we fail.

There is a time for introspection- often on a long walk after you have done something or before- but not during. Introspection is a habit like any other, and if you haven’t got tactics for stopping it dead then it can strike you down just when you need the most confidence.

As with all self-improvement, the first step is to be purely observant. What the philosopher Adam Smith called the ‘Impartial Spectator’. That part of your mind that clearly observes what is happening and coolly notes it down without judgement, without comment and especially without a ‘solution’. Next time you find yourself ‘looking inside’ see what happens next. Get used to the feeling and observe what triggers introspection. People with acute street smarts (ie. canny and manipulative) can often find your weakspot, be it flattery or an invitation to share confidences. See what you feel like when that happens again.

I am in no way suggesting you become a paranoid, closed-up person unable to share heartfelt experiences. It’s just that you need to be aware of what you are sharing. If it’s what you believe and you simply don’t care what people think then share away. But if you share in order to ‘get closer’, in other words expecting some kind of reward, then don’t be surprised if people use it in a way that doesn’t reward you in the manner you’d like. 

Use the tactic already mentioned, if you feel a drop in confidence, if thoughts of giving up crowd in: tell yourself that this is natural, this is healthy ‘nerves’ there to make sure you remain sharp. Just channel them. Don’t start an interior conversation.

Recently I had to give a brief talk about one of my expeditions as one of ten fellow speakers in a night long event celebrating adventure travelling. I hadn’t given a talk in a while, the auditorium was packed with hundreds of people and I noticed, apart from a guy who’d driven round the world in small truck, my canoe expedition was the least athletic one on display. I began to get nervous but I was prepared- I was wearing clothes that made me feel comfortable and physically fit (even if I wasn’t especially), and I channelled the nerves into an energy I could use on stage. If you go on Youtube you can see the talk- it is one of the best received I’ve ever made and several of the other speakers said it was the best that night. Yet I had been sure it would be a rubbish until I channelled the nerves into making it sharper and more energised. And immediately stopping my desire to start a self-defeating inner conversation.

We lose confidence all the time. Things don’t go our way. Rude things are said. Regain your balance by tit for tat. Give as good as you get. If a dart gets through, use your nerves to power forward- use that energy- and it is energy- to give a more energised performance.

The best advice I received about singing was from a former opera singer who told me that our normal reaction when we go out of tune is to sing with less energy, quieter- yet that makes us go further out of tune and we enter a dismal spiral of incompetence. But if, when you start to go out of tune, you give your singing more energy you find you get back in tune again. It’s counter intuitive but it works everytime. So, too, with confidence. When you find it starting to flag, give things more energy, more intensity, use the nerves you have as a source of energy to win through.

Confidence can be punctured by something small and insignificant- as we’ve seen- a stray comment, the wrong clothes. Later we’ll deal with ‘confidence scene setting’ to overcome some of these problems. But we can take heart from knowing how small these puncture wounds are. They are actually nothing. But they seem like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is when you need to take some time out, recalibrate, take a deep breath and power on.

Try and work on a confidence routine for something youhave to do. When I am writing I set a target number of words per day (1000, 2000 or more depending on the kind of writing needed). I then stick to that target. This means I still have juice in the tank for when the writing doesn’t flow. If you write 5000 words one day and think you can do that again and find you can’t, your confidence will take a hit. You may even give up. Better, take a break, recalibrate your routine, take a deep breath and get going again. Learn to say ‘Next!’

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