“I have no confidence, what should I do?” he asks.
“Can you give me a specific example of when you feel this way?”
“I freeze up when I speak in front of large groups of people” the young professional replies.
“You mean you cannot finish? You walk away?”
“No, no, I do finish. But I hate how I feel throughout. My stomach’s in knots and I worry about all the mistakes I’m making. I worry about the words coming out of my mouth and I never do as well as I know I should! I hate that I feel this way despite having done this sort of thing for some years now. Shouldn’t I be better, more confident by now? ”
In an attempt to ease his mind, I share my perspective about how even the all-time-great public speakers tend to be nervous wrecks before going on stage. Many great speakers I know have all shared stories of how they prepare the content and delivery of their speeches, days in advance. It is this intentional preparation that kicks in and delivers after the first few moments of stage fright. I say this and watch closely for his reaction. He doesn’t look too convinced. So I move on and tell another tale.
An old tale of an ancient warrior. His skills as an archer were unparalleled and he was the undisputed champion with his bow and arrow. But his journey did not begin that way. When he was a young boy, studying archery at school, he struggled with his craft. He was plenty talented. And as keen as the others in his group. And yet, at every test their tutor set them, he failed. This made him frustrated, so he practised longer and harder. And yet, when it was time to test his skills, he would fail.
One day, his tutor, who had been observing all this, called out to him. He pointed a long finger at the boy and told him :”You! Your need to win is so excessive that it is causing you to fail“. The young archer was perplexed and requested the tutor to explain further. “You pay too much attention to what others are doing, more than you do to your own posture, focus and speed. You let every mistake derail you because you care too much about winning. That’s a lot of attention in a lot of wrong places. Pay attention to the task at hand and let the winning and losing come as it will”. The young archer understood. He went on and did just that.
I don’t know how much this young professional I am speaking with takes away from this ancient story. After all it is just a story and I don’t know if I’ve told it well enough. Still, when I heard this story years ago, I remember feeling stunned. I remember thinking – “That’s it. My excessive need to succeed is making me fail at everything I do!”. Ever since, this story has helped me manage my own old (and very ineffective) trait of perfectionism. It has helped me understand that perfectionism has very little to do with becoming better at anything.
I still don’t win prizes or succeed at most things. But I always finish. And I tend to learn a lot more from finished tasks. Especially from the mistakes and missteps. Over time, most tasks have begun to feel lighter. And it’s becoming easier to have fun with what I do. I now think of the ability to recover and redirect attention to the right things as confidence.
Confidence has almost nothing to do with the ability to avoid mistakes and missteps. It has almost everything to do with the ability to pay more attention to the task at hand without constantly looking over your shoulder. Making mistakes and recovering quickly from them become a part of the process instead of show stoppers.
When I’m trying to get back to riding a bicycle in my forties, just so I can go sit in that quiet, green spot in the outskirts of the city, my attention should and will be on that task. The more fully absorbed in it, the harder it will be to get distracted or embarrassed (for too long) by every wobble, misstep and eye-roll on the way.
And when I finally reach that place, spread a mat, open a book under the cool shade of that massive tree, it won’t matter much how wobbly or breathless I got, getting there. I now know how to get here in one piece. That’s the beginning of confidence.
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