This is where confidence comes from

Earlier this year, I was learning to rock climb. Or, more accurately, learning to “boulder,” since apparently there’s a distinction. It’s really quite a fascinating thing to try. You stare at a wall for a minute, look at the oddly-shaped colored pieces jutting out from it, and then attempt to climb to the top of it.

I walked into the rock gym and saw chiseled, limber bros in man-buns — the kind of men you see in Michelob Ultra commercials or under a string of Edison-bulb Christmas lights on a rooftop in Bushwick — scaling walls seemingly upside-down like spider-monkeys in what felt like the blink of an eye. And I immediately tensed up and thought, “Shit. I’m gonna get laughed out of this joint. This is going to be just like that one day I did CrossFit.” But I was there, and I had someone with me to hold me accountable.

When you “boulder,” (sorry, it’s a stupid verb and you know it,) there’s some thick padded mats below you, so, in the event of a slip, you won’t mangle yourself too hard on the landing. You know the mats are there for exactly this purpose, but, as you’re on your way up, fear starts to take hold and you start sweating the possibility of missing your mark and tumbling to your doom. As a way of mitigating this risk, I decided to embark on a bold and seemingly capricious strategy. After each successive rung I successfully surmounted, I would make it a point to fall. The cycle went sort of like this:

  1. Climb one rung.
  2. Fall.
  3. Get back up.
  4. Repeat, adding a rung, until I reached the top.

To put it in systemic terms, I was intentionally creating Single Points of Failure. Now, why would I do that? Why, if I could go higher, would I intentionally halt my own progress only to restart from the beginning? Because I wanted to know what it felt like to fall from the very top, and I wanted to learn that it wouldn’t hurt as badly as I had feared. Had I never fallen until I did so by mistake, at a time when I did not know what falling felt like, I would’ve been more fearful, more tense, and I ultimately would’ve progressed even more slowly, given up more quickly, or injured myself worse. How does this pertain to confidence? We’ll discuss that. But first, let’s discuss what confidence is not.

Many people have confidence backwards

They believe confidence is a personality that, because it is endemic and one can apply it to anything one attempts, causes people to become more successful in general. Moreover, many believe confidence is a quality that — heaven forbid you were not blessed enough to have been born with it — you must practice or gain through a variety of eccentric activities like deep breathing, power poses, or repeated mantras. This is quite silly. You do not practice “confidence.” It is like practicing “love.”

What many people mistake for confidence is often just a cocktail of adventurousness, optimism, and a zen-like calm. A sense of, “I’m going to do this thing because I want to, and what’s the worst that can happen?” That may be cool, courage, or bravado, and those (in metered doses) are still fine traits to have when venturing out into the world to try something new, but confidence comes from someplace else entirely.

Still others believe confidence comes from success

They believe that after you’ve worked at something long enough and gotten good enough at it, that confidence is the natural byproduct. This, while a touch more accurate, still doesn’t quite cut to the heart of it. Take, for example, a lengthy list of young stars who flamed out spectacularly because they never were able to move beyond the scourge of their own insecurities — Michael Jackson, Amanda Bynes, Lindsey Lohan (though there’s word she’s getting better) and so on. Or, take Kanye West or our current sitting President, two egomaniacs who also happen to be obnoxiously good at what they do — in Kanye’s case, being a musician; in our current sitting President’s case, being a well-branded monster— but they also feel the curious need to be validated at every point along their cacophonous journeys through life. But I want to, if I may, zoom in on baseball player Rick Ankiel.

Rick Ankiel, in 2000 at age 20, was one of the top pitchers in the major leagues— unheard of in most pitchers’ first seasons. Deploying a scorching fastball and a beguiling curve well beyond his years, he finished in the Top 10 in ERA and strikeouts, helping the St. Louis Cardinals to a playoff appearance, and he looked to be set up for a prosperous, prestigious career. Injuries to the rest of the Cards’ starting pitching rotation forced him into the role of Game 1 starter in the National League Divisional Series — a role typically given to the staff’s ace. This would be his first playoff appearance.

In the third inning of that game, he suddenly lost command of his fastball, facing eight batters, and allowing four runs on two hits, four walks and five wild pitches. In his next start, Game Two of the National League Championship Series, Ankiel threw five wild pitches in the first inning before being removed. Then, in his next appearance, he threw two more wild pitches and walked two of the four batters he faced. The Cardinals lost the series, and Rick Ankiel was never the same. Injury and control problems plagued him for the rest of his pitching career.

Was what Rick Ankiel suffered a “Crisis of Confidence?” Yes. (In baseball, they cutely refer to this as the “yips.”) But, it was not because he had lost his confidence, but, rather, because he had never really acquired it to begin with. What Ankiel gained as a result of sustained excellence and hard work from ages 0–20 up until the third inning of that game, was mastery. Mastery is the product of working at something long enough, hard enough and well enough to become so successful at it that it becomes habit. But Mastery is a fickle mistress. It’s only as enduring as, well … your next pitch.

So, what is confidence then?

If it’s not a precursor for success, nor a product of it, then what is it? Let’s go back to that rock wall.

After a while, I managed to make it all the way up the wall without falling — exactly on schedule, exactly one run after falling all the way from the top. I had fallen as far as I could, and although I wouldn’t describe it as pleasant, it was easier than I’d expected, because I had already fallen so many times from not that much lower on the wall. From there, I was free to continue climbing up other routes on the wall, in the exact same manner as I had before. Before long, I had mastered most of the wall, and felt comfortable in my surroundings. It helped me grow stronger as a climber and as a person. That’s confidence. It isn’t entirely translatable to every area of my life, but more of it exists now than there did before I’d started falling. Confidence is, in fact, a product of repetition … but not a product of success — it’s a product of failure.It’s knowing what the fall feels like and being familiar enough with it that you can be comfortable with the risk.

This year, I’ve spent my days failing at several things while growing incrementally more skillful at them: Speaking Spanish, fixing things on my car, asking women out on dates who I thought were previously way out of my league, and — yes, even writing. All along the way, I learned what failure felt like, how I could prepare for it, how I could avoid it, and — most importantly — how I could embrace it as a learning tool. I may not have mastered all of these things, but I’ve gotten better and grown more confident.

Indeed, this is basically the dictionary definition of confidence — a state of certainty about your abilities, or about the truth of something. When we bake failure into incremental growth, we become familiar with it, and so we can develop certainty in our ability to overcome it. The key to confidence is to set ourselves up for failure not in a way that we’re surprised or defeated, but rather encouraged and comforted. People who seem confident because they’ve mastered a great many things are simply people who’ve failed incrementally forward at all of them. So, what we often call confidence isn’t confidence at all, and what we often call a lack of confidence can really be solved by just becoming more familiar with failure.

As I said earlier about Rick Ankiel, he was never the same. But that’s not quite the end of his story. In 2007, nearly seven years after his infamous playoff meltdown, Ankiel returned to the major leagues with the Cardinals after some time away from the game and some extensive rehabilitation in the minors. He did not return as a pitcher … but, rather, as an outfielder. And this was what happened in his first game back:

Quite the re-entry. From there, he would go on to spend a handful of productive years at the highest level of baseball, hitting 76 home runs and driving in 251 runs, becoming one of only three players in MLB history to start at least one full season as both a pitcher and a position player. The other two? Hall-of-Fame first-baseman George Sisler and some fella named Babe Ruth. Not bad company to keep.

Perhaps that’s why we’re so bad at understanding where confidence comes from. It often masquerades itself as resilience. Perhaps that’s why successful entrepreneurs often preach the gospel of “fail early, fail often.” Confidence is something that can only come from repeatedly hitting the bottom, dusting yourself off, and climbing one level higher, until whatever heights you end up reaching just feel like the place you were supposed to be all along.

John Gorman is a freelance writer based in Austin. This column first appeared at PS I Love You.