Motivational speakers for decades have told us to believe in ourselves, to be confident that we'll succeed in any challenge we take on. They've advised us again and again that this is a key to achievement above and beyond the norm. But a lot of smart people think that the "You Can Do It" philosophy of life is just a lot of Rah-Rah hooey and hype, irresponsibly pandering to manic dreamers, whose preachment enables and enriches only those who proclaim it. It's the modern snake oil cure-all that actually cures nothing but the motivator's financial worries.
Skeptics recoil from recommendations that they work on their confidence because they view this quality as primarily about believing that certain outcomes of effort will happen, or are highly probable, whether there's any objective grounding for that belief or not. And certainly, believing something without good grounds is just irresponsible, and irrational. We all know that if a normal person sets the crazy goal of lifting 4,000 pounds with one hand, and repeating that act for 20 reps in a row, no amount of carefully cultivated confidence will get the job done. That obvious example can throw light on much subtler situations where it's just wrong to tell people that if they can dream it, they can do it, and they only need enough faith, or confidence, to lift them above the crowd and make the impossible possible.
But the great Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James famously recommended what he called "precursive faith,' precisely faith that runs ahead of the evidence, going beyond what we can prove, to bolster our chances in any difficult challenge. So, what goes?
James spoke of situations like those faced by championship athletes, where the evidence of the past wasn't sufficient to prove their success in the next new challenge, but allowed for that outcome as a lively possibility. And he also had in mind circumstances where a robust belief can be a contributing factor itself to unleashing personal potential, and even, on occasion, can rouse the cooperation of other people in your cause. James understood that there are two sides of rationality - an evidential side concerned with evidence and probability, and a prudential side focused on effort and worthy outcomes.
It turns out that when we have built our competence in an endeavor, a robust belief in ourselves will help us to tap into our entire potential. It also attracts others to our efforts, and they often sign on to help us in ways they wouldn't if we were full of doubt and second thoughts.
There is a bit of a placebo effect in self confidence. We've all heard the stories where a patient is told that a pill will alleviate his symptoms, and rather than being given a real medicine, he's provide with simple sugar pills that, when taken, seem to work remarkably, despite the chemical disconnect between their contents and the condition they're improving. What happens? The psychology of belief can be so strong as to effect the body in extraordinary ways. So, in the right conditions, when we work on enhancing our self confidence, we set into motion that mind-body connection that can affect some outcomes so powerfully. And, James maintained, in the right conditions, it can be both prudentially rational, and important, to do this.
Ultimately self confidence is more of an attitude than a specific cognitive prediction, or belief, that a certain worldly event will in fact happen. To put it differently, a confident person can be expectant of success generally, or eventually, in any challenging endeavor, while actually suspending belief or tracking the evidence about the likelihood of objectively uncertain outcomes along the way. Or to put it another way, self confidence is more of a "belief in" than it is a "belief that." And the belief in always precedes the belief that. The self confident person simply believes in his or her own efforts, as valuable and worthy of success, and then that, eventually, with the right tide, they can result in positive forward movement.
Self confidence is more like a commitment than a dispassionate probability calculation. It's more attitude than assessment, even more boldness than belief. It will certainly color objective assessments and beliefs, but only within rational ranges of optimism, for the reasonable person who adopts this trait. I wish I could get all of that onto a suitable bumper sticker, easily read from a distance, but most cars aren't wide enough, and no matter how much confidence I manufactured in the effort, it wouldn't likely happen.
It can be rational, and good, to build our self confidence in life generally. And it can be prudentially beneficial to boost our confidence in particular endeavors, because, in part, of the placebo effect, and in part due to the effects that sensible confidence can have on others. We're more likely to take action, to try new things, and to rally support when we're confident than we are without that useful attitude.
Most motivational speakers try to help you drive that car, but they really don't know what's under the hood, or how it works. Some just repeat what they've heard others say. But others want to help, and they can, suitably interpreted and filtered by an understanding of human nature.
I'm confident of it.