Confidence

By Toni McGee Causey

Confidence.

You see it in some athletes. They walk out onto a field and in spite of being in front of a huge crowd, they’ll look like they belong there. They’ve put in the practice, they have the skills. They give the impression that they are formidable, that they came to win.

You see it in some performers. They take the stage, grab the mic or step into the role and whoosh, you believe in them. Just like that. Snap.

You see it in some professionals. The doctor under pressure in a life-threatening situation. The attorney arguing a case. The SWAT team running into a building with a hostage situation. You know they are going to do the job they came to do.

You see it in some writers. They start the story with an evocative sentence, something that pulls you in, that says, “Yes, you want to be here, reading this, right now.”

As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of confidence… until one day, I did. And the only thing that shifted was a fundamental understanding of what confidence was. See, for a long time, I kept thinking, “One day, I’m going to feel confident, and when I feel it, I’ll know I’m good enough to be confident.” It was as if I were waiting for a cosmic permission slip to believe in myself. Like at some point, whatever it was I had accomplished was going to ding ding ding on some giant meter and I would get my Certification of Confidence from the Universe. (The Universe, by the way? Doesn’t give a rat’s ass.)

The problem, of course, was that there really never was going to be any giant certification from the Universe. Rationally, I knew that all along, but I kept thinking that with the next accomplishment, I would feel it. With the next “A” on an exam, or the next strike-out on my softball team or the next award, I was gonna know. And because I was waiting, there was a hesitancy. I didn’t quite realize there was a hesitancy. If you’d asked me at the time, I couldn’t have explained it, but everything—particularly my writing—felt tentative.

I was thinking about the nature of confidence one day as I happened to be on a long drive, and I punched around the radio stations, craving background music. Unfortunately, I was between decent stations and I ended up on a talk-radio show I hadn’t heard of, some psychologist talking about something entirely different than what I was thinking about. I barely heard the first half of the story she told, annoyed that it wasn’t music, and then suddenly, I was in that story. It likely won’t mean the same to you, because it was a specific moment in time, me cocooned in that car on a long, hot drive in the deep south one Sunday afternoon. It was classic… and it wasn’t something new to me, but it had a profound life-changing effect.

The story was about a woman who bites her nails. She’d gone to a doctor for a consultation and as they sat there, him in a chair near hers, she explained how she was desperate for help. Her hands were nearly ruined, and she held them up for him to see, and sure enough, bloody, horribly bitten nails. She told him she’d do any sort of program he’d want her to do, and she had been all over creation trying to get help, but nothing had worked thus far. As she told him the story, she started chewing on a nail and the doctor reached over, pushed her hand down and said, “Stop biting your nails.”

“But that’s what I’m here for,” she cried. “I need to stop and I don’t know how. I have tried…” and she listed off a number of programs, and as she went into detail, she started chewing on another nail.

The doctor reached over, pushed her hand down and said, “Stop biting your nails.”

“That’s what I need help with!” she said, clearly exasperated. “I don’t understand what’s causing this need. I’ve been tested for…” and she listed off a string of tests various institutions had run and as she talked, again the hand went to her mouth.

The doctor pushed her hand down again and said, “Stop biting your nails.”

“Are you crazy?” she asked. “That’s what I’m HERE FOR. I don’t understand why—“

“You don’t need to understand why to change the behavior,” he said. “Quit putting your hand to your mouth. Choose. We can always explore the why later. But make the choice. And keep making it.

That’s when I heard the ding ding ding. (The Universe is SLOW. I’m just sayin’.)

Because I happened to be thinking about the nature of confidence, I realized that a lot of people don’t have confidence because they’re successful… they’re successful because they choose to have confidence. Now maybe that got reinforced somehow when they were kids, or maybe they were just more predispositioned toward confidence. And maybe this is a concept every single other person on the planet got by the time they were two. (I doubt that. We all have insecurities.) The thing is, confidence isn’t borne out of a surety of success. Confidence is choosing to believe that the outcome will eventually warrant the faith and then acting on it by practicing for that eventual success.

Confidence is choosing. Practicing for the outcome we’d like to have.

I looked at my writing, then. Saw the hesitancy. Sure, there was skill there, but it lacked faith. When I recognized that, my approach to writing changed. Voice rang a bell and showed up to the game.

The thing is, in sports, you can’t play someone else’s game. You might practice as many hours, with all the same coaches, but no two people are going to play exactly the same. As long as you know the rules (and how to break them), if you try to play just like someone else, that’s all you’ll be: a copy of someone else. You might even win some, but you won’t be the best you.  

But true confidence… true voice… is playing your game. It’s taking all of that practice, all of those hours and weeks and years of dedication and tackling the problem with faith that you have the skills and you can have the eventual outcome that you desire.

True success is rarely without practice. It is almost never without failure. Maybe even many failures. Failure is just an opportunity to learn and improve. It is nothing else. It is not personal. It is not a value judgment on you as a person. It is a circumstance, and most successes are successful because they’ve learned and grown and had faith that the practice they put in was going to be worth it.

Also? They competed. Performers put themselves out there for jobs, doctors compete for grades, athletes compete for position, SWAT teams practice relentlessly. Sometimes life isn’t fair and they failed, but they keep going.

So practice.

Play your game.

Choose confidence.

And keep choosing it.

I put that lesson squarely in the “better late than never” category. How about you? What did you finally learn to do (can be anything) that changed your life?

[Side note to our readers… be sure to check Tess’ post on Tuesday, which deals with what it takes to make it in the business, which she posted first in the queue and I discovered as I post this. They coincidentally make great companion pieces!] 

34 thoughts on “Confidence

  1. Jan

    Toni – brilliant post. And the practice is to keep awake and keep choosing. Hmmm…not sure when my moment was. I appear to be very confident – cocky some might say – but we’re talking about interior confidence here that radiates out. Certainly, my meditation practice has been a big part of that. The practice of knowing you are sitting on the earth – not fucking anything up – and befriending your mind – over and over with these little moments of ‘aha’ or gap where you get off your case and on your side. That’s it. And being in nature always does it too. Walking in the woods, going out in the boat into the great big sea. Yep.

    Reply
  2. Sara J. Henry

    Toni, I love this: โ€œYou donโ€™t need to understand why to change the behavior … Choose. We can always explore the why later. But make the choice. And keep making it.โ€

    My first life-changing moment was at age 20 when a family friend told me to write some columns and took me to meet a newspaper editor who bought them on the spot. I realized simultaneously You don’t always have to follow the rules and I can make money through my writing.

    The second was earlier this year after a phone conversation with an agent who had read a partial of my novel manuscript. I thought about his perception of the book and what he’d said and decided He’s not right. I sent him a polite note declining resubmitting to him, and proceeded to query the top dozen agents I could find. Soon thereafter I signed with one of them, and now find myself with a lovely two-book deal (yes, my head’s still spinning),

    Not that I’m averse to revisions (being knee-deep in one at the moment) – but this was the first time in my life I didn’t believe negative things about me. I chose at that moment to believe in myself and to trust my instincts – and my life changed enormously because of it.

    Reply
  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Toni – beautiful, beautiful, beautiful post. Thank you so much for it.
    I could write a twenty page post in response.
    I’ll share one story. When I was in college, as a music major, I was in a saxophone quartet. I was the lead, playing alto sax. We had a bari, a tenor and a soprano sax as well. We had to play this Mozart concerto in front of the entire music school. And we were pretty lame players. I mean, even our instructor just wanted us to "get through it" – he had no faith in us. I was the lead and I had no faith in us. We had to play in front of students and teachers who were some of the best musicians in the U.S. – it was insanely intimidating.
    So, we were on the sidelines about to go up – three minutes to showtime. We all looked like nervous blobs. I kept thinking "Four minutes and twenty seconds is all I’ll have to suffer." I just wanted to get it over with. And then, with about thirty seconds to showtime, I had this epiphany. What would Mozart think? He wrote this beautiful concerto and all I want to do is rush through it. How offensive. Mozart gave me this wonderful message to relate – he put his trust in me, as a musician, to effectively communicate this. Who the hell am I to diss him?
    Showtime. We sat down in the offensive silence in our four chairs. I saw my instructor in the front row–trying to pretend he didn’t know us. I took a breath and counted off with total confidence and suddenly the other three players felt the difference. Their looks said, "what the hell are you doing, Steve?" And I began, and I set the tone, and I lived each moment, each bar and phrase of that concerto. I didn’t want it to end. I reveled in it. I adored each and every note. And when another player faltered I pushed forward–emphasizing the MUSIC, what Mozart had done. And the other player would come around to join me. When the concerto was done there was huge applause. Our instructor was on his feet. He came up to us later and said that he had never heard us play so well.
    I think I had to take ME out of the equation. I made it about the art. I made it about my responsibility as a vessel for the expression of that art. And confidence was born.

    Reply
  4. RKCharron

    Hi ๐Ÿ™‚
    Thanks for a fantastic blog post.
    I had a similar revelation when I watched my cousin talk to/approach women when I was a teen. He said women made him nervous but none of that was evident when he approached/talked to them. He told me he just acted confident and that confidence was sexy to women. I realized then that by acting confident I would become confident. And so it was.
    ๐Ÿ™‚
    All the best,
    @RKCharron
    xoxo
    PS – I love Toni’s writing!

    Reply
  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    Dammit Toni, I read CHARMED AND DANGEROUS on Friday. I usually have a problem with humorous mysteries because humor is so subjective. NOW I have to go buy your other books. And believe me I’m not just saying that because of your gift — books are serious comittments to me and I don’t give away my reading time lightly.You are evil and nefarious and better get to work on writing more books. I’m just sayin’.

    Reply
  6. Fran

    Exactly!

    I was the kid who stuttered and stammered and HATED being looked at in school. I didn’t do badly and I didn’t excell. People in the middle don’t get noticed.

    And I envied the kids who seemed so cool and confident.

    Then I learned to "act as if" I was cool and confident. As if I knew what was going on. As if I was as smart as they were (which, it turns out I was, but who knew?).

    And eventually the "act" became real. I still get wicked nervous and all, but confidence comes from trying something and succeeding, and "act as if" was a lifesaver for me.

    Great topic!

    Reply
  7. toni mcgee causey

    Jan, your post reminds me how much I love being able to look out over the lake, and have one of those quiet moments in nature, absorbing the beauty around me. I think I may head out there tomorrow.

    Sara, go you! And CONGRATULATIONS on the two book deal! YAY. It’s really hard to listen to those instincts, sometimes in the face of criticism. I’m so glad you had the confidence to do so.

    Stephen, I could practically hear the music as you were describing that scene–gave me goosebumps. And what a beautiful story. I love your point, of being *in* the moment, being true to the art. A true, "as we act, so shall we do" moment. Inspiring.

    RK — what a fun example. I never realized that boys got nervous, too, when I was in high school. I just thought they all came like that out of the box, complete with confidence and aloofness and as Dusty said, swagga. Then I had two sons and of course, we constantly had boys hanging around here all those years and wow, that notion of confidence out of the box couldn’t have been more wrong. I think guys start off, though, with a better handle on creating the swagga even when they don’t feel it at first. Maybe they give them out in some Super Sekrit Meeting. (Thanks for the compliment!)

    Aw, PK, thank you! I am so going to have to go get a t-shirt that says, "Evil and Nefarious." Of course, my luck, someone will think I’m naming my boobs, so maybe not.

    I love that term, Dusty. I think I’m gonna work that into every conversation I can for the next week. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Yep, Fran, that’s exactly it. (And you *are* cool!) And this so applies to writers going to conferences. If you’re not a natural extravert, it’s hard to mix and mingle. If you’re a debut author, I think it’s doubly hard to do, but just do it. It’ll work out.

    Ah, but Louise, I now feel like I’m missing out–I love your posts.

    Reply
  8. BCB

    "Confidence is choosing to believe that the outcome will eventually warrant the faith and then acting on it by practicing for that eventual success."

    Oh man, did I ever need to hear that just now. You have no idea how much. Thank you.

    And Louise, I’m pretty sure I need to hear whatever you have to say, too.

    Reply
  9. Debbie Schubert

    Toni, I’m in awe. Beautiful writing, deep meaning. Confidence is vital to being successful in life. And by being successful, I don’t mean rich or famous (necessarily). I mean great and powerful at being you. Some people may be born with swagga (love that term!), but it is available to everyone. You asked for examples,and this may seem lame, but at the end of 8th grade I tried out for cheerleading. So did my best friend, Cindy. We were so excited. We were heading for high school, and we were going to be cheerleaders together! I didn’t make it. She did. The next year, I picked myself up, brushed myself off, asked Cindy for help, practiced by ass off, and made the sophomore squad. Cindy skipped a year and made JV. Heading into our junior year, we both tried out again. She, once more, made JV. I didn’t. I made varsity. I couldn’t believe I’d surpassed my friend given our history. You know how I did it? With confidence. I walked the walk, practiced hard, and "became" the vision of the cheerleader I wanted to be. LIke I said, it may be a lame example (everyone loves to make fun of cheerleaders!), but, it fits with everything you want to accomplish in life. If you have vision and talent and are willing to work your ass off improving your craft, all things are possible. I am a published writer – in my mind. And I’m working hard to make that vision my reality.

    Reply
  10. Tom

    Toni โ€“

    Thank you. Confidence is one of the things badly chewed by the last couple years. Hadn’t even considered it could be a ‘zif’ among the ‘almost, not quite’ rejections.

    And it’s perfectly all right to name your body parts. People will talk more about you, which is smart marketing.

    Louise โ€“

    Finish the damn post.

    Reply
  11. Allison Brennan

    You moved me. I can’t think of a specific example. I’m probably one of those people who is, generally, confident even in the face of failure (which is often.) I’ve tried out for plays in school and not gotten the part, I sent out four manuscripts that were soundly rejected, and still wrote a fifth. I’ve humiliated myself, and still go out in public.

    Confidence is not something anyone can give to us. We have to find it in ourselves. And that’s hard sometimes. All the time, really. I have insecurity and doubts every day of my life about most everything that I do–raising kids (am I too strict? Not strict enough? Not spending enough time with them?); writing (this sucks, it’s good, it sucks BIG time, it’s great, how could I think this is great it’s total crap). Yep. But confidence is moving forward and not being a hermit or burying your head in the sand because you’ve failed.

    We can help our kids become confident. Praise them when they do something on their own, no matter how little. Don’t let them win at games, but play games that they can win. Challenge them. Teach by example–when you fail at something, show them that you haven’t given up. Don’t blame others for your lack of success. But I can see in my own kids, which I’ve pretty much raised the same way, they all have different levels of confidence, from extreme to very little. So I think it’s as much personality as it is environment and personal growth and education.

    Reply
  12. Paula R.

    Hi Toni, I really loved the blog for today. I have a really difficult time with Confidence, especially when it comes to my writing. That DOUBT just rears its ugly head everytime, I want to put words to paper, to the point when I just give up. Your article is quite insightful. Thank you!

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

    Reply
  13. Liesl

    Awesome. Thank you so much. I struggled with this for so long but I remember a friend telling me the same thing when he talked about being extremely shy in high school to the point of near paralysis. One day he decided he was going go to school, look people in the eye and smile. This decision changed his life. (He was far from shy when I met him.)

    Our society is too obsessed with luck and fate. We need to step into the worlds of Decide and Choose.

    Reply
  14. Stephanie Feagan

    Toni, you’re all kinds of awesome.
    After several years of writing, finaling in contests, having an agent who then went out of business, and never selling, I decided to give up. But I couldn’t stop writing, so I began a book I wanted to write, one I knew for sure would never sell – the heroine was a forensic accountant, a CPA – what a yawner!
    All the same, I had more fun writing that book – I let go of everything and wrote it how it came to me. I had confidence because I wasn’t fretting over whether it would sell or not. It was for me, and I don’t have to impress myself. ๐Ÿ™‚
    I liked it enough that I sent it out to a few agents. I had 2 offers within a week, 1 from an agent who read it by candlelight during the NY blackout. The book sold and won an RWA RITA for Best First Book. 2 other books in the series were also published – but Bombshell bit it so I was orphaned, and I’ve been trying to find my legs again, ever since.
    Your post was such a shot in the arm! Many, many thanks!

    Reply
  15. Sarah

    Great post!

    I’m in education, and, boy does choosing confidence work there. I remember when I had to sub for a 7th grade class years ago- less than halfway through college. I’d asked a veteran teacher for tips and she said to be alert (it so helps if you can call a student by his or her name before they tell you!) and to be confident. I was surprised how well the day went. It saves so much trouble if you simply act like you expect the class to do what you ask.

    Reply
  16. Shannon Esposito

    All I can say is (and pardon my french) Holy shit. Confidence is a choice? No one has ever said this before. Seriously, this is my biggest (with a capital B) hurdle. I’m stunned. Really, I have to go think about this…and thank you for saying it. This might be THE most important bit of writing advice I’ve ever heard.

    Reply
  17. toni mcgee causey

    BCB — thank you! And ditto back to Louise.

    Debbie — I think it’s a great analogy. We all have something we wanted to try, particularly in high school, whether it was cheerleading, sports, dance team or being the ultra dark goth God of All Things Hip. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m glad you found that confidence to keep trying what you wanted to do.

    Tom, thanks — life does have a way of using us as chew toys, doesn’t it? Chew back. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Allison — thank you. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I wonder if being an extravert helps with the confidence… is one a function of the other? hmmmmm. I’m sure there’s a study on that somewhere. But yeah, I think I’ve had a lot of moments of awareness of capability. I’ve done well at what I’ve set my mind to, and I tend to over-achieve, so it’s not that I never accomplished… just that I had to grasp what should have come naturally, which was displaying confidence, Acting as if I knew I could do it, instead of being self-conscious about the effort. & you are a great mom. I think the fact that you’re parenting five kids the same, but they’re all different is fascinating and just goes to show, it’s an individual’s perception of themselves that ultimately matters.

    Stacy and Paula, thank you! Liesl, what a terrific example. Advice I am going to give my granddaughter, when she gets old enough.

    Stephanie — go you! Congratulations on such terrific achievements-that’s awesome. And also, congrats for keeping on slugging it out. In this publishing climate, things can change on a dime through no fault of the author’s. It’s tough, and I’m proud of you for slugging it out.

    Sarah, I ditto that. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I had to teach a bunch of 4th graders some stuff this week (as a volunteer). 70 kids. And I was terrified, until I stepped in front of them, and then I remembered that at their age, I accepted anyone who was confident as "knowing enough" — so I acted the part. They were easy as pie.

    Shannon, I am cracking up. I think you just expressed my epiphany. No one had ever said it to me like that, either, at that point. I hope it does for you what it’s done for me, and more. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks, everyone–great comments today! Sorry I was so late getting back to the computer this evening.

    Reply
  18. Not The Rockefellers

    Toni,
    I finally allowed the tightly wound ball of self consciousness to unravel. I put myself in the limelight and faced criticism, praise, success, failure and throat gripping fear.
    Any you know what?
    It didn’t kill me.
    And so I continue and face the next challenge…

    Peace – Rene

    Reply
  19. Amber Scott

    I really enjoyed this post but I disagree on one point. The Universe does give a rat’s ass. I’d say the fact that as you pondered the very question, and tuned the dial looking for noise, the Universe led you to it, or perhaps simply helped inspire the answer and hoped you’d find it. I did today.
    :}Amber Scott

    Reply
  20. Jemi Fraser

    I hadn’t been lucky enough to come across this blog before. I linked in from Janet Reid’s post just now. Thank you, Janet!

    Toni – this is an awesome post. I relate it very much to the moment I decided I wasn’t going to be shy anymore. Or at least, not to let people see it. I will take this to heart in my writing. I’ve also forwarded it to school and share it with my students. Thank you!

    Reply
  21. sophie littlefield

    TMG – you are a badass real-deal genius.

    I have just one tiny little thing to add to your words. I used to look at confident people with such soul-squashing envy. I would have given anything to feel just a little of their magic juju (this was well before I understood what you said about "choosing"). I was under the impression that there was just so much confidence in the Universe to go around, that if soul A was at the top of her game, somewhere soul Z had to sink a little further to compensate.

    I don’t buy that *at all* any more. I think that confidence – once we have it – is a gift that grows when we give it away. When you shine, shine a little extra on the people who are still finding their way (as you have done here today).

    At the risk of sounding like I’m broadcasting from the middle of the Red Tent…it sure does seem to me that women get this at some point. It does take many of us a few decades of seasoning. My hat is off to anyone who can get there quicker and I’m very much blessed to have met and befriended some young women who possess far more confidence at 30 than I had even a year ago. To the rest of you….keep working at it, keep CHOOSING like TMG says!

    Reply
  22. Kim

    I happened upon this at a time when I really needed to read it. I’ve been in a place of insecurity lately. It’s a place I’m too familiar with, but have resided in often since childhood. Thank you for this. I think the universe is trying to tell me something. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
  23. judith coughlin

    Wow You are my ding ding moment, week, year. I’m showing this one to my kids. We all admire it in others and think it comes so easy to them, but you are right, they choose it. They chose to live it. It is the ride we have to get a ticket on to reach our goals. I’m saving your post.
    You are the Bomb!
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Reply
  24. will convery

    I learned many years ago two facts, 1. ‘Confidence was a trick’; that had to be mastered and 2. ‘How we do things can be more important than why we do things’. Your Blog was beautifully written and reminded me of these both values I hold and share. Its odd, the amount of arguments/debates I have had with people over the years when sharing these values. From my opinion many people get confidence mixed up with self esteem, self respect or self value which feeds into their need to pursue the why’s of why they feel this or do that.

    Reply
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