Apparently, throughout life, levels of confidence typically follow a bell curve, rising during late teens, peaking in middle age and declining after 60. I tell you straight, if you plotted mine, the pattern would look more like a polygraph test in a thriller. A jittery, volatile scribble. Up, down, up, down, a brief lofty peak then a plunge to the depths.
I agree that in youth, one is often optimistically buoyant about one’s capabilities. Donkey’s years ago, when I was a finalist in British Vogue’s annual talent contest, Anna Wintour, who had taken over as editor, sat next to me for one course of a tortuous finalists’ lunch. As I complimented her on some aspect of the magazine, she swiftly deflected the praise. My reaction? I elbowed her in an overfamiliar gesture that suggested she could obviously do with some reassurance and encouragement - and I was the person to give it! Was that confidence or absurd naivety? Probably an unseemly, if hilarious, combination of the two.
That said, I was usually pretty timid as a teen. In my first job, during lunchtimes for the first fortnight, I sat in my Mini with a flask of tea because I wasn’t sure anyone would want to share a sandwich. But then I’ve always suffered from anxiety and if there’s one thing that dramatically drains your confidence, it’s the continual internal quaking as you ponder how imperfect you are and what kind of disaster might strike next.
We tend to define confidence in an entirely positive light. But in truth, it’s more about pitching it appropriately. Clearly you don’t want your pilot announcing, ‘And a very good morning from the flight deck. We’re in for some strong crosswinds today but I’m going to give it my best shot and let’s just hope I can make the landing at Heathrow.’ On the flipside, when a candidate in The Apprentice opines he’s going to be bigger than Elon Musk and then can’t flog a dozen bottles of windscreen wash in Deptford, such misplaced confidence is comedy gold.
I know a few mature friends who report losing their confidence as they age, yet others say the opposite – that they finally feel more bold, more comfortable in their own skin. I’m kind of somewhere in the middle. I now accept I can feel gung-ho about some pursuits and considerably less so about others. And that’s OK. For instance, I’m happy to journey with a small band of travellers to stay in a ger (a kind of yurt) in the frigid Altai mountains of Outer Mongolia but if you took me to a luxury hotel in Val d’Isere and asked me to strap skis to my feet, frankly, I can’t envisage any outcome that doesn’t involve medevac.
For years, I used to read about building confidence, strategies that sounded like you could beef it up like biceps at the gym. Advice such as projecting positive affirmations in the mirror and improving your self-talk – repeating that you’re brilliant at what you do and life is becoming a breeze. The trouble is, my self-talk always answered back; ‘You’re brilliant? Well, we know that’s bollocks’. Eventually, I twigged it was better to fully acknowledge my disquiet but dig in regardless and try to get the job done, gradually shaping fear into something more familiar, more manageable. For instance, I used to hate public speaking but now, even though I’m nervous beforehand, I rather enjoy it.
In fact, that’s an interesting example. Because my big breakthrough there came when I realised writing out a lengthy speech and reading it while pretending you weren’t, was not only as dull as ditchwater, it made you look unsure of yourself. So I switched to jotting down headings and then speaking off the top of my head. At my first attempt, I stumbled more than once, cracked a few jokes and asked for forgiveness. At the end, people congratulated me on, wait for it…my confidence. In that moment I discovered if you can be real – even reveal your shortcomings – it’s not only human, it’s engaging.
I’ve also learned to stop chasing confidence for its own sake because there are other aspirations, when pursued with authenticity, that flex your confidence muscles almost as a side effect. Cultivating resilience when life’s a bit rubbish is one. Another is making peace with people with whom you’ve argued, hurt or got off on the wrong foot. Because attempting to build bridges not only requires sincerity – which is the true plinth upon which confidence rests - it involves taking a deep breath and risking being rebuffed. A tiny posy, proffered in person, is now my olive branch of choice. If accepted, often a new and healthier bond happily blossoms. Ironically, then, I’ve found confidence is less about self. It flourishes when its focus is others.
Written by: Jan Masters