How to Get More Confident

One of my favorite TV shows is the 1969 BBC series Civilisation, hosted by Sir Kenneth Clark. A survey of European art, it’s intelligent, insightful, and gorgeous, with (for the time) outstanding production values. Yes, it’s also the epitome of white male, Eurocentric art criticism, but it still rewards watching, especially if you keep its limitations in mind. (In 2018, the BBC produced a more inclusive sequel called Civilisations—note the plural.) I rewatch it every few years.

Early on, Clark lists various attributes that characterize a civilization, a key one being confidence. It takes confidence, after all, to create a multigenerational cathedral, or any kind of sustained body of art.

You also need confidence to create your own art, or to get your degree, or accomplish your other ambitious projects. Confidence might, actually, be the key personal attribute, because without it you won’t even get started. Confidence is also what enables you to work to solve your problems, versus just giving up.

So, forget about talent, originality, and all those other shibboleths that creators tend to worry about—and that are often labels applied retroactively after a work or career has succeeded—and think instead about confidence.

Fortunately, you can create your confidence. Here are the ingredients:

  • A general understanding of the process you need to follow. This is important because the path to becoming an artist isn’t as clearly defined as, for instance, becoming a doctor or lawyer. (Those are obviously challenging paths, but at least there’s a general road map and some institutional support, both of which artists often lack.)

    You get this understanding from taking great classes and having great mentors: if you’re winging it, or just getting your information from the media (traditional or social), you probably don’t know as much as you think you do, and probably don’t know enough to succeed.
  • A detailed understanding of the next couple of steps. (Ditto on the above elaboration—and please note that often, when we stall, it’s because we don’t actually know how to proceed.)
  • Knowledge that help and support are out there. (And, obviously, a willingness to use those resources.) And, finally,

All of these contribute to a sense that the project is doable, which is the foundation of confidence. There’s one more important ingredient, though:

  • The sense that, if you do your job well, you’ll get a good result that’s commensurate with your efforts. (Otherwise, you’re likely to feel futility, arguably the most disempowering emotion of all—as Star Trek’s Borg clearly understand, given their “Resistance is futile,” catchphrase.)

About that last one: things have never been easy for creative people, but it may be especially tough now, since monopolistic corporations have severely curtailed creators’ ability to reach their audiences and make a living. The solutions are to:

(1) create a realistic strategic plan (if your goal is to make a lot of money from your writing, romance novels are a better bet than poetry, but even with romance you need to know what you’re doing);

(2) find your niche and work to excel at it (being the go-to person for a specialized need or product is still a viable small business strategy);

(3) learn from mentors who have figured out how to thrive (as best as possible) within the exploitative system. Many musicians, for instance, have gone back to making their living from performing, often in people’s homes and other small venues, as opposed to relying on income from streaming. And,

(4) join a union. For instance, the Authors Guild (I’m a proud member), Graphic Artists Guild, or the American Guild of Musical Artists. (You’ll also find your mentors and strategies here.)

(5) Of course, some goals are harder to achieve than others—and it always helps, if you’re going after a tough one, to maintain an expansive and holistic, otherwise known as nonperfectionist, view of success. For example: “Even if I don’t fully achieve my primary goal, I still will have accomplished some of it. Also, I will have learned useful things, and had a great time doing this project.” Please note that it’s not enough to simply say these words: you’ve really got to mean it.

A final word: people sometimes confuse confidence with arrogance or bragging, and they also sometimes confuse humility with self-effacement. Arrogance is obviously bad, but self-effacement is also bad. Although there’s a cultural element to all this, it’s been my experience that successful people from all backgrounds can “own” their achievements.

The above is adapted from Productivity is Power I (for college students) and Productivity is Power II (for creative and business professionals). Please check them out!

What are your thoughts on confidence? Your questions? I would love to hear them, either as a comment on the blog, or feel free to shoot me an email.

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