He said: “All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience. My work is always stronger when I get selfish about it”. This chimes with one of Bronnie Ware’s epithets: “Self-love is essential to truly serve others well.” This is a powerful (and provocative) version of the oblique principle: namely, that society is stronger when individuals feel free to put their own needs first. It is a message that sits uncomfortably in today’s world of ideological posturing, virtue signaling, and other forms of what Barbara Oakley has called “pathological altruism”. Bowie was his own person: “Being cool is being your own self, not doing something that someone else is telling you to do.”
Leadership, a close ally of confidence, is not about creating followership or compliance or passivity. Quite the contrary. The leader liberates others to invent or re-invent themselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “the only person you are destined to be is the person you decide to be”. Leaders encourage those they work with to make self-defining decisions.
Thoughts on the life and personality of David Bowie – and the lessons that flow from them – sit uncomfortably alongside theories of confidence found in much social science research literature. Here are some of those findings, expressed as key factors in building self-confidence:
- The company we keep: we are creatures of the expectations that others place upon us; therefore, we should surround ourselves with people who believe in us, and keep our distance from those who undermine our self-belief.
- The effort we exert: in the pursuit of mastery, effort counts for more than innate talent; therefore, to strengthen self-confidence, we should measure ourselves by effort invested rather than result achieved.
- The placebo we trust: lucky charms work. We ought not be so rational as to dismiss all sources of irrational assistance.
- The wave we surf: success is rarely a solo achievement. It depends, at least in part, on being with the right people in the right place at the right time. Quoting Shakespeare, “there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” We should take note of the tide.
- The rituals we adopt: certain things “get us into the zone” and boost our confidence before, for example, giving a speech or taking an exam. So we need to invent habits that settle our nerves and enhance our performance.
- The opportunities we seize: business is a numbers game, as Tom Peters used to say. The “more times at bat”, the greater the chance of getting lucky and stumbling into success.
- The setbacks we experience: if we see mistakes as lessons in life, our confidence will be benefit. We should think of failure as intrinsic to a life of achievement.
- The emotions we draw upon: to overcome fear when faced by a threatening challenge, getting excited works better than trying to calm ourselves down.
- The expectations we form: we can adopt one of two quite distinct strategies for managing our anxieties once we’ve settled on a risky course of action: “strategic optimism” or “defensive pessimism”; strategic optimists allay their fears by hoping for the best and setting aside negative thoughts; defensive pessimists choose instead to confront their fears by envisaging worst-case scenarios and thinking through the ramifications.
- Research suggests that when we’re fearful, the unknown is more frightening than the negative. Therefore we should adopt the strategy of the defensive pessimist.
The trouble with rules of success - and all self-help manuals - is that they invite us to treat our own life instrumentally. We objectify ourselves, reducing our own behaviour to a set of responses to a mix of self-imposed conditions. In effect, we become the victims of the science we choose to believe in. For example, we may manage our level of confidence by purposefully associating with different kinds of people, wearing a lucky charm, cultivating a pessimistic philosophy and so on. In this way, we cast ourselves in the role of inert material on which different causes will have different effects. Life becomes a process of choosing those inputs whose effects we most desire.
The anthropologist Mary Douglas has made a distinction between passive and active voice theories of human behaviour . As an illustration of this distinction, she draws upon Roy Schafer’s interpretation of Freudian theory to imagine an exchange between a psychoanalyst and his patient. The analyst may say to the patient, “Your chronic sense of worthlessness comes from the condemning voice of your mother”. This is a quintessential case of passive voice theorising. The patient is seen not as an active agent with beliefs, intentions and will, but as a passive canvas on which external forces make their imprint. An active voice reconstruction of this diagnosis could be: “You regularly imagine your mother’s voice condemning you, and you, agreeing with it, regard yourself as being essentially worthless.” This approach uses the less deterministic, more explanatory concepts of agency, meaning, and purpose. Active voice theorising places individual responsibility where it truly belongs – in this case, with the patient.