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Some of the saddest words that a human being can utter are these: “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Yet, according to Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse, this is precisely the sentiment that, more than any other, sums up the main regret of people nearing the end of their lives.
Confidence is the antidote to this kind of regret; it is the surest defence against the abdication of our sense of our own agency. When we give up authorship of our own lives, or resign ourselves to living through the eyes of others, we are effectively surrendering our personhood. It is a reflection of the notion that people are the product of their circumstances rather than the decisions they make.
“The most beautiful thing you can wear is confidence”
There are many forces in today’s world that are encouraging this kind of “second-hand living” to which Nietzsche gave the name “slave mentality”. For example, ideologues, whether of the left or right, have tended to view people as means to a utopian end and have therefore had a vested interest in encouraging people to think of themselves as subjects or victims, and to place their fate in the hands of others. A confident society is one that is immune to these dangers. Indeed, the late Lord (Kenneth)Clark, the art historian, defined civilization in a single word: confidence.
Confidence is more than self-assurance. It is a form of licence. It is the right that we grant ourselves to become the person of our own choosing. At root, confidence is the conviction that we are of most value to the world when we are true to ourselves.
Confidence is the right that we grant ourselves to become the person of our own choosing
David Bowie was the archetype of a confident person. In his 69 years, he exemplified what it is to be a truly autonomous individual. His versatility was prodigious. He excelled as a singer, composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, painter and actor. “I feel confident imposing change on myself,” he said. He didn’t believe there was a self to discover, only a persona to be endlessly re-invented. It was as though he imagined himself to be a work of art on which he never ceased working.
But Bowie’s confidence did not come easily: “As an adolescent, I was painfully shy and withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs on stage, and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going on stage and being myself.” Ziggy Stardust was perhaps his most famous disguise, but it was only one of many. He learned the art of confidence by treating it - at least to start with - as a façade behind which he could play at being confident.
This recalls Aristotle’s theory that if a particular virtue such as courage or confidence does not come naturally, then the solution may be to stop worrying about how it might be acquired. Instead, the individual should imagine what a courageous or confident person would actually do in the circumstances – and then do exactly that. In other words, act your way into becoming confident. No one is born confident. We acquire confidence as we mimic those whom we observe to be exemplars of this particular trait.
This mimetic theory of learning – becoming a person we are not by imitating a person who is – was brilliantly applied by Bowie. He did not believe his mastery of artistic skills was an expression of innate talent; he preferred to believe that it was an act of will, a kind of continuously imaginative self-reinvention: “Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life”
Bowie chose to see himself as the sole author of his own life. He recognized early on the dangers of living his life through the eyes and expectations of others: “I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.”
Act your way into becoming confident
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 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.
Society is stronger when individuals feel free to put their own needs first
Whenever psychology reverts to the language of physics and explains human behaviour in terms of causes, determinants and effects, it risks erasing the subject matter of its own inquiry: the human agent. The practice of management should not allow social sciences to dehumanize the true object of its interest: individual human beings.
Bowie had no need for self-help manuals or textbooks on creativity. He experimented. He didn’t try to predict outcomes or worry about possible reactions. He acted on the world and, noticing the result, he formed a theory. To borrow an insight from Matthew Parris: “How little we know of ourselves until we notice what we do.”
In business practice, we typically operate the other way round. Before actually doing anything, we feel we first need a theory from which to act, or a goal around which to organize, or a plan on which to deliver, or some rules by which to conform. The social science of confidence, by adopting an essentially passive voice approach, provides us with many rules of success but in so doing subtly undermines the Bowie-like confidence that we need to become the invention of our own imagination and courage.
Buckley, David (2010), Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story, Virgin Books.
Douglas, Mary (2011), In the Active Voice, Routledge.
Grant, Adam (2016), Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Penguin Books.
Kay, John (2010), Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly, Profile Books.
Norem, Julie and Chang, Edward (2002), “The Positive Psychology of Negative Thinking”, Journal of Clinical Psychology 58: 993-1001.
Oakley, Barbara, et al (2012), Pathological Altruism, Oxford University Press.
Schafer, Roy (1976), A New Language for Psychoanalysis, Yale University Press.
Ware, Bronnie (2012), The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Hay House.
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