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Mar 3, 2016

The 3 Truths About Confidence

I’m almost certain that you will have said one or all of the following phrases to someone, at some point in your life.

 “I’m not feeling very confident today.”

“I wish I had more confidence.”

“My friend is so confident.”

“You need more confidence.”

Many of us will tend to use the word confidence like we use the word charisma, energy, creativity, intuition and talent. We're comfortable that these words describe something about a person’s general demeanour and way of being.

But while they feel like they signify something familiar and important, none of them precisely describe what we could call a ‘thing’ in itself. And this can be challenging, particularly at work and in the context of a professio nal development conversation. Here are few dictionary style definitions of confidence for example:


  • The feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.
  • A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.
  • Belief in oneself and one's powers or abilities.

I think, like me, you’d agree there’s not much here to help us really understand what confidence is and how we can get more of it. Maybe we’ll have more luck with some quotes from a few confident, successful and famous people?

  “Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.” 

Norman Vincent Peale

“Confidence is preparation. Everything else is beyond your control.”

Richard Kline- Actor

“I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence but it comes from within. It is there all the time.”

Anna Freud- Psychotherapist and daughter of Sigmund

 I don’t know about you, but none of these really give a satisfying, practical definition of the word confidence. How about quotes from an unknown confident person?

  “The best way to gain self-confidence is to do what you are afraid to do.” 

Author Unknown.

Still nothing? Okay let’s try the celebrated author and thinker Bertrand Russell:

  “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are full of confidence while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

 Wow! Mr. Russell was (and still is) undoubtedly a respected and celebrated intellectual. But I can’t help feeling that his evaluation of the state of the world gives the word confidence, and anyone tagged with the label of either being confident or needing more of it, a bad name.

The psychology professor and author Daniel Kahneman knows a thing or two about how and why we feel and think the things and ways we do. He suggests that: “Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.”

I believe he is pointing us in the right direction here, in that his description suggests confidence isn’t actually a single thing in itself.

While it’s unarguably a desirable quality to possess, if we can’t define the true meaning with any consistency, how can we really be sure who has it, who needs it and how we can get more of it?

So, I would like to concur with Daniel Kahneman and offer that genuine confidence is not a quality or thing in itself; it’s a feeling. A state of being that is an emergent property of at least 3 qualities that coincide to give the sensation of what we might then describe as a ‘feeling’ of confidence. I call these qualities the three truths of confidence.

Conviction + Courage x Competence = CONFIDENCE

I have presented them in the faux math equation as a way of articulating and defining the key elements to help us more easily discuss and unpack confidence in conversations about personal or professional development.

Let’s take a brief look at each one.


When we have a high level of conviction we’re convinced that our opinions, beliefs, knowledge and skills are correct, appropriate and suitable for a certain task. As a result, we may behave in a way that looks, sounds and feels assertive but may not yet be a state of genuine confidence. For example, you may have had to deal with someone who was convinced they possessed a certain quality or were capable of achieving a task, even though you knew they were perhaps lacking in competence. This would more accurately be described as chutzpah, braggadocio or even delusion. In fact, research suggests that we can never really be certain of our opinions and beliefs or the outcome of our actions, so our conviction is always at risk of being slightly delusional. So, conviction alone may not be enough for us to be considered genuinely confident.


To think about courage in the context of confidence we’ll need to consider the difference between acts of courage and acts of bravery. Bravery can be described as situational in that it is a quality that can spontaneously arise in a given moment. For example, we may have a tendency towards hyper vigilance and even cowardice most of our lives until someone close to us has their life threatened. Perhaps a child in our care might step out in front of an on coming vehicle. In this situation we may suddenly and uncharacteristically risk our own well being and safety, just in that one moment, to intervene and save the child.

Courage on the other hand is a stable and enduring quality that’s an aspect of our personality. Some people are born with a naturally courageous disposition while others have to develop it over time. As my good friend and colleague Gordon Milne says:

 ‘Courage essentially means to do what’s necessary, when necessary, no matter how frightened you are’.

In other words, unless we are a psychopath, fear is a natural reaction to people, places and things that threaten us. Courage is the personal quality that allows us to take action despite our fear. When we develop courage as a way of being, each and everyday, we can consciously choose to take action rather than being a hostage to ad hoc impulses of bravery.


Being competent at something means we have the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully. It doesn’t mean that we are a genius or a virtuoso. Competence simply connotes that we’re capable enough of achieving a satisfactory outcome when undertaking a task. And, in most cases, just being competent can be all that’s required to successfully meet our professional commitments. It’s the degree to which we’re competent at something that will determine how able we are to out perform the competition. But high levels of competence still do not necessarily lead to feelings of confidence. There are many individuals who are highly competent at something but lack courage and conviction therefore would not be considered authentically confident.

 The 3Cs above are the foundational ingredients of a 4th 'effect' confidence. People who have developed all three to a reasonable level will tend to exude a calm, humble certainty and yet command attention with a strength of presence that I would describe as confidence.

So next time you’re considering how to develop more confidence, for yourself or someone else, take a moment to explore which of the 3Cs might be a good place to start.