On Confidence

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The space between words

(8 minutes, 1 trick, 12 steps)

Clothing the Emperor

I’m going to tell you something about confidence using the history of writing as an analogy and sharing with you my own checklist to promote confident writing. But first let’s go bask in the Cali sunshine with the mobile device designers of Cupertino.

Good design is as little design as possible” said Jonathan Ive as he removed almost all of the buttons and the battery access door from what we understood to be a mobile phone in 2007 – in a stroke leaving Sony, Nokia and Blackberry looking awfully yesteryear. Apple really went to town with “designing out” or removing things from view if not from existence – leaving the consumer with simplicity itself. The result can be something that looks effortless – a look that belies years of hard toil and a waste-bin full of a million failed versions. Competitors chasing a copycat product had no chance unless they intuited even the faintest inkling of the long underlying struggle that constituted the road to the finish line – which itself was forever on the move.

Designers always used to say “form follows function” – so if an alien landed on earth it could pick up a fork or a chair and pretty much get a feel for the purpose of the object by virtue of its design shapes. In the digital world where everything is more or less a square black box, that motto died away. But Cupertino had a new one to replace it;

Content precedes design. Without content design is not design. It is decoration.

Decoration. Front end. Bells and whistles. Smoke and mirrors. The grand charade. A whole lotta nothing.

Compensatory self-inflation

For some time this truth about the vainglorious potential of design skittered around inside my head as I began marrying it all up with the modern notion of “confidence” and a book of the same name by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic that a friend in the gym had recommended and that I’ve been dipping into this past week.

Confidence without competence is just hot air. Yet people chase it as an end in itself. The author smartly identifies three common traits of career-successful people and these are displaying competence, working hard and being likeable so first off let’s note that the peacock feathers don’t even “work” in the professional sense. Confidence that shines from genuinely skilful talented people is attractive for sure and may look like the decorative type, as the competence has been “designed out” in sublime fashion such that perfectionist Jonny Ive would most probably approve. There is room then, for confusion. Room enough for a strategy of false confidence to operate.

Having got this far let’s re-work that design saying above:

Competence precedes confidence. Without talent and achievement, confidence is not confidence. It is decoration.”

By all means be decorative if you must – just don’t expect it to do anything for you. It’s best not to chase confidence. If it feels evasive it’s because you are chasing it and you shouldn’t be. It is to be earned. Regardless of the latest counter-philosophy that is trending, stay focused and just work on getting more competent at stuff and the confidence will naturally follow as a true reflection of what you are. In fact, to get skilled up you are better off starting from a position of low confidence – which is nature’s way of prompting you into action. The will to power lives in the house of dissatisfaction. The den of dissonance. How to get there ? Take a left at humility and proceed inward.

The illusion of control

Confidence, deified like gold and fame in these confused times can be a real hindrance. It can stop you feeling the need to work at something. It is touted trophy-like yet things are not as they seem. Confidence-evangelists seem oblivious to the fact that the quality in excess supply is repulsive to fellow earthlings the world over. Well, newsflash! If you ain’t got the skills to pay the bills, all confidence is excessive. Mother nature’s reward for achievement has been re-packaged and mis-marketed as the key to achievement. Doh! Here we go again. Tomas puts it best in his book when he writes the following words which, for me, deconstruct the folly of over-confidence;

“Think about it. Wanting to be good at something is incompatible with thinking you are good at something.”

Tomas is fully appreciating the definition of “wanting”. It means “lacking”. So if you truly “want” something you really should have low confidence in your relationship with it. Otherwise you’re implying you don’t really want it. What a truth. Quite wonderful!

Think of all those live talent shows on your television where before grabbing the mic’ and banging out a Tina Turner cover some cock o’ the walk kid from the projects tells you how badly she “wants” this. See the mis-match ? She wants it. Yet she’s strutting about. It’s just decoration mate!

Like all good inspirational teachers, Tomas goes all “out of Africa” to explain why inflated confidence has evolved in our species. He cites Charles Darwin whose work showed us that false confidence in more critical times (critical to survival, that is) warded off predators yet is still with us today because it affords us the illusion of control. The shrinks call this “compensatory self-inflation” – a name which I find cute because it is portentous aggrandisement as I live and breathe. It’s like they wanted a name for the behaviour of arrogant people and recruited the services of….well….arrogant people.

Me! Self-important you say ? Outrageous! I’ll have you know the correct term is compensatory self-inflation, young man!”

His test group polls and results are gripping and some are quite funny. For example, Tomas shows how most people think that they are above average across a range of common competences – which actually does not make sense because average IS most people. Sweeter still, and in one of my favourite bits, the author then takes this finding – which he calls the “better than average bias” and explains it to his groups. They take it on board (and this goes for me and you right now, by the way) and then to a man they individually STILL think it applies only to other people. We are encoded with denial! This is the best line in the first half of the book;

“In what is arguably the ultimate manifestation of the better-than-average bias, most people see themselves as less biased than the average person.”

The thing is, even as I write about this, I do. I genuinely believe that I am less biased than the average person. I bet you do too. Ha! Is there any hope for us ?

Writ large – an analogy

“I know none better. The eyelessness of days without a letter.” (Philip Larkin)

Here’s a brief history of writing as a case in point: Writing got more confident as it got more competent. I’m not on about writers. I refer to the actual written word itself.

Before writing, everything was memorised. From Homer to the Koran. The parts of the human brain responsible for memory (working, long-term and recollection) were highly developed. The Sumerians started writing on clay tablets and of course we know about the later Egyptian papyrus (presuming your school was on the same syllabus as mine).

Scriptura Continua

But this wasn’t writing as we know it. There was no space between words until very recently (1,000 AD) and no syntax or punctuation. The function of writing was to record sales orders and laws. Later writing was still a rather un-evolved prompt to assist the verbal telling of largely memorised information. You didn’t “read”. In fact silent reading was dangerous at its inception and would risk getting you carted off to the asylum. There are some choice quotes from Bede’s time (672 -735 AD) about monks based in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria (now part of northern England) who were known to read without speaking aloud and who everyone avoided like the plague for fear of invoking witchcraft. Silent reading was clearly a dark art. No good could ever come of that, so ran the prevailing wisdom. The preserve of mad men and devils!

From memo to medium

Boom! In a mere millennium technology pushed everything along and forced the issue. Competence blossomed as the written word “got better” at its job and reading as we know it developed when writing reached a confidence threshold that reflected its achievements. Vellum. The Alphabet. Scriveners. Codex. The Gutenberg press. Schools. It was only after adding features of real value to its CV that the written word began to walk tall in confidence, flexing its muscles which bulged in the form of little pockets of air to create breathing space between each new unit of written language – akin to the words we speak.

The early church of Ireland put the space between your words. My words. These words. At a stroke books, science, literary art and media propaganda were born and the human brain changed from conceiving only of experiential things to conceiving of abstract notions and visual concepts too. Memory as it was died away – so far never to return.

It’s a beautiful and simple story that jolts me into appreciating – reviewing – renewing my relationship with – the things I take for granted so much that I rarely ever even see them in the context of their journey. Yet they are my first love. The words. My chords of deep longing.

And it’s a great angle from which to approach lessons in confidence – a constant reminder that without competence, confidence is nothing but a rather self-promoting character flaw. Standing here in the glitzy, insecure age of celebrity narcissism who couldn’t learn from that ?

Don’t try and get confident. Try and get better.

Writers often get asked “How do you do it?” yet it’s the way some people ask – the tone of the question – the perplexed look on their faces and the strained inflected cadence – that tells me they don’t perceive the underlying struggle but choose to focus on the end result. That’s reasonable. After all the end result is the only thing you see. You don’t see the space between words. That is, what writers do in between writing things down. And it’s the same rule for iPhone designers and ancient scriveners and the very history of letters and codex shining down through the years and the same rule for all matters of confidence in all walks of life. First, we have to “go to” competence. The bit you can’t see drives the bit you can.

It’s just another sad symptom of the times we live in whereby we foolishly try and derive meaning in life from what we have (stuff) and what we look like (decor) rather than how we behave when we think no one is looking (deed) and what we stand for (purpose). But that’s OK. We can always catch ourselves and correct our path. In fact you could argue that catching ourselves getting lost in stuff and decor and pulling ourselves back to deed and purpose is the very noblest of professions. I say the notion of re-aligning ourselves with the ability to extract real meaning from life equates with the notion of going after competence – the hidden slog that rarely gets reflected in the end result yet is always responsible for its shape and shine. If you wanna get all Freudian about it, we live in the id and the ego but real confidence comes from the super-ego.

With writing, the message precedes style. Without a message style is not style. It is just decoration.

Check in for re-hab at the clinic

“It’s not about thinking something up. It’s about getting something down.” Julia Cameron

So if confidence comes with being good, how do you get good ? I’m guessing that posting articles onto LinkedIn is something we can all relate to. (This blog is a copy of an article that was written for my regular LinkedIn column.) So here goes…

Welcome to the Competence Clinic wherein I present my twelve-step process developed to try and lock-in literary do-goodery and consign scrivener tomfoolery to the dust-blown sands of historical time. This guide is a simple tool to promote the creation of good writing from the cradle of inception to LinkedIn “Go Live” and beyond. It’s simply a description of how I work. In addition to appearing below, the guide is hosted as a stand-alone web page and I’ve included a link to that space in the reading references at the end of this article.

I’m not saying “use it!”. I think these things work best when we sculpt them out for ourselves and that’s why this guide is written in the first person singular. Besides, you may deem your own competence sufficient and not in need of neurotic check-listing. I’m simply illuminating the space between my words to inform on the larger debate on confidence. Stages 2, 6 and 10 are buffer-checks in that they are designed to rein-in particular activities of creative expansion that may otherwise compromise my artistic integrity – my qualitative and complacency fire-doors. This whole process typically has a life-cycle of between one week and one month.

  1. Get interesting. I always wait until I have something to say – as per Julia’s quote above. For this reason I won’t tolerate a publishing schedule. I evolve my ideas out of thoughts from experience, reflection and old research. Live well, read widely and smile. Be at one. Something always hits. Yet I should be ball-parking my subject matter to reinforce my brand. This is marketing speak for “be true to myself”.
  2. Hold the bubble. When tossing around a potential new theme, debate aloud with acquaintances, scribble notes and think. I do not “hit the net” to research anew yet. This would risk drowning out my ideas in the warm enticing waters of other peoples influence. Incubation requires isolation and protection. For clarity. For now.
  3. Climb the ladder. I have developed a step-ladder of draft platforms. Each stage insists that I re-read the work in a new setting. So I draft initially into Google drive or Apple Pages, if not with pen and paper or even into iNotes on my phone. Then I copy and paste into the blog. I publish the blog. In the context of LinkedIn this is the soft-launch “go live” stage and it somehow pulls me into a sharp focus such that the editing shifts up a gear. Going public concentrates the mind.
  4. Get new eyes. I now get context by re-reading from a different device in a different location. In silence and then with background noise. Each variant gives me “new eyes”.
  5. Edit. Use those new eyes to re-work the fine print; Spelling. Syntax. Argument strength. Chain of reasoning. Empirical accuracy. Names, dates etc. Success is in the detail.
  6. Research. See what else is out there but be careful not to let it drown my own voice. Always speak from my own mind. The function of research is context not persuasion. That said, research should be wide and deep. Courageous as lions. Inquisitive as cats.
  7. Intelligent social. Hashtag to relevant twitter boards, post to debating groups and circulate to real friends. Slicing off and chopping up extracts of my work is allowed in the furtherance of this cause.
  8. Deal with feedback. Collect, ingest, process. –  from the blog, social media and my social circle. All the while the latest “version” is renewing.
  9. LinkedIn drafts now gets a copy of the work in progress. Editing here includes re-configuring the language to suit the audience. Build the accompanying image sleeve and organise any other photography.
  10. Get space. Sleep on it. Go for a run. Go for a swim. Walk in the park. Let the thoughts come. Read a fiction novel. Let the days pass. Meditate. Switch off. Do other stuff. Lose momentum.
  11. Publish to Linked-In at least three days after the Stage 9 draft (usually a whole week later) and hold true to this no matter how good or “finished” the article feels in the interim. It isn’t. Continue to re-visit and improve as feedback and enlightenment arrives.
  12. The birth of a theorem – my post-launch commitment. Build out from the initial piece as an ongoing organism in the blog archives. Now treat what I have as an evolving library-bank by updating private cloud space such as Google Drive, Pages or BT Cloud with the fullest version and earlier key-stage versions. And I am prepared to keep adding things long after the audience has moved on. Weeks, months, years. Who knows where that will lead ? Nothing is ever over. It’s about nurturing my idea not “like-fishing” – and the idea lives on. What started as a short blog post soon looks like a future book chapter. And I like it!

We are the runners

Writing leads to the words. But comes from the space between words. Unlike my Irish forefathers I start with the space and the words come after. There can be nothing without work. Nil Sine Labore. And when you talk to any writer they all say it’s the graft element – the midnight oil – the journey – that is the root of who they are and the making of them – not the essay on the finish line. After all, the finish line just represents the end of something and even that is qualified because as I mentioned earlier real finish lines worth their salt are themselves forever shifting. Besides, we are not the finishing line. We are the runners and we are chasing the chase. Discipline is our energy. Creativity our tailwind.

To paraphrase Richard Attenborough’s movie from William Nicholson’s screenplay;  “We write in the Shadowlands. The sun is always over the hill or round the next bend in the road.”

The colour of a job well done

Words born of letters born of shapes out of the air are, like all art forms, a confidence trick. The trick is that the confidence is just a reflection. So quit looking in the mirror and get living. Your stupid grin is lovely but the reflection of you creating something is so much more attractive.

Walking tall from your work rather than towards it. Now that’s confidence.

Thanks for reading.

“With all things and in all things, we are relatives” Native American (Sioux) proverb.


Reading references / competence boosters;

  • Paul Saenger – Space Between Words –  a paper filed with Stanford University Press (1997) that I accessed using Google Scholar
  • Confidence: The surprising truth about how much you need and how to get it –  Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
  • The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember – Nicholas Carr
  • An Interpretation of Dreams – Sigmund Freud (I recommend Joyce Crick’s translation. A.A Gill’s will totally finish you off. You’ll lose the will to live let alone dream.)
  • Philip Larkin – A Writer’s Life – Andrew Motion
  • The Right to Write – Julia Cameron
  • Scrolling Forward: Making sense of documents in the digital age – David M Levy
  • The Culture of Narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations – Christopher Lasch
  • Objectified – a 2009 Gary Hustwit feature-length documentary about the design of everyday non-living objects. The middle film of the Design Trilogy, sandwiched between Helvetica and Urbanized. http://documentaryheaven.com/objectified/
  • http://bit.ly/1SYZGzj My twelve step guide to good writing as a concise stand-alone web page



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