Do you have a strong sense of self-confidence? Do you believe in yourself, that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to?
The question of self-confidence or self-belief really gets to the core of our being. Of course, the answer doesn’t need to be a simple “yes” or “no”, it would be more accurate to think on a scale from 0% to 100%. Most of us are probably not at 100%. At least, I’m certainly not. In that case, it is extremely important and highly worthwhile to move ourselves higher on the self-belief scale.
Because our beliefs determine our thoughts, our thoughts determine our actions, and our actions determine our life.
If we don’t believe we can succeed, we won’t even try. If our belief is weak, then we will act with weak motivation, and then we give up in the face of the slightest difficulty. If we really believe we can do it, then we will act with resolute determination, and we will keep marching through all difficulties until we finally achieve our goal.
Global leadership expert Sheila Murray Bethel said:
“Of all the communication you do, none is more important than how you talk to yourself. Your internal confidence has more to do with your success in life than any other factor.”
Indeed, we probably won’t find any highly successful person who says, “I’m not a very capable person. I didn’t think I could achieve this. It just kind of happened by luck.”
Unfortunately, many of us have too much negative self-talk. According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of the average person’s daily thoughts are negative. That means we have a lot more thoughts related to worry, doubt, and fear instead of belief, confidence, and determination.
The big question is: How can we move higher on the self-belief scale? There isn’t one right answer, but below are some methods I’ve found:
- Focus on innate potential
- Re-train your thoughts
- Re-select your values
1: Know Your Innate Potential
So many of us base our self-confidence based on impermanent things, such as wealth, status, intelligence, beauty, success, and other’s opinions. The problem is, these things easily change, which means our self-confidence is shaky. If we can build our self-confidence based on something eternal, then we will have permanent self-confidence. What is that “something”?
Ancient philosophers tell us that every person is born with the same innate potential. Put in modern scientific terms, we all have the same human DNA.
The ancient Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,
“If it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.”
Contemporary Stoic Ryan Holiday echoed the same idea when he said,
“Don’t forget, though, that you come from a long, unbroken line of ancestors who survived unimaginable adversity, difficulty, and struggle. It’s their genes and their blood that run through your body right now… as their viable offspring, you’re capable of what they are capable of. You’re meant for this.”
Think of all the great heroes, past or present, that you admire. They are people just like us. If you research their life, you will find that they have problems and encountered difficulties just like us. In fact, they probably had even more difficulties than most people. But they were able to push through. If they can do it, so can we.
Viktor E. Frankl went through hell in the Nazi concentration camps. Most of us probably won’t go through anywhere near as much suffering or torture as he did. But he said,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In other words, our ability to choose how we behave and respond to our circumstances can never be taken away from us, and that’s the key to greatness. That is what we should build our confidence on. As long as we continue to believe in ourselves, we will persevere. And as long as we persevere, we will eventually break through.
A great example is Thomas Edison. He failed a thousand times before he finally successfully invented the lightbulb. Another example is Bill Gates. His first company crumbled, and his first product demo didn’t even work. He went on to create Microsoft. One more example is J.K. Rowling. When she wrote her first manuscript for Harry Potter, she was rejected by twelve publishers! She went on to create the Harry Potter empire. They are all human just like us. We will make mistakes and fail just like them. But just like them, we can achieve any goal as long as we believe in ourselves and never give up.
2: Re-Train Your Thoughts
Marcus Aurelius also said,
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
Ultimately, our thought patterns are a habit, and like any habit, they can be un-learned and re-trained. When we doubt ourselves, we have thoughts like,
- I can’t do that.
- That’s too hard for me.
- Other people can do that. I can’t do that.
- I’m so dumb. I’m such a failure.
We need to train ourselves to be sensitive to our thoughts, to catch these sinister thoughts, and then dispel them with proper thoughts.
Liao Fan’s Four Lessons goes into detail about habit change, and a great teaching from the book is,
“When proper thoughts arise, improper thoughts will naturally be unable to pollute the mind.”
To give an analogy, our improper thoughts, such as self-doubt, are like thieves. They are in the wrong from the very beginning, so they don’t dare to be tested in court. Our proper thoughts are like police. When the police arrive, all the thieves scramble to hide or run away.
When we start to doubt ourselves, we can think:
- I can do anything I set my mind to, just like Thomas Edison. I might not succeed overnight, but I can definitely succeed through perseverance.
- Have I ever done anything challenging in the past? If I overcame difficulty before, I can do it again.
- People with human DNA have done harder things than this. I have human DNA too, I can definitely do it. It might be hard at the beginning, but my ability will increase with training.
- Even if I’m not as smart as I want to be right now, that doesn’t mean I can’t get smarter. I can start improving today.
- I’m not a failure, I’m a learner on a learning journey.
- No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Great people aren’t those who don’t make mistakes, they are those who learn and improve from their mistakes.
Here some more Stoicism quotes for permanent self-confidence:
- “The trials you face will introduce you to your strengths.” — Epictetus
- “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.” — Seneca
- “Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes or figs need time to ripen.” — Epictetus
- “Devote the rest of your life to making progress.” — Epictetus
- “It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” — Seneca
As with any new habit, at the beginning, it takes a lot of effort to re-train our thoughts, but slowly and surely, it will become more natural. One day, we will suddenly notice that our self-confidence is a lot more than before.
3: Re-Select Your Values
As mentioned earlier, so many of us base our self-confidence and self-esteem based on external things, such as wealth, status, intelligence, beauty, success, and other’s opinions. These things are all subject to change and outside of our control. When we heavily value these things, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment in the future, and we will lose self-esteem. If we want a healthy mindset, what should we value then?
Marcus Aurelius said,
“Life is short — the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”
In other words, we should value self-improvement and kindness.
“Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.”
When we value self-improvement, we will be humble and try to learn from every experience. Whereas others will feel dejected in the face of difficulty, a humble person will learn and improve from it. When we learn and improve from every situation, we will gain more confidence, and we no longer fear “unfavorable” circumstances because we can grow from them. What a very delightful way to live!
Confucius expressed the same idea when he said,
“Walking among three people, I find my teacher among them. I choose that which is good in them and follow it, and that which is bad and change it.”
In other words, a humble person sees everyone as their teacher. If we see people’s good points, we don’t need to feel dejected, envious, or inferior. After all, everyone has their unique strengths, including ourselves. We should be happy to encounter them and learn from their good points. When we encounter people’s bad points, we shouldn’t feel arrogant or blame them, because everyone has their weaknesses, including ourselves. We should reflect on whether we have the same problem (most likely yes) and how we can correct it in ourselves. With this kind of attitude, we won’t be self-depreciating nor arrogant, which means our self-confidence won’t be hurt by anyone. Moreover, as we improve with interaction, our self-confidence grows too.
The second virtue that Marcus Aurelius mentioned is kindness. Kindness dampens ego. The ego is very polar. It either makes us arrogant (I’m way better than others) or self-deprecating (I’m the worst). When we value kindness, we shift our attention from the self to others. Rather than thinking so much about our desires and worries, we think about how to help others be happy, thereby forgetting “I”.
As Seneca said,
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.”
With this kind of attitude, we won’t think so much about “I” or how others are thinking about “me”. When we then act on our kind thoughts and help others, we gain the joy of helping others and the joy of making a positive difference in the world. These are all helpful for our self-confidence.
“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.”
That is something I want. Thus, I need to stop being a slave to emotions like desire and anger. I’ve studied great philosophers of the past and know that it’s definitely possible, but I’m still far from it. When I do something dumb due to desire or get upset, sometimes, I feel like it’s too hard to master my own emotions. But the important thing for me is to remember patience. These habits don’t get corrected in one day…or one month…or one year…It takes years and years of perseverance.
I’m sure past heroes didn’t master their emotions in a day. They dedicated their whole lives to it, so I shouldn’t rush. It’s no wonder Epictetus said
“Devote the rest of your life to making progress.”
He must have done the same himself. If he can do it, I can do it too. Even though my cultivation has ups and downs, as long as I get back up after my falls, I can maintain a positive trend, and that’s what I should judge myself on.
I remember my mentor once said,
“I’m not that capable or smart. I often trip and fall. The only reason I got to the (high) position I am in right now is because every time I fall, after I lick my wounds, I get back up and keep on going. Lots of more capable and intelligent people started on this path before me. But they all gave up. So the only people left are the less capable and less intelligent people like me.”
Obviously, my mentor is very humble, but from his statement, I also see that he doesn’t base his self-confidence on impermanent things like intelligence or ability. Instead, he bases his self-confidence on his decision to always get back up after each fall, and that’s something we can all do.
Our beliefs determine our thoughts, our thoughts determine our actions, and our actions determine our life.
If we want a happy and successful life, we have to put in effort to improve our self-confidence. To do that, we can first remind ourselves that we have the same DNA as all the great heroes of the past and present. If they can do it, so can I. Second, we can re-train our thoughts by using proper thoughts to dispel improper thoughts. Third, we can re-select our values. Rather than valuing external things, we can choose to value self-improvement and kindness. As our self-confidence grows, so too will our happiness and success.