There’s a reason people say confidence is king. That’s because those who have it—you know that guy who enters the room and the self-assuredness is just dripping off of him—seem to always excel. Even when they get knocked down, they always get back up bigger, better, and seemingly even more confident.
How? Well, confident folks have learned how to tap into one crucial skill: mental toughness—and using it to remain resilient under pressure. One person who is keenly aware of how intricately linked these two attributes are is psychologist Nate Zinsser, Ph.D.
For nearly 30 years Zinsser, as director of West Point’s performance psychology program, has had a hand in shaping military leaders and CEOs to Olympians and pro athletes. He’s helped these elites thrive and reach their full potential by teaching them how to level up their morale no matter the circumstance.
“There are a lot of people out there who are really confused about what confidence is, what confidence isn’t, and how they can grow it,” says Zinsser. “There’s this mystique that confidence is [something] that you can never really get a handle on.”
But the truth is, Zinsser says, with a little practice you can build your confidence just like you build muscle in the gym. Believe it or not, Zinsser also says you can learn a thing or two from Jim Carey’s dimwitted Lloyd Christmas in the cult classic Dumb and Dumber, which he highlights in his new book, The Confident Mind, which is all about optimal performance.
Here, Zinsser shares top thoughts for bolstering confidence to overcome any of life’s challenges, be it hitting the wall at mile 21 of a marathon, pulling off a big work project, or just getting up the courage to introduce yourself.
When did you first become interested in confidence?
It occurred to me at a young age that confidence really mattered. I went to a fairly small, all-boys private school, where we seem to have a dominant soccer team year in and year out. I didn’t play on the team but I couldn’t help noticing how positively and optimistically people talked about the soccer program. And curiously, how you could take a whole bunch of those guys off the soccer field, put them on the basketball court or put them on the lacrosse field and they would be very mediocre at these other sports. I couldn’t understand why until years later when I learned that there’s something called an expectation effect.
What you believe about yourself changes the way you act. And partway through that school experience, I was very enthusiastic about my capabilities as a wrestler. I remember talking at the lunch table one day with some other members of my class, saying that, “you know, we’re only in ninth grade, but as soon as we get a couple of years of experience, we’re really going to be great.” And a guy in my class looks at me and says, “Nate, shut up. You’re never going to be any good. Guys at this school don’t wrestle well.”
It was that ongoing belief and expectation as expressed by him that guys at this school don’t wrestle well. I was really surprised at how firmly convinced he was in his own little crystal ball. It was very clear to me that what you believe about yourself has a huge impact on what you actually experience and what you actually accomplish. I’m proud to report that in my junior here, two years after this conversation at the lunch table, our wrestling team had its first winning season in a long, long, long time.
What is your definition of confidence?
Confidence is the sense of certainty that you have about yourself in a particular area that allows you to perform in that area, relatively unconsciously, to get past thinking about it and execute unconsciously.
For example, I don’t have to think about the mechanics of my tennis serve, about the ball toss, about the racket swing, or about the weight shift. I can simply step in there and do it. I have that ability, and I have the certainty about that ability.
Are there certain traits that all confident people have?
Confidence is very situation specific. We never know how good somebody is at something until that person executes—whether shooting basketballs, singing a song, or making an argument in the courtroom—and they release it. And they’ll never release it if they’re constantly in a state of analysis and judgment and criticism.
[That said], there is an element of patience as well as curiosity, [meaning] I’m curious to see how well I can do here. I’m curious to see how well I can sustain my effort over these 26 miles or my really good presentation over a training camp or a sales campaign. I think that kind of energetic curiosity is very, very helpful.
It seems that confidence requires that you tap into mental toughness and strength. How do you do that?
You are already tapping into the power that you have in your mind by the way that you think. It’s just a question of the quality of that self- talk. Is it constructive, helping you perform at the level you wish to perform, or is it destructive, taking you away from that?
You may be lessening your power by telling yourself how difficult it’s going to be, by reminding yourself of past difficulties with this particular task, or by projecting a past bad performance into the future. The challenge that I put out in The Confident Mind is does the quality of your thinking reflect the quality of the performance of the life that you want to have? Does it help you in the clutch and do you dare to change it?
Channeling confidence sounds so simple, but is it really?
It’s extremely simple, but it’s not necessarily easy because it goes against a lot of the things that we were taught and encouraged to think as kids and as adolescents and as impressionable young adults.
If you had a teacher who encouraged you to constantly reflect back on your previous successes and on the progress you were making, while at the same time encouraging you to think about wonderfully productive and fulfilling futures, you’re a very lucky person. A lot of us got the message that you’re going to have to work hard and maybe you’re not cut out for this.
We got the message that should be thinking a lot more about your mistakes and setbacks because that’s how you’ll get fired up to work harder. Yeah, that might fire you up a little bit, but it’s also going to create some smoke, some friction and some anger. You can fire yourself up much more readily and get much more energy by thinking about how far you’ve come, by thinking about the two or three things that you’ve got going for yourself right now, and by thinking about the kind of future that you want.
In your book, you talk about the importance of having a mental filter. What is that and why do we need it?
That filter is just our ability to take what creates energy and optimism and enthusiasm for our lives and bring that into our consciousness more of the time. So, if we think of confidence as the sense of certainty, which is the result of everything that we think about ourselves, if we think of that sense of certainty as being the result of a nice big fat reservoir of empowering thoughts, well then we kind of want to protect that reservoir. I call it the mental bank account.
We have to set up a filter that allows the thoughts and the memories of success and progress to get in, because that’s what’s going to build our mental bank account. That’s what’s going to build that reservoir of thoughts. That’s what’s going to allow us to feel certain about ourselves, when it’s time to step into the spotlight.
Does visualization play any role in your confidence? Should you visualize your desired outcome?
A lot of people tell you to visualize a desired future. I encourage that as well. I also encourage people to think about some of the difficulties that you might encounter on route to that desired future. What are some of the difficulties you might encounter in the upcoming game? Make sure that you visualize a proper response to each of those. In The Confident Mind, I call this the flat tire drill. You want to have practiced changing out a flat tire before you have to do it in the dark alone in the rain on some street that has no lighting. You want to have rehearsed your ability to fix that flat tire and get back on the road.
Similarly you want to rehearse some of the difficult situations you’re likely to encounter in a tryout or in a performance. You know, if you lose the first set of a two-out-of-three-set tennis match, what are you going to be telling yourself? How are you going to get back into a good state of mind? It’s one thing to envision yourself accepting the Olympic gold medal. But do you envision yourself successfully persevering through the required training? Do you envision yourself, you know, responding well, in the middle of a race, if you don’t get off to a good start? I think those kinds of things are very important.
Where does actual competence come in? Do you need to have both or is confidence enough?
If you can play the piano recital in the practice room, then you can probably play it in the concert hall. If you can’t play the piano in the practice room, it will take a bit of work to get yourself to that level of competence and belief.
There is a section in the book where I describe the person who has studied maybe 70 percent of the of the material for a midterm exam. She’s likely to do pretty well on that 70 percent as long as she has confidence in her ability to recall and deliver on demand. She probably won’t ace the exam, because she’s only really confident in a portion of it.
I’ve also seen people who have studied everything, and they’re really good in the study group the night before the exam, but standing outside the exam room for that five minutes before they go in, they’re telling themselves “Oh, I hope it doesn’t ask anything about chapter six or I’m not really sure about this.” They’re second guessing their own competence. So even though they’ve studied enough, they’re probably not going ace the exam either.
So, is it about thinking it so and it will be yours?
You’re going to have to work your tail off, but you want to be working your tail off, while reflecting on the progress that you’re making, rather than reflecting on how difficult it is, and reflecting too much on the setbacks that you are experiencing as you work and move forward. Again, it’s every sport, every profession, requires competence and confidence. We seem to be pretty good at working on the competence part. As a society, we’re not so good at the confidence element.
Does that mean you fake it until you make it?
I’m not real big on fake it till you make it. I’m much bigger on being genuine with yourself and really having a sense of trust in what you can do. But, you know, you might have to have a little bit of constructive delusion. I cited an example in the book of a car salesman who was absolutely convinced that everybody who walks into the showroom is going to buy a car on that day, and that’s how we should act. He’s not faking anything. He’s just acting with a sense of conviction. He’s completely delusional to think that everybody who walks into the store was going to buy on that day, the statistics bear that out, but he is going to act with that level of conviction. That I think is very valuable.
So that means to be mentally tough you have to practice?
Yes, to have this kind of confidence to have this kind of faith in yourself really takes practice. It’s not a one-time thing. You have to be willing to practice it, even in very difficult moments.
The story in the epilogue of the book that was given to me by a retired four star general, General Brown, was the necessity he felt and the successes he achieved in remaining confident and focused on the completion of his important missions, even after the worst day in his life. A day where a suicide bomber detonated his vest in a dining hall full of soldiers and members under his command died in that blast. But he had to go out that night. His unit had to go out that night and continue going out night after night after night to accomplish their missions. Confidence takes that kind of diligence, that kind of attention.
How much time do you need to work on developing confidence?
It’s not a matter of setting aside a certain number of minutes. It’s the way you think about yourself as you’re doing everything else. I do recommend a very short daily reflection. My daily ESP— efforts, success, progress. I also encourage an ongoing reflection. I just finished a meeting. What did I do well? Where did I get hung up? Now, I go to my next meeting. I finished that one. Okay. What was the best thing I did in that one? I encourage an ongoing reflection. So I don’t think of it necessarily in terms of time. I think of it in in terms of habits of thought.
Again, I go back to that to General Brown. He was 20 feet away from that suicide bomber when he detonated his vest. Fortunately, the suicide bomber was seated at a table so the table absorbed some of the blast. Had he stood up General Brown might be dead. But six of the 22 soldiers, six of the 22 casualties in that blast, were General Brown’s own soldiers. And he had to go out there and do it again. He had to stay confident in his mission, in his equipment, in his subordinate commanders. So it’s not a one-time thing, it’s an ongoing habit of thought that you cultivate.
So let’s say you’re tapped in. You’re feeling confident. Will you always feel that way or do you have to continually work at it?
You definitely have to continue to work at it because we are all imperfect human beings and we’re all living in an imperfect world, and there are going to be days when we make mistakes and our teammates make mistakes, and the ball bounces funny and the referee calls a very questionable penalty against our team at a key moment. We have to be able to go at it again and again and again. One of my favorite quotes actually came from a cadet who looking back on his experience finally realized as he put it that, “Achieving confidence was not a single victory. There was no decisive victory. It was an ongoing war of attrition.” The same with confidence, you never totally succeed, but you can completely lose it.
What about when you hit a plateau?
A lot of people give up because they can’t maintain that sense of I am making progress. I am getting better. Even though it’s not showing up in terms of the race times or in terms of their improvements in the gym with more weights lifted, even though you’re not seeing the results, the changes are taking place. And, at some point soon, those changes will reach a critical mass. And there’ll be a little bit of a breakthrough and it’s the patience that is needed to make it through those plateaus that is really huge.
That’s when people have got to be able to say “yep, I love the plateau because I know good things are happening, and even though it’s tough, I’m going to separate myself from everybody else and just tell myself that I love it.” If I love my sport, if I love my game if I love my career, I kind of got to love all of it. Even when it’s tough.
In your book you mention how people often misinterpret physiological signs such as butterflies and sweaty palms as negative reactions, but in truth they are actually meant to boost your performance. How so?
It’s the nature of the body to go into an elevated biochemical state when you’re about to do something that matters. We tend to think that when we feel the butterflies in our stomach or when the sweat appears on our palm that there must be something wrong with us. “I don’t feel normal, is what people tell me.” Well, of course you don’t feel normal. You’re about to do something that isn’t particularly normal. You’re going to take a midterm exam. You’re going to try to kick the game winning field goal in the Army Navy football game with 80,000 people watching you. That’s not very normal. It’s not like you’re filling your car up with gas.
You’re about to do something that matters. It’s different. So your body has this natural capability, this natural process, built in through 1,000s of years of evolution to help you in that moment. It’s going to make your heart beat a little faster. It’s going to make your muscles twitch a little better. It’s going to open up your eyes, so that you see and bring in more. Good performers learn to recognize that as a sign that yes, I am here, right where I want to be. One of the athletes that I quote in the book, Michael Johnson, 200- and 400-meter Olympic champion, has learned to describe and explain that sensation of heart pounding as something desirable because it’s there to make you better.
You work with a lot of high-achieving people: CEOs, athletes, and military personal. What about the regular guy who just wants to nail a PR in the marathon or kill that big presentation at work?
Whether it’s getting a girl or finishing the marathon, you are by definition an athlete. An athlete by definition is one who contends for a prize. Back in ancient Greece, in the Olympic Games, not only did you have wrestling and running and things like that but you also had poetry composition and elocution as Olympic events, and you won the same prize of laurel wreath for winning. The idea is you’re contending for a prize. Get the girl, get the guy, making a good living for your family, serving your customers well. If you’re contending for a price and by definition, you are an athlete, and anything that the ElI Mannings of the world do to get ready on Sunday can help you get ready so that you can put your best self forward in that social situation or in that nine-to-five job that you work.
What’s the simplest piece of advice you to have to offer for developing mental toughness?
When you think about your sport—which can mean your profession, your “game” whatever it might be—think about playing well and having a good time and having to season your dreams. If you don’t want to think about that stuff, don’t think about your sport. I mean, that’s that that’s probably as simple as it gets.
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