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Chicken and Egg?

"He carried himself with so much more confidence the last couple of outings. The confidence factor is so important. He realized how good he is."

Bruce Bochy, manager of my beloved San Francisco Giants, was speaking about one of his veteran superstar pitchers and his recent struggles with command. I've been a baseball fan since childhood and what most fascinates me about it is the mental game. It's a game of strategy, psychology, and emotion even more than physical skill. Ballplayers, like all human beings, are vulnerable to all the vicissitudes and weaknesses of the human mind. But some players seem able to perform consistently well regardless of circumstances—and as Bochy says, one of the intangible qualities that makes a key difference is confidence.

One of the main themes of this blog has been that true confidence can be built only on a solid foundation of experience. As I gain experience, my knowledge, skills, and judgment improve, and as I observe the increasingly positive results of my actions, I naturally develop a legitimate confidence in myself.

But it's also true that I need a certain degree of confidence to gain that experience in the first place. I have to have some confidence in my ability to learn to fly before I get in the airplane for the first lesson—and I have to maintain that confidence through all the challenges that I encounter during training to be able to see it through.

So which comes first, confidence or experience?

To resolve this apparent paradox I think it's important to distinguish between different kinds of confidence. It might not always be appropriate for me to have confidence in my ability, especially if I have very little experience or I've been away from flying for a long time. But regardless of my level of experience or current skills, I can still have confidence in my capacity—the faith that I can develop the abilities on which a robust confidence is based.

How can I find this confidence in my capacity? The best way is to look to past life experience for examples of similar challenges that I've faced and overcome. Reflecting on past success is a great way to muster the courage to take the actions necessary to succeed in the present.

There are times, however, when I might find myself deep in an existential crisis—when none of my past experience seems worthwhile or relevant, and the prospect of success seems like a pipe dream. This kind of funk can settle in at any stage of a flying career, but it's especially likely during the early stages of training, when mistakes are most frequent and dramatic. What then?

The most powerful response I know is to remind myself that no one can predict the future. When I truly accept the fact that I can't know in advance whether I'll succeed, the safest and best thing I can do is to assume I can—and act accordingly.

The key word here is "act," and this is where the observe-act-observe cycle really pays off. Rather than worrying or obsessing about outcomes I can't control, I can instead just focus my attention on the tasks at hand, respond to what I observe, and let go the impulse to take my results personally.

In fact, ultimately, I think it's possible to transcend the need for confidence entirely. Like the best baseball pitchers, I can learn to just pay attention, take a deep breath, and throw the next pitch—no matter what's happening or what I'm feeling or thinking.

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