How Confidence Works

Dogs are great people trainers.

Those of you that have dogs know this already, but my girlfriend and I have been learning it over the past few weeks with a new Whippet/Lab mix. It’s amazing.

A dog will try to exert dominance over you again and again. If you don’t react appropriately, the dog realizes it has power over you. It doesn’t respect your authority because it’s getting mixed messages. The dog wins.

People are also great people trainers. They teach you how to treat them. They test you to see how you react, often without even knowing it.

I have a great story about a girl I know whose boyfriend had cancelled on her one night. She didn’t know what to do, so I suggested she call and say in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t acceptable.

She did this. He showed up with flowers.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine kids are great people trainers too. If they whine and get a sugary treat to shut them up, they will detect a pattern and act on it. We teach them to do this. Am I right?

Confidence is a circular pattern. It will reinforce itself in either direction, heading either towards zero or infinity, until it is regulated by an outside force. Whatever outside force stops it is an outpost of dominance, a kind of flag that says “beyond this point, you shall not pass.”

These flags eventually start feeling like walls, and these walls impact what decisions you make about your life.

Maybe this is the reason you stopped playing guitar, or stopped working out. This may be why you haven’t quit your job, I don’t know. But the reality is that these markers of confidence are just as fluid as the relationship you have with your dog. They are fluid. They can be changed.

We act as if our life right now is the way our life is supposed to be, but you could just as easily be a CEO as you could be a janitor or homeless… or dead. But you happen to be alive, and you happen to gave a fair amount of freedom in your life.

Maybe it’s time you exerted it.






19 responses to “How Confidence Works”

  1. Dave Delaney Avatar

    I often get surprised looks when I tell people how Heather and I met. We were living out of backpacks in Galway, Ireland.

    Who knew that years later we would be married, have kids and be living in Nashville, TN.

    My point is that, were it not for saying ‘screw it’ and moving to Europe, I never would have met the love of my life. Sorry for the fromage!

    When I tell people about our adventures living and traveling abroad, they say how they wish they had done that.

    I always tell them to DO IT.

    I love the quote: “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one fills up first”.

  2. Whitney Avatar

    Absolutely agree 100%. It’s basic behaviorism and it works with people as well- there was a great article about this a few years ago in the NY Times- What Shamu taught me about a happy marriage :

    Having two kids, I can tell you it can be like a pack with hierarchies and change and push back and the like. And frankly, if you don’t teach people how to treat you or draw lines in your life about what is okay and what’s not, you are teaching yourself to settle for whatever you get. That doesn’t give you a license to bulldoze anyone, but it does mean you need to have a backbone to make sure you don’t get bulldozed by others and can stake your claim to what you want and need.
    Self esteem is ultimately about feeling your own worth, and knowing what’s okay with you and what’s not- when to confront, when to give, when to compromise, when to push- it’s a dance we all learn with each of our friends, significant others and more. Heck, I’m still figuring out where all my boundaries are with my folks sometimes- it never ends.

  3. Marjorie Avatar

    What a nice post, Julien. And congrats on the new puppy! I’m jealous.

    Confidence is certainly a touchy subject these days. If a person acts out it’s because they have low self-esteem. If a person exudes confidence, they attract name-calling and are called egotistical. I’d like to think there’s room in between, a sort of “humble pie with cherries on top” sort of thing.

    I wonder how your friend’s action was perceived by her boyfriend. He brought her flowers, but what did he tell his guy friends in the meantime?

    Interesting stuff!

  4. Nancy Deschênes Avatar
    Nancy Deschênes

    I definitely agree with what you said, and yes, kids are people-trainer too… are they ever!

    When it comes to teaching others how to treat us, tho, I think the hard part is in first being proactive (as opposed to reactive) about it. If you want until you can’t stand the screaming kid, you’ll use a solution that will work quickly, focusing on the immediate result; you’ll give them that piece of candy. If you act before you can’t stand it, even if it means stopping something else you think is important, then you can choose a behavior or action that has more impact in the long run. It could be a timeout, negotiation, etc.

    The same applies in personal or professional relationships too. If you wait until you can’t stand it anymore and act rashly, you probably wont get great results. For example, if your friend got herself all worked up and screamed at him, she probably would not have received the same result. Or maybe she would have in the short term but not the long term.

    If you are too reactive, your confidence comes from others – not only from how they perceive you, but how you think they perceive you. If you’re proactive, you have more occasions to base your assessment on what *you* think of yourself, and you can better challenge your ideas of how others perceive you.

    Thank you for the food for thought.

  5. @TheGirlPie Avatar

    Hot damn! Succinct, true, inspiring without being insipid — swell post. I just wish your points were better taught at the earliest ages. I was lucky to grow up with the freedom to exert my confidence (seen as a right) that my life is mine to shape, and am always surprised that not everyone lives this…

    But your examples of training, which I thoroughly understand & apply, somehow hit home in a deeper way tonight… it hit a part of my world that I keep separate from “my life”… hmmm… oh great, now I’m going to have to read up on how to retrain decades of a certain “dog’s” behavior I have been complicit in teaching by accepting it…

    Ugh, doesn’t this enlightenment stuff ever let up?! I’m exhausted by your good works~! Thanks.

    Rock on,

  6. Amanda Avatar

    Damn, this is the kind of post that cuts through it. Funny how we refuse to see things that are right there for us to get. Use. Benefit from.

  7. Jeff Maystruck Avatar

    Very interesting insight into how we are trained by kids, dogs and other adults. You can see in any social setting who dominates the table/room/conversation, I like to look deeper into these moments and determine what it is that makes people stand out and I think you hit the nail on the head, it’s confidence. Wow very cool post Julien, you may have spark a blog post out of me here…..

    Cheers! It’s Friday, go enjoy yourself!


  8. Kneale Mann Avatar

    Brilliant. The end.

  9. Dave Sohnchen Avatar

    Actually hearing someone say that the confidence flags can be moved brings into focus the ones that have been put in place. I’m determined to move my own although it’s going to require the help of others. I think it would be a great thing if we were more conscious of each other’s confidence walls and actually helped move them. How much more could be accomplished if we worked together spurring each other on to brilliance.

    Another great post.

  10. Rumio Avatar

    There is a saying in Persian: “Kill the cat on day 1.” This reply may get long but let me explain it. There was a king. He had a very spoiled daughter. She would divorce within a week of getting married to anyone. King was frustrated. A soldier said I’d marry her. King married her daughter to him and they lived happily for more than a year. A friend of that soldier got anxious about the secret of their happy marriage. He asked him. He said very simple. I had a pet cat. She came to me on my wedding night. I killed it with my sword saying don’t disturb me. Everything went okay for me after that night.

    His friend said wow. The other day he came to the soldier weeping; my wife kicked me out of our home. How come? I killed the cat but my wife beat me and kicked me out. There must be something wrong with what you said. Then the soldier said: Kill the cat on day 1…

    Moral: Fix your flags on day 1 and keep them fixed otherwise… BTW My apologies to all animal rights activists. I’ve killed none and won’t ever kill my cat. Thanks for an excellent post Julien.

  11. […] Emotional competence is not being stopped by your own flags. […]

  12. Jessica Avatar

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear today.

    Dogs really are the solution to everything.

  13. Michael Ray Hopkin Avatar

    Horses are a lot like dogs too; they’re very smart and they know when you’re scared. I learned as a boy that if a horse thinks you’re the least bit scared he’ll do whatever he wants, and you are subject to his whims until someone comes to the rescue. Once you learn a how to handle a horse and gain confidence, amazing things start to happen. You can make him go where you want him to go and do what you want him to do. He senses your confidence.

    The same is generally true with human relationships. If you show weakness or timidity people will walk all over you. If you show confidence people will show respect and listen to what you have to say. Treat ‘confidence’ as a verb — something you do, something you are — and amazing things will start to happen. Thanks for the thought-provoking post Julien.


  14. […] comes from pushing, not from planning. Confidence comes from scars and risk, not from […]

  15. […] a complex series of if-then conditions that tell a child what can be done, and what can’t, creating flags that are used later to navigate the […]

  16. […] your behaviour is. You’ll be a more natural you if you aren’t afraid, if you’re confident. They say carrying a gun is a great way to feel strong; well, making good money helps that […]

  17. […] want to give attention to the same way we reward positive behaviours and discourage negative ones in dogs. We don’t let them “express their personality” if that means they’ll bite […]

  18. […] at where your system is guiding you. Your preferences (pasta, Froot Loops, whatever) are often just patterns, and they can be broken if you put something else there. Like Plinko– the ball goes where […]

  19. […] comes from pushing, not from planning. Confidence comes from scars and risk, not from indecision.” […]

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