Playing the confidence game: win, lose or show

Story highlights

  • Confidence comes from facing challenges that contain a genuine risk of failure
  • Some may equate confidence with accomplishment, it's no guarantee of future success

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

(CNN)What undoubtedly galls Donald Trump's Republican competitors is that he is resonating with voters in drastic disproportion to his legislative experience.

His candor -- rivaled only by the fictional political candidate played by Warren Beatty in the 1998 film "Bulworth" -- is often cited as the secret sauce of his appeal. But I believe the attraction is largely that Trump is a confidence man.
Con men don't hawk anything real or tangible, and yet Trump is selling something in greater demand during a political season: Teflon-coated self-assurance. When it comes to choosing our leaders, Americans prefer confidence over a lot of other virtues.
    Does Trump's "just trust me" bravado mask his shortcomings? Or is it proof that he doesn't have them? I think the answer is that genuine confidence is earned by going 10 rounds with potential failure and then knocking it to the canvas. And Trump thinks he's done just that.
    The millionaire candidate may have, as historian Alan Brinkley put it, "no belief system other than the certainty that anything he says is right," but clearly that has appeal. Regardless of what you think of Trump, you can see how confidence is an advantageous life skill worth cultivating. The question is: What kind of soil does it grow in?
    I attended a course last year on "How to be Confident," at the School of Life bookstore and classroom in London, started by writer-philosopher Alain de Botton. Paying for the seminar recalled for me the time a friend recommended a children's video series that "teaches life lessons." I thought life was for teaching life lessons, right?
    "How to be Confident" led with a definition by the psychologist Albert Bandura, who prefers the term "self-efficacy": belief that one's skills and knowledge in various situations will lead to achieving particular goals. There's also a level of optimism inherent in that definition, a Little Engine That Could puffing "I think I can, I think I can" as it trudges up the mountain.
    More salon than TED Talk, the course gave some overview and had us share answers to questions about our own relationship with confidence. It mainly focused on giving advice about ways to instill confidence in yourself: Challenge your objections. Identify small steps. Find allies. "Do it anyway."
    Confidence is not something we're born with, argued the moderator, but something you learn. But learn how? If you wanted to instill confidence in yourself, or in a friend, employee or your own child, what would you do?
    There are books, studies and seminars, such as at the School of Life, that try to work out the formula for building confidence, much to no avail, I suspect. The answer is that it largely boils down to facing challenges that contain a genuine risk of failure (even if you manufacture these challenges yourself, such as "run a marathon" or "run for president"). Confidence can't be erected on a feeble foundation of easy victories and low stakes.
    Of course, genuine risk of failure can lead to actual failure, and then to a general lack of confidence. But if someone succeeds, even after a series of short-run losses, confidence is often a natural byproduct. It's a virtue that must feel won.
    Confidence is also about the story we tell ourselves, about ourselves. You can be the person to whom bad things happened. Or you can be the person who overcame whatever was thrown your way.
    During one of the discussion periods at the seminar, I shared that I believed my own self-confidence was rooted in an independent childhood and overcoming challenges from a young age. When someone responded by categorizing my confidence as "blind faith" in myself, I took exception. For me, it's not faith, it's earned. Faith implies a belief without evidence, but the genuinely confident can readily cite their evidence.
    I imagine Donald Trump would agree. His confidence is not armor he straps on to shield a deep insecurity; it's core to the story he believes about himself.
    That doesn't mean confidence is always good for us, however. It actually holds a tenuous position on the virtue trophy shelf. It's one of those qualities for which an abundance (overconfidence, cockiness) is considered a personal shortcoming, especially if it feels false or unearned. Further complicating is that one of its opposites, humility, is also a virtue (though an even deeper deficit of confidence -- timidity -- brings you back to the land of shortcomings).
    And while some may equate confidence with accomplishment, it's no guarantee of future success. Such hubris may even lead to mistakes a more humble or realistic personality would have avoided.
    It's this virtue-vice duality that makes Donald Trump's campaign intriguing. He's the central character in a Shakespearean history (or comedy, or tragedy), on the threshold of being consumed, or crowned, by his own character traits. He's walking a razor's edge of confident bluster. He's nearing the sun that may melt his wax-held wings.
    He will either soar into the general election on rising currents of confidence, or plummet back to the floor of his penthouse. Either way, it makes for good theater.