Lately I’ve been getting very interested in the lives and mentalities of today’s most successful business owners, entrepreneurs, and creatives. I guess I’ve been drawn into a prototyping mentality - the idea that people have certainly done what I’m doing, have done it better, and have a wealth of experience that I can learn from. The end result is that I make less mistakes, avoid some of the pitfalls that they fell into, and accelerate quicker on my own path.
I was listening to a speech by Bo Eason, an ex NFL player and now successful motivational speaker, and he spoke a bit about the struggles he had with wanting to be the absolute best at what he did. That may not sound like a struggle, but it was more about what it did to his mentality and how he interacted with other people. It got me thinking.
There exists this state that sits firmly in between arrogance and excellence that I feel like I’ve been tiptoeing around in for a lot of my life. In work environments and social circles, I’ve had supervisors accuse me of arrogance or condescension. I had one boss in the Air Force, who was probably the worst manager I’ve ever had in my life, specifically go out of her way to knock people down a peg (and gossip about it with other airmen afterwards - she was a real superstar).
I’m not saying folks have always been wrong. I’m not saying there weren’t times where I put too much swagger in an underdeveloped idea, or lacked the empathy to present myself in a way that was considerate to others. It’s a personal weakness of mine, and something I’ve been struggling with for my whole life. But I also think it’s something that’s grossly misinterpreted, to the detriment of anyone who wants to exude one of the most powerful, alluring, and dangerous aspects of personality there is: confidence.
That fickle ally: confidence. People constantly say that’s what make someone attractive over anything else. It’s what star athletes say liberates them on the field of competition. But too much of it - or just a little of it for the wrong reason - and the contempt is quick in coming from all around you.
That’s why I think it’s extremely important to try and occupy a duality that’s actually sort of looked down upon in many respects, especially in politics (god forbid someone changes their mind when they get new information! Be loyal to your ignorance or we won’t vote for you! I digress).
I like to have “strong opinions, loosely held.” I love that phrase. I first heard it on a Tim Ferriss podcast, in which he was interviewing a prominent - and brilliant - Silicon Valley venture capitalist and technology buff. The phrase gives shape to the amorphous philosophy I’ve been developing since high school that kind of started with the way I approached music. When I was not playing, I always considered myself a student. There was always something I could do better. When that instrument started making noise in a performance, however, I was the greatest player in the world. Those times when I let one of those two attitudes slip into the wrong situation is where I got in trouble. Either my playing was flat and boring, or I reached a plateau and couldn’t get any better.
A fantastic quote by one of my favorite composers, Frederic Chopin, was delivered to one of his students. He warned:
“I see that timidity and lack of self-confidence form a kind of armor around you, but through this armor I perceive something else that you don’t always dare to express, and so you deprive us all.”
Going back to where we started regarding success stories, there’s a common thread of advice I keep hearing from all of the most successful people in the world. If you’re scared of being confident, of pursuing excellence, because there is pressure all around you to remain mediocre, then you need to change your environment. Immediately. Always remember that you are the average of the five people you hang around with most; if they are making you guilty of your own strengths, then you’ve gone as far as you can go until you swap those folks out for someone who genuinely thinks you have the capacity to be the best in the world at what you do.
Bottom line? Being able to approach people confidently, to approach your work or your hobbies or whatever without timidity making you second-guess yourself, allows you to perform like you are actually preparedto perform. Being able to let go of that confidence and learn, communicate, and improve is just as essential. Saying to yourself “I am absolutely doing this right, until I learn that I am doing this wrong” is, in my strong opinion, the way to excellence. But, of course, if you have another way to look at it, I’m open.