On Confidence, Arrogance and Humility

~ may you fly free in your heart with confidence and joy ~
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I played an audition last week. For a gig that would really smooth over some bumps in our financial stability, at a big (actually I am told it’s the biggest theatre stage in the world!) and ultra-professional stage show. In all honesty it is artistically not my highest goal in life, but there are not so many solid jobs left for musicians and it’s an opportunity I’m not in a position to blow off.

However, that’s really not what this is about. What’s it about then? In a word, confidence.

It’s been a while since I did one of these auditions and I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it. I should clarify that I rarely ever get any kind of stage fright when actually performing; after thousands of times in front of audiences ranging from rather small to very big indeed, I generally don’t let that particular breed of anxiety get the better of me.

Auditions, however (and exams, though they are likely a thing of the past for me now) have always been a different story. They have always brought out the worst in me, all the self-judgment and second-guessing that this blog is all about transcending. In performance, the feeling that everyone is picking apart your work looking for flaws is largely imaginary; in an audition, it’s entirely real – in fact it’s the whole point. And it’s been an Achilles heel for me as long as I can remember.

This time was different: I found myself with an unexpected feeling of confidence, and I’m interested in uncovering where it might have come from. Let’s break it down.

A Loaded Word

Many people, and I certainly count myself among them, have an awkward relationship with confidence. It’s uncomfortably close to arrogance, which is unattractive, and perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to make the distinction clear. So we stick to the non-threatening safety of self-effacement. That’s always been my policy, anyway, though I’m beginning to seriously question it.

So it was quite a surprise to find myself in the audition room feeling calm, relaxed, self-possessed… and playing about as well as I ever have onstage.

Why was I confident about this audition? Two reasons. First, I prepared. A lot. Although I’m not someone who maintains a serious lifelong practice regimen, much as I’d like to, I still remember what the 6-hour trance-state practice sessions in university were all about, and how to bring that energy to bear when I need to. I put in the hours and had the material in muscle memory.

Second, because I have worked on a world-class show before, and I know I can do it. Which means: I wasn’t trying to fool anyone. I was just showing what I can do, which I know is good enough for the job. I know what I am not, I am well aware of the many things in life I am not good at, but I also recognize that there are a few that I am, and they happen to be the exact things this job requires.

Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

I think this is one of the reasons situations like this so often bring out our worst anxieties. I call it the Phony Syndrome. It is the constant feeling that any minute, someone is going to come up and tap us on the shoulder, point and laugh in our faces and say, “you actually thought you were fooling us? That’s hilarious!”

Meaning: we think, somewhere in ourselves, that we’re not really ‘good enough’ at all and that eventually, our carefully-constructed facade will crack and the world will notice – and never stop laughing.

I should clarify that I don’t actually think most of us really believe this in our core; certainly I don’t. I suppose that, tragically, there are those that really do, but I suspect they are rare. Most of us, in our heart of hearts, think we’re OK, and we know we’re reasonably good at one or two things in life. If only we could channel that into action more of the time!

However, there is a part of us, the ‘Lizard Brain’ as Seth Godin (and others) have called it, that is very good at putting the poisonous pill of self-doubt into whatever good thing we might be cooking up, if we don’t keep a very close eye on it.

I think it is this irrational, self-destructive voice of doubt that cripples us in moments where we have an opportunity to show what we can do. It tells us we’re out of our depth, even if we’re actually not. It tells us not to risk showing our best, so that if we’re disappointed we can make excuses. This is crazy talk, but it’s the kind of crazy talk that dominates our inner lives for far too much of the time, especially when the pressure is on to perform.

Words and Meaning

So what is confidence? Perhaps just the ability to tune this voice out when it’s obviously feeding us a line – which, as it turns out, is a lot of the time. When is it ever, honestly, better to hold back on giving your best? Even if my best is not ‘good enough’, is it not better to own it and lay it on the line? I can go back and work on making it better later on. For now, this is what it I’ve got, and I’m going to give it with pride. That’s confidence.

OK, then, what is arrogance? Is it just tuning this voice out all of the time, even when it might have a good point? No, I don’t think that’s it, and I don’t actually think that the Phony Syndrome ever really has anything constructive to offer us.

Arrogance is overcompensation for insecurity. Arrogance is bluster, covering up weakness with a glossy veneer of self-satisfaction. It rarely fools the practiced eye (or ear) for long. It’s really not the same thing as confidence at all, and I actually think most people are quite good at telling the difference.

If so, then I propose that the benefits of cultivating true confidence far outweigh the risks that people might mistake it for arrogance – assuming we keep the distinction clear ourselves, and stay on the right side of it. Hint: if you’re focused on giving the best of yourself, you’re probably on the right track; if you’re trying to figure out what you think people want to hear so you can game the system, you’re very likely not.

If you really do believe in your heart of hearts you’re not ready for whatever it is you’re going for, you probably shouldn’t be there – but most of the time, there’s more in the tank than we think and landing a gig that’s ‘out of our league’ might just be the thing that brings out greatness we’ve been hiding from ourselves.

Humble Pie

I’ve left the sensitive issue of Humility to the end because I have mixed feelings about it. I grew up with a strong cultural / ethical bias towards humility, and I believe there is something valuable in it. Certainly I find it more attractive than arrogance, particularly in the case of a person whose work or abilities or ideas I am already compelled by.

But I also see many truly talented and capable people failing to achieve their goals or get the attention they deserve because they are too humble, too afraid of seeming arrogant. Another variation is False Humility – someone who makes too much of their self-effacement, wears it on their sleeve, draws attention to it… and we are left with the impression that, in Queen Gertrude’s memorable phrase, they “protest too much”.

I think, in the end, there is a very fine balance to be struck here, a kind of ‘sweet spot’ between Confidence and Humility – not the veneer of False Humility masking the ugliness of Arrogance, and not the debilitating sabotage of self-deprecation. A gentle and sincere sense of humility is what can keep the strength and security of confidence from veering into the Arrogant zone. That’s what I’m going for anyway.

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What about you? Where’s your ‘sweet spot’? How do you maintain balance between these extremes? Leave your thoughts in the comments area below!