Dr Nate Zinsser, a top US army psychologist renowned for helping lieutenants and officers build their confidence, is giving me a talking-to. We’ve been discussing highly disciplined writers who sit at their desks at 9am each day, no matter the circumstances, and assertively punch out stories. “I definitely don’t do that,” I say, remarking that I envy their confidence to sit and deliver. An aggressive perfectionist streak combined with niggling impostor syndrome insecurities mean I need conditions to be just-so in order to have faith that I’ll produce anything decent. Zinsser blanches.
“The statement ‘I don’t do that’ is a decision you’re making about yourself,” he says, speaking over video call from his office at the US Military Academy in upstate New York; behind him there’s a whiteboard, ornamental Japanese swords and photos of athletes he’s counselled, including the Olympic-medal-winning US men’s bobsled team. “A constructive shift in your thinking would be the idea that, ‘Whether or not I got the right amount of sleep the night before or had a good breakfast, once 9 o’clock strikes, I am at my desk, lights on, ready to go – and I’m producing good stuff,’” he says. “That’s a belief about yourself that you can de-li-be-rate-ly cultivate,” he adds, stretching out each syllable in “deliberately” so there can be no question that in this matter, as in all self-confidence-related issues, change lies with me.
Delivered with a gentle assuredness, rather than barked across the screen, it’s not the tone you might expect from a man who for 27 years has directed the academy’s performance psychology programme. Indeed, the only thing about him that screams “army” is his black jacket, which has the word emblazoned in capitals across its front. With his snow-white beard and softly yawning New Jersey twang, the 67-year-old has a calm, almost paternalistic presence. His brand of optimism is far more reserved than the full-throttle enthusiasm often associated with self-help gurus. “We don’t live in a world of sunshine and lollipops,” as he puts it. “We live in a real world of deadlines, sweat, blisters and muscle fatigue, and we have to look at what is a constructive way to think in those situations.”
In addition to his army duties, in his private practice Zinsser has worked with a glittering roster of clients, including neurosurgeons, congressional candidates, ballerinas, writers and star athletes, such as two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning. Whether their arena is the surgical table or the running track, they come to him for gamechanging advice on how to dispel those pesky naysaying voices in their head so that they can deliver knockout performances under pressure. And now he’s distilled his knowledge into a book, The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance.
I’m hoping to glean some tips from the famed confidence-whisperer. While hardly a quivering mess, I do have a habit of second-guessing myself in parts of my professional – and social – life. And the thought of public speaking sends me into a cold sweat. The chance to smooth out the chinks in my self-belief armour and come away with a quarterback’s swagger is tempting to say the least.
But is it realistic? We tend to view confidence as a magical elixir that’s only available to Olympic sprinters, CEOs and other creatures blessed with rare talent, puffed-out chests and Colgate-white teeth (plus, the odd blustering buffoon). For most of us, being an adult means having a PhD in our multitude of shortcomings, foibles and crippling insecurities. And while I can improve my fitness with a Peloton, and my inner calm with meditation, surely I can’t just learn how to think highly of myself, can I? How to be unflappable under pressure? How to believe – with a surety that overrides any lingering doubts – that I can be good at anything?
In his poised, methodical way, Zinsser is here to tell me that, if I doggedly commit to altering the story I tell myself about myself, then yes: yes I can.
First, some housekeeping: Zinsser wants to straighten out some common misconceptions around confidence – starting with how we define it. Although we tend to think of it as a sense of belief in one’s own ability, he finds this unhelpful because it neglects a crucial fact: we are hardwired to perform skills unconsciously. When we’re in the zone – whether during a tennis match, maths exam or violin concerto – we’re not critically assessing each movement but operating in a free-flowing state. “If you’re hung up with the mechanics, and trying to think about what you’re doing as you’re doing it, you access a whole lot of neural pathways that tie you up,” he says. He defines confidence, then, as having “the sense of certainty about your ability that allows you to do something without thinking about it: that allows you to execute more or less unconsciously.”
Being in this state makes success possible, not guaranteed. It won’t conceal a lack of ability, but it will enable you to go into a performance thinking: “I’ve got this money in my wallet and now I can spend it – let’s see if I’ve got enough,” he says. Without confidence, we’ll never know how good – how talented, how skilled – an individual really is.
Zinsser doesn’t particularly see confidence as a product of genetics. Nor is it necessarily linked to competence. Sure, we idolise superstar athletes whose talent and bravado seem to go hand-in-hand, but he comes across just as many gifted people lacking self-belief. “The unfortunate fact I have seen is that our actual competence is higher than our degree of confidence in it,” he says, speaking about the population generally. “It’s the conclusion you draw about yourself from experiences of success [that breeds confidence],” he says. “Unless you make those conclusions, the actual success that you have might not do you any good.”
He believes confidence is cultivated during childhood – “how you were encouraged as a young person to think about yourself” – and cites as an example King Richard, the recent biopic showing Richard Williams constantly telling his daughters Serena and Venus that they were destined to become the world’s best tennis players.
Can anyone become more confident or is it only attainable for certain individuals? He pauses for a few beats, chewing over his words. “I think it’s quite possible for anyone to develop a greater sense of certainty,” he says, eventually. “Some people might have to overcome more baggage from their past than others, but I’m quite a believer in that kind of human potential.”
In any event, there’s no such thing as “a confident person”; it’s more that you’re confident in a particular skill or situation (and even within a skill, you’ll feel better about some things than others). Case in point: Eli Manning. The former NFL superstar, who twice led the New York Giants to Super Bowl triumphs, “was very confident in his ability to throw certain balls and reach certain defences, but he did not like to stand up and talk in front of a crowd,” says Zinsser. “I’m convinced that’s the case for all of us: I don’t think there’s anybody who’s confident across the board.”
“Have you ever produced good work in suboptimal conditions?” asks Zinsser rhetorically. We’re back to helping me forge a bulletproof writing mindset. “I would think so,” he continues, “otherwise, you wouldn’t be in the job you’re in. So what you need to be reinforcing, a story that you need to tell yourself about yourself, is: ‘I work well, despite distractions. I work well, in almost any condition. My editor can count on me to deliver quality work, even when things are chaotic around me.’”
This rather simple reframing of how I view myself feels pretty significant. And I put it into immediate practice: in a meta situation, I’m writing this article from a cramped plane seat en route to Australia, a series of pre-flight texts from my editor demanding reassurance that I will be able to deliver words by the deadline still warming my phone. With each blood-curdling wail from a baby in a nearby bassinet, I repeat my new mantra about myself with an increasingly feverish vigour.
Yet there’s much more to be done. Zinsser likens confidence to a mental “bank account” that we must constantly top up with valuable deposits. That includes mining our memories for instances of when we have done things well. After each training session, or day at work, we should devote about five minutes to reflecting on things we have accomplished and committing them to our “internal hard drive”. No victory is too small for inclusion. (He also notes that it’s worth spending time looking ahead and envisioning, in realistic HD-film quality, the dreams you most desire.)
This can apply to whatever knee-knocking situation is keeping you up. Plagued with impostor-syndrome thoughts of not being qualified to do your job? “I’d tell you to give me the whole of your résumé,” says Zinsser. “We’re so good at overlooking the skills that we have cultivated, the effort that we have put in to develop ourselves to the point where we are indeed employable and competent. Look for some of the reasons that you are indeed the genuine person for the job.”
His book contains countless tactics for keeping that bank account fat by recasting how you think about your missteps. Some are sourced from Martin Seligman, the father of “positive psychology”. These acknowledge that you will have negative thoughts and will make mistakes, but you can effectively see them off by viewing them as “temporary (“It’s just this one time”), limited (“It’s just in this one place”) and non-representative (“that’s not the truth about me”). There are physical techniques, too: keeping your shoulders slightly back and eyes straight ahead will improve your posture, while focusing on breathing during a performance can be a powerful way to bring a feeling of control and yank you into the present moment. (Note that none of these require you to obnoxiously strut about like The Wolf of Wall Street.)
The most extreme example of selective thinking, the “shooter’s mentality” pursued by Golden State Warriors basketballer Stephen Curry, involves treating missed shots as temporary and as an omen that you’re about to experience a return to fortune (“I’m bound to make the next one”), while viewing successes as permanent (“Now I’m on a roll”).
One nagging thought I had while reading these passages: building confidence often requires you to ignore logic. This took me back to the late 2000s when, as a tennis-obsessed teen who travelled around Australia competing in tournaments, my on-court confidence was fragile at best. If my warmup went badly, I was convinced the whole match would be a disaster. And I couldn’t get my head into the game if I had assessed, pre-encounter, that my opponent was better than me – smoother technique, bigger shots, flashy overseas academy training. In those instances, I was defeated before the match started. As often happens when we enter a situation devoid of confidence, it became a self-fulling prophecy.
If someone had told me about the shooter’s mentality, which Zinsser calls a “thermonuclear psychological weapon”, I would’ve said: “Great, but how am I actually meant to believe these things?” To cast aside all reason and buy into a fantasyland where errors lead to success and success also leads to success?
If I’m being honest it sounds slightly delusional, I tell Zinsser now.
It is, he replies. But the way to wholeheartedly believe in it is to practise it, repeating these mantras, memories and mental tricks until the story they tell becomes “your dominant way of thinking about yourself in that context”, he says. “It’s got to become your dominant habit of thinking about yourself – just like you brush your teeth every morning and night – if you want it to materialise in a challenging atmosphere. You can’t just turn it on. It has to be already in you.” He can’t say how long this could take: for some clients it’s happened after only a few sessions, while for others it has taken six months of conscientious observance before it became endemic to their thinking.
In case confidence wasn’t slippery enough, once you have gained it, the struggle continues. “We’re all imperfect beings and, no matter how many times you practise that second serve, occasionally you’re going to mess it up,” says Zinsser. Confidence is more delicate than a handblown vase. Acquiring some of it “doesn’t mean you’re going to have it for ever. It can easily be knocked down. You’re going to have to wake up again tomorrow and rebuild it.”
Talk of confidence has been around for as long as humans have been going into battle. Zinsser’s book opens with a quote from the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu who, in his fifth-century BC treatise The Art of War, declared: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
Yet now, perhaps more than ever, individuals need to embrace self-assured thinking. Modern society is, at best, “very ambivalent” about confidence and is not about to puff us up, says Zinsser. Growing up, we’re taught that a soupçon of it is good; any more and we risk becoming smug or arrogant and therefore unlikable. Zinsser believes the biggest hurdle to striving for greater confidence is “the misguided impression that if I become certain about myself, I will somehow become lazy and complacent and I will lose my fire and motivation to improve,” he says. “Boy, is that a big misconception.”
As part of our education and socialisation, we’re taught to focus on fixing imperfections and mistakes, marking every facet of our lives with red pens. “There is a curious tendency in our modern world to over-identify with our shortcomings and even define ourselves by our mistakes, presumed limitations, and all the things we can’t yet do,” writes Zinsser. While he admits that there’s a time for being a harsh critic, “there’s also just as much value in being one’s best friend”.
Social media hasn’t helped the cause. “The 24/7, nonstop barrage of messages are always putting these somewhat false images in front of us: ‘Look at me, at this place, enjoying this wonderful day and this fabulous drink,” he says. “It tends to make us think, ‘Well, gee, I’m not in a beautiful location with a beautiful someone enjoying a beautiful drink. What’s wrong with me?’”
Are we less confident than previous generations? There’s another long, reflective pause from Zinsser. In the 1950s and 1960s, he says, “There was a whole generation or two of folks who really grew up believing, ‘Things can be better, I can have a great life, I can succeed. Today, with the generation that’s grown up online, I’m not sure there’s the same general level of optimism,” he says. “My sense is that maybe we’re not quite as confident and optimistic now.”
All the more reason to get to work on that movie about your life in which you’re the charming protagonist who completes everything – real feats from your past and wishlist goals alike – at a remarkable level. It takes dedication to stream this flick in your mind each night, sure, but it makes all that other hard work you’ve done – the backhand drills, the weekend reading, the university degrees, the blood and sweat – worthwhile by putting your head in the game come crunch time.
Zinsser calls it the cherry on top. “It’s the decision to say: ‘I’ve done the work. I know what I know. I’m going to deliver now. I am enough.’”
The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance by Dr Nate Zinsser is published on 27 January by Cornerstone Press at £14.99. Buy it for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com