One of the entries to my contest on mythological characters spoke about conformity and individual expression. Here’s an excerpt from the comment:
The character is Tyler Durden, the protagonist of Fight Club. He is an anarchist who believes that society conditions us to abandon our dreams in favor of conformity. He builds a secret club where individuals express their repressed emotions by fighting each other violently. The club evolves into an army that aims to liberate society from its self-imposed shackles through extreme urban vandalism. Tyler is a man of many contradictions. He is a criminal fighting for mankind, a sociopath who wants to protect fundamental human values. He is a modern version of the superhuman ‘liberator of mankind’ common to ancient mythologies. It is ultimately revealed that Tyler is the alter ego of an ordinary office-going man, of whose existence the man himself is not consciously aware. This is where we encounter the paradox of individual expression in a conformist society – that we must become someone else in order to become who we truly are.
This got me thinking about a related topic: confidence.
Confidence as skill
The common perception of confidence is that it can be practiced, that it’s a skill you can master. When I was seventeen I got it into my head to ask a girl of my class out. The most common piece of advice I got from my more experienced friends was: ‘Be confident.’ Later, when we were applying for jobs and brushing up on interviewing skills, we were told that even with no experience, expertise or value to offer, we must come across as ‘confident’.
You want to impress people? Be confident.
You want to get good grades? Be confident.
You want to succeed in life? Be confident.
While in university, being confident was the panacea. It is hard to differentiate this brand of confidence from false bravado. Because how do you become truly confident of your abilities if they’re as yet untested? There are exercises in positive thinking that are recommended by psychologists, but they often ring hollow to me. While repetition and positive reinforcement can have a temporary uplifting effect, deep, long-lasting confidence can only come from sustained proven achievement.
To give you an example, I began to feel confident about my writing only after having finished seven book-length works and secured three publishing contracts. No amount of talking to myself gave me confidence before I wrote my first novel.
Here’s a video that I found on Youtube this morning.
Anyone else find the message in the video a tad too superficial? Granted, there is some good stuff in there about practice, but most of the speech is geared towards affirmation and positive thinking.
Confidence as consequence of deliberate thought
I’m more interested in a different kind of confidence, the kind that does not rely so much on false bravado as it does on courage and conviction: the courage to go against the herd, and the conviction that you’re right even though the majority disagrees with you. The crucial difference is that in this case, the courage doesn’t come from positive re-affirmation or repetition, but by a conscious, logical, reasonable examination of ourselves and our ideas.
For inspiration in this practice, I looked to perhaps the most famous among the ancient philosophers: Socrates.
Human beings are sheepish by nature, said Socrates. We like to be part of a herd. We like to follow our fellow men. One of our biggest fears is to be ostracized, to be left out. And in our thinking, we always look to someone big, famous or powerful to guide us; because we believe that they’ve ‘figured it out’, and that they ‘know better’.
Socrates said that we should all break free of our herding instincts and make a habit out of living an examined life. Only by thinking things through and arguing with oneself tirelessly, he said, we can hope to gain confidence – not just in our ideas, but in our characters and our identities.
In short, claim your right – and duty, and ability – to be a philosopher, and you will not need positive re-affirmation or empty self-talk to feel confident.
He gives us a five-step method to develop our philosophical sides and thereby become more confident and less sheepish
- Look around for ‘common-sense’ ideas. These are ideas that are accepted as ‘truths’ by the majority. (The best jobs are those that are highly paid. Happiness comes from being married or from having kids.)
- Try and find an exception to this.
- If you succeed in finding an exception, it means that the statement is either false or imprecise
- Make allowance for your exception in your statement.
- Repeat steps 1-4 as often as you can.
Here’s a video that speaks about this larger, deeper form of confidence.
What do you think?
In the age of social media when everyone is in a race for followers and likes and shares – you could argue this blog is no different – do you think we should all make a more concerted effort to test ideas and opinions? Do you think the information age has made it harder for us to take time out to question our assumptions? Is the ‘sheepish’ instinct being reinforced by modern social media? Or do you think there is enough individual expression out there?
In other words, are we becoming lazier to think?
Image Courtesy: Wisdom Times