Confidence or Delusion?

Confidence grounded in fantasy rather than reality will set you up for a punch in the face… or something worse.


We are not born with confidence; we earn it from the experiences we have in life. Real confidence comes from having a history of success in any given thing. False confidence, on the other hand, can be likened to a form of ‘wishful thinking’. One becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; the other can lead to disaster. We must learn to distinguish between the two.

How do we develop confidence of the good variety? Firstly, as I mentioned, this comes from life experience. I have noticed over the years that well-travelled people are mostly very confident. I am not sure if this is due to the fact that perhaps the more confident types tend to do more travelling in the first place or whether they became more confident because of the wide variety of experience to be had when travelling, but I tend to believe more in the latter. Lots of experience, both broad and deep, can build confidence simply because it pushes our boundaries. In extending the boundaries that delineate the line between comfort and discomfort, we increase the square footage of our ‘confidence arena’. As my good friend Geoff Thompson (English martial artist and renowned author) says, “There is no growth in comfort.” 

It is easy for a martial artist to trick himself into a belief in something that does not, in fact, exist. I know, because I have experienced it myself. Sometimes, the nurturing of a delusion is a coping strategy of sorts; it gets us through the night, so to speak. But more often than not, it simply isn’t very good for you in the end. Believing that we can knock out every opponent with a single punch or stop them dead in their tracks with a pressure point, etc. is, for the most part, delusional thinking. And some people are more than happy to feed and maintain their delusion for an entire lifetime, mostly because there is some form of pay-off. But if ever an occasion calls for effective execution of their ‘death touch’, then they are in for one hell of a fall. I’ve also noticed that if people are deluding themselves in one aspect of their lives, they are very often deluding themselves in many other aspects as well.

The flip side to living this way is to live (and train) in a way that offers ample opportunity for the pressure-testing of our various belief systems. In martial arts this can be challenging, especially for instructors because our students may put us on a pedestal. It’s easier to simply perpetuate the myth of the invincible instructor by never putting our skills to the test than it is to allow others to see that we, like them, are just human. But there is huge power to be gained in so-called failure — and that power is called learning. We learn by trying, failing, trying and failing again, until we come up with a workable solution. I’m not for one minute suggesting this is easy, I’m just saying it works and will afford great, even outstanding, results. 

One time, in the USA, I heard a very well-known and outstanding martial artist say, “If I fought that guy, he would never get me to the ground.” I replied by asking him why he thought that. He said, “None of the fighters I spar with ever take me down.” I asked again, “Have they ever tried?” That pretty much ended the conversation, thankfully, because I have a lot of respect for this particular martial artist. But it just goes to illustrate that even champions can have a very narrow view and can dupe themselves into believing things that may not be necessarily true. We all like to protect what we have built up during the course of our lifetimes.

In my view, real confidence in any given arena or endeavour comes through pressure testing. When we put our skills to the test, weaknesses will be revealed and then, if we are of a ‘learning’ mind set, we can sure up those weaknesses or perhaps even turn them into strengths. Building confidence through proven testing is actually what science is all about; you construct a theory then test the heck out of it and see if it holds up. There is no place for faith or wishful thinking in this process, but there is lots to be learned and expertise to be gained. 

There is no shame in trying and failing — it can be a hard road to walk, but it is the road that leads to real, bona fide confidence. 

Read more martial arts philosophy here.