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Finding Confidence

Alex Hormozi has a great quote: "You don't become confident by shouting affirmations in the mirror, but by having a stack of undeniable proof that you are who you say you are. Outwork your self-doubt."

Self-doubt is insidious. Especially when you start a new project, it seems basic to think: "I can't do that. I'm delusional." Hormozi tackles it by saying if you have that undeniable proof, there is nothing you can deny about your abilities. Here, I'm taking that undeniable proof to mean proof that you actually completed the project. The only conclusion you can draw after having that proof is that you are effective at doing the thing, thereby gaining confidence.

At a glance, the quote makes a lot of sense. My instant interpretation is that we become confident by having a set of successes or proof that we can do the thing that we think we can do. It's obvious why we can start being confident after we achieved the thing: we actually did the thing! It seems only logical that we can start believing that we can achieve the thing now because we actually did it. There's no more mystery as to whether we can do the thing or not.

While I think the quote is valid, it brings up some fruitful conversations about confidence and how people can gain confidence. When I first heard this quote, I thought it was a little misleading. What about those people who don't have proof yet? Should they not be confident then? Can we ever find undeniable proof, and what does undeniable entail? It's from these questions that the discussion begins. My goal here is not to disprove the quote, but to highlight some ways people can misleadingly interpret the quote and shed some light on how we can be more precise about gaining confidence. The quote is useful, but only if we apply the quote to relevant proof. We will also discuss whether any proof can truly be “undeniable,” and what that actually means.

Thought experiment

One misleading way to read the quote is that confidence can onlycome from having a stack of undeniable proof. Alex doesn't say this explicitly, but I think it's one way listeners can go awry. It's easy to disprove: many people are confident without having any proof of anything. Just as an example, look at your high school friend who believed he could go to Harvard and that he's a Harvard student. He's confident, but he doesn't yet have the proof that he's a Harvard student: to have the proof would mean to actually attend Harvard. Perhaps he's a failing student, but still believes he has the ability to get into Harvard and the characteristics to thrive at Harvard. Many would say that he doesn't have undeniable proof that he is in fact a Harvard student, yet he is still confident.

But in another lifetime, let's assume that he could very well get into Harvard, and that he is indeed good enough for Harvard. He has the top grades and attitude to back it up. Many would say he is justified for being confident because he has great proof for it. Despite being a Harvard-ready student, decision day rolls around and he gets rejected. For college admissions, there's a large element of luck, and many would still agree, assuming he is in fact a Harvard-ready student, that he just got unlucky and is still "justified" for being confident in his Harvard abilities.

Confidence, then, should probably be carefully based upon one's own actions and what one can control, not the results or outcomes in life that one cannot control. To illustrate the problem, let's first look at the equation: confidence (in X) comes from having a stack of undeniable proof, Y. Although the quote doesn't explicitly insert "X," I think doing so helps narrow in on the definition of confidence: in this case, it's sufficient to define it as the belief in the effectiveness of one's own abilities to do X.

Alex, I think, is getting at both X and Y being the same subject or goal: confidence in my own ability to get into Harvard comes from having a stack of undeniable proof that I can get into Harvard (both X and Y involve getting into Harvard). The quote seems to suggest that confidence in X comes from having done X. The stack of undeniable proof in this case would be actually getting into Harvard. This logically follows from the belief that confidence in X comes from having done X already. If we view this through the lens of the above example, he would have never felt confident in his abilities because he never actually got into Harvard, despite being actually good enough to get in - he just missed the lottery. That seems absurd because he should be confident in his abilities because he actually was good enough. That's one problem with this approach, but there's more.

Not good enough

Let's say he actually did get into Harvard. The above statement would read that he should have confidence the moment he gets accepted. But is that actually undeniable proof? Undeniable proof seems to suggest absolute certainty and that there is no denying that the situation could have occurred any differently based on the actions taken. Put another way, undeniable proof suggests that we were in 100% control of our outcome and that there is no denying that we were instrumental in the outcome (if we are less than 100% in control, we can deny that we were the cause). Is getting into Harvard actually undeniable proof that he has the ability to get into Harvard? We can imagine another scenario where a rich kid who doesn't have the academic grades believes in the same statement, and actually does get into Harvard. Perhaps he got in because of his mother's pedigree. That person would be confident because he got into Harvard, but is that justified? He didn't do anything to get in and was not instrumental in the outcome at all. We can imagine an opposite scenario of a girl who gets into Harvard and has decent grades. It's easy for someone like her to talk herself out of her confidence, despite seemingly having "undeniable proof" that she got into Harvard. She can pull upon the large amount of luck involved in getting into an Ivy League college or the diversity admissions programs. Does she know for sure that she isn't in a similar scenario to the rich kid? It's very easy to reason that the element of luck involved with any result was a bigger deciding factor than any element of hard work, and this is very often the case in numerous life scenarios. We can easily point to the number of hard-working, deserving students who don't get into the job or school of their dreams despite likely being very capable of thriving in that environment.

This matters because confidence that is resilient to self-doubt partly comes from truly believing that we completed our goal through our actions, not luck. That's the biggest problem if our supposed proof has an element of luck: our self-doubt can always point to that element of luck. We can instead take a different stance. Going back to the original scenario, we can get the original student to be confident by changing X and Y. Perhaps it could be instead: confidence in my own ability to get into Harvard comes from having a stack of undeniable proof that I can juggle many classes and tests at a very high level. Juggling and taking many classes and tests and truly putting effort into them is something you can control and that doesn't have an element of luck. It's within your control. Now he is able to be confident in his abilities whether or not he gets accepted into Harvard. This is a simplistiexamplec example, and if you were to actually write a statement like this down, you'd probably have to be more specific about Y and if Y is a good indicator of X.

A game of chance

Another way to look at this is if we took that imaginary person who got into Harvard and repeated their actions many, many times, would they get into Harvard every single time without fail? If they don't, is getting into Harvard undeniable proof that that person can get into Harvard? The reason why it's likely never practically 100% that he gets into Harvard is because there is always an element of randomness and luck that could change the tides. Even if that person approached 99.999999% chance of getting into Harvard, there is always that tiny chance that he doesn't get in because there is always that luck factor. Is simply getting into Harvard undeniable proof, then, that he has the ability to get into Harvard? No! This applies to many, many scenarios in life, and you can view this through the lens of a poker player. A noob poker player can simply have a winning streak, but this doesn't mean that the poker player is actually a good player. Over time, the good poker player, over thousands of hands, will come out on top. But even so, how are we not sure that that poker player is not just on an extremely lucky streak? If you are a statistician, you'd look over an arbitrarily large set of hands, form a conclusion about a null hypothesis about whether the poker player is good or not, or look at confidence intervals. If you are someone else, you can look at other factors like the poker player's thought process, design making, and procedure. We should focus on the things we can control 100% of the time when choosing the undeniable proof to back our confidence because those are the things that will shift your success rate towards 99%. Absolute certainty may not be achievable, and we might never know our true success rate or the determining factor in our outcome. In some outcomes, we might know with more confidence what the determining factor was. In other outcomes, it might be more gray. All we can do is focus on the actions we control that can contribute to the outcome.

So far, we have been somewhat cheating because in this fictional scenario, our student is de facto said to be Harvard-ready, and we were focusing on what proof would best provide confidence in that. In reality, we can rarely definitively say such a thing. That student could be the hardest working person he knows, and all his friends tell him so. Everyone believes he is Harvard-ready, yet he is still dealing with self-doubt about whether he is. The problem for him is that he will never truly know, without a shadow of a doubt, if what he did was de facto ready for Harvard, even if he gets in. This is in part because whether he is “de facto ready for Harvard” is a nebulous concept that teeters on the topic of whether he “deserves” to get into Harvard and is maybe impossible to answer. We can point to hard work, academic performance, but we will always be able to argue whether it is enough to say that this means he is “de facto ready.” It's not a statement that has an easy truth value (whether a statement is true or false) that we can easily point to like “there exists at least one dog on Earth” (which we can easily point to a dog and say that the statement is true). This is all assuming that there is some metaphysically correct truth value to the fact that “he is ready for Harvard,” and maybe there isn't. A reasonable argument is that the statement isn't very clear and specific at all.

This is all very abstract, but it leads me to the point that we have to change the question to something we can answer and look at other evidence, proxies, and clues like academic prowess and work ethic to help us draw a conclusion. We have to draw the line somewhere: how much work do I have to do to consider myself "Harvard-ready," whatever I consider that to mean.

To wrap it up, we should be careful what we frame our confidence on: what we assign X and Y to be. If you frame your confidence on results and outcomes that have a layer of probability and luck that is not in your control, you are setting yourself up for potential confidence failure. You could have done all that you can toward achieving that goal, but you can still fail to achieve it. Worse even, we cannot know whether we have done enough and luck was not in the cards or whether we haven't done enough. Does that mean we shouldn't be confident? No! You should still be confident if you had proof in putting in the actions and reps to achieve that goal.

The ribbon

I've covered a lot of ground here, but here's a set of points that you can leave with:

1. If the results are out of your control, someone or something else controls them. If you base your confidence on these results, someone or something else controls your confidence. Confidence should come from within. Life is fickle. If you let life control your confidence, you might end up not being confident for a long time.

2. Stronger confidence in ourselves and confidence that is resilient to self-doubt, I'd argue, comes from truly believing that we worked for an outcome and actually earned it through our actions, not luck. If the outcome is out of your control, is it really undeniable that you achieved it fair and square? What about that person who gets a promotion on pure luck? Spoiler: how do you know that was not you? The point is not to never look at outcomes based on luck, it's to base your confidence on something that isn't based on luck.

3. What are you going to do before you achieve that outcome? Not be confident?

An afterthought I had while thinking through this: I've said we should focus on outcomes that we have 100% control over and am focusing on primarily actions that we can control. I think there's still an argument to be made that we can still theoretically derive a lot of confidence from outcomes where we have 99% control or even 95% control. Getting to 100% is not always possible, but in reality, we do not know the percentage of control that we have over an outcome.

But it does not matter that much. If we boil an outcome down to its roots, the ones that gain us confidence all have some common factor: they stem from some sort of action that we've taken. That's all to say that what matters in the end is what we actually did, and what we actually did, we can control. We cannot control the outcome of our actions, but we can control the actions themselves. Again, it's not always helpful to look at the outcome. Think about the poker player analogy again.

Also after listening to Modern Wisdom #670, it's clear that Alex Hormozi does believe you should base your confidence off of your actions.