What makes someone more confident than another?
This is a question that has fascinated scientists for over 100 of years.
Many different theories later, it appears that psychologists still can’t quite agree on right formula for what makes up a balanced self-esteem, nor of the best way to get to this coveted inner feeling of worthiness.
However, it seems like we may have had the answer all along—since 1890, to be specific.
In 1890, William James, “the father of psychology,” published his influential book “The Principles of Psychology” where he wrote about enduring ideas as consciousness, emotions, will and habits. Along with these, he also discussed at length the notion of the “self” and his insight of what makes up our self-esteem (which later became known as the first Theory of Self-esteem).
Self-worth, William James argued, is dependent on 2 elements – on our aspirations or goals, and on our achievements. This idea is elegantly demonstrated in his famous equation:
Self-esteem = success/pretensions
In his words:
“So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities.”
By the laws of simple mathematics, our confidence, then, can be boosted by either multiplying our victories (successes), or by adjusting our ambitions for the selves we want to be and by choosing less but more relevant aspirations— in the areas that are important to us and which we define ourselves with.
We can’t be good at everything, he argues. Rather, there are some “selves” which matter more to how we define and view ourselves than others. And these, in turn, will also affect our confidence.
In his words:
“So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list [of possible selves] carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real. Its failures are real failures, its triumphs real triumphs, carrying shame and gladness with them. Our thought, incessantly deciding, among many things of a kind, which ones for it shall be realities, here chooses one of many possible selves or characters, and forthwith reckons it no shame to fail in any of those not adopted expressly as its own.”
Simply put, if you are, say, a lawyer, you will likely associate your victories, failures and aspirations with your accomplishments in the field. The fact that you are not good in sports will be irrelevant to your self-esteem.
And this is a rather compelling idea—because it means that only the things that we deem important to our “self” have the power to influence and shape our self-esteem.
Hence, carefully choosing the character on which we “stake [our] salvation” and pushing that specific self (and suppressing the irrelevant ones) toward new triumphs, seems to be the rather straightforward and victorious path to lifting our self-worth, as William James has wisely advised us some century ago.
Therefore, we should focus on where our strengths, competencies and passions lie—on the things we are good at. As everything else is just secondary to our sense of worth.
And to the self, for this matter.