Confidence: The difference between ‘hoping’ and ‘knowing’

This past weekend, while I was still in the throes of Marathon Trials Mania, I spent some time combing through the Runners World section devoted to the trials.  One of the articles included in the section was a lengthy feature on Desiree Davila, who came in second at the trials.  Not only that, but she holds a record as the fastest American woman at the Boston Marathon, finishing in 2:22:38, dethroning none other than Joan Benoit Samuelson.

The feature – which is totally worth reading; Davila seems like a very cool, interesting person with an admirable work ethic – led me to this interview with Kevin Hanson of the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project (Davila’s running group), which includes this Q&A:

It seems that at the top level every athlete works hard. But what exactly is it in Desi’s skill set that makes her unique?

KH: There are a couple of things. Number one is that when most people set goals, they work to those goals and hope they are going to happen. Desi sets goals, works to them, and then knows they will happen. You hear it with athletes at every level. Someone will ask, “Are you going to PR?” and they’ll say, “I hope so.” Desi knows so. That combined with her cool-headedness. She gets excited, not nervous, on race day. She never freezes in a big situation. She does the opposite.

I read this on Saturday, the day before the inaugural St. Pete Beach Classic Half-Marathon.  I had a big goal in mind for this race.   Three of the last four times I’d set out to do the half-marathon, I had set new PRs.  As of Saturday, my half-marathon PR was a 1:47:48, which a year ago or even six months ago had seemed unspeakably fast to me.

And yet, I had this crazy idea that I could run even faster.  So I targeted the SPB Classic in hopes of breaking 1:45.  The course would be flat and uncrowded, the temperatures would be cool.  I’d tapered off properly after a few weeks of solid training, and I had shaved time off my PRs in the 5K, 10K and 5-miler.  Conditions were ripe for a new, ambitious PR.

In the past, the days leading up to a race in which I had targeted a PR were fairly filled with anxiety.  The night before, I’d never be able to sleep.  The morning of, I’d have to choke my oatmeal down and keep it there.  The anxiety would get all tangled up with my fear and I’d be left quivering and wide-eyed, a total mess.

But for some reason, I didn’t feel that way that night. I felt calm and at ease and excited for the challenge that lie ahead. And as I read Hanson’s words, I realized that there was one simple reason why: I knew I was going to do it.

I had put in the work.  I was strong. I was healthy.  There was no reason why I couldn’t do it.  I could have said, “I hope I pull this off” or “I’m not sure I’ve got it in me,” but that would have been incorrect, because the truth is, I knew I was going to do it.

When I crossed the last mat, my time was 1:43:39.  My pace averaged out to 7:55 per mile.  To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement.

But I wasn’t surprised.  I knew I was going to do it.  And sure enough, I did.

Brian often tells me that I am consistently my own biggest obstacle.  He’s right. I’m sorry to report that I am not one of those people who was born into this world with an abundance of confidence.

And it’s not that I didn’t envy people with confidence – I did.  I looked at them and felt so envious and confused and sad.  I had no idea how to get some for myself.

I’ve been given a lot of well-meaning advice over the years with regards to this.  A lot of people seem to feel that it’s adequate to tell a person, “Just be more confident!”  As if you can just conjure it into existence with little more than desire and imagination.

Another piece of advice – one that I actually bought into for a few years – is that you should “fake it ’til you make it.”  I guess the idea is that you can trick yourself into feeling confident, and that eventually you’ll have forgotten what it feels like to be completely unsure of yourself and you’ll have no choice but to be confident.

I think I liked this because it seemed practical and concrete, but let’s be realistic – anything that requires deception, of the self or otherwise, is doomed to crumble like so many stale cookies.  It’s much better to be honest, with yourself and with others.

I think what I’m slowly learning is that true confidence can’t be faked, and that for the vast majority of us, it isn’t simply bestowed upon us like a gift of parenting or genetics or privilege.

I’m starting to understand that, for most of us, confidence has to be earned.  We  have to prove to ourselves that we are capable, that we can rise to challenges, that we’ve got heart enough to face up to the nasty obstacles the world throws in our faces.  How else can you possibly know?  Without a chance to prove yourself, you’ll always be left hoping.  You’ll never know.

This is what I’ve had to do for myself.  I’ve shown myself that I am capable of hard work, that I can be dedicated and disciplined, that I don’t let things like pain or puke or failure or embarrassment stop me.  I’ve seen that even when shit gets really hard, I never say die.  I’ve proven it to myself over several years.

I wasn’t going to figure this stuff out just sitting in a room by myself with the sheets over my head (which is, incidentally, how I have spent many, many days of my relatively short life).  I had to actually get out there and put in the work and take the risks and be willing to swing and miss. And so far it has worked out beautifully.

I don’t want to pretend like I have all of the answers to this, I don’t even think this is an answer.  But we sadly live in a society that tells us confidence, among many other things, can be bought on credit in the form of hair plugs or fake tits or a flashy car.  We’ve got experts who say you can visualize your way to confidence, that you can buy books and attend seminars that will help uncover that confident self you’ve always wanted.

I think it’s a lot simpler than that.  I think we have confidence in ourselves when we’ve got reason to have confidence in ourselves.

So let’s give ourselves those reasons.  Let’s do things that challenge us, things that scare us a little bit.  Let’s be willing to fall on our faces and look a little bit stupid.  Let’s prove to ourselves that we are more courageous and more capable than we’d ever thought possible.

15 responses to “Confidence: The difference between ‘hoping’ and ‘knowing’

  1. Caitlin,

    I totally agree! One doesn’t overcome imposter complex by pretending not to be an imposter. Confidence is earned through hard work, dedication, and many hours of practice, preparation, and the experience of succeeding, one goal at a time. Even when we fall on our faces, we gain confidence from knowing that we can get up and try again.


    • Such a good way to put it! I often think we do ourselves a disservice by acting as though confidence is something we are entitled to by virtue of existing. It just seems like whatever confidence you develop that way will be flimsy and will fall apart like a paper towel. It’s better to build it up in such a way that you actually BELIEVE it, because you’ve got a reason to do so.

  2. “Brian often tells me that I am consistently my own biggest obstacle. He’s right.” – I believe this to be true for most people. I know it is true for me. Accepting that means with effort and perseverance I can overcome the obstacles. ,

  3. I love this! Although I have a different take on “fake it till you make it.”

    To me this means telling yourself that you should have the confidence and doing all the things to justify believing in yourself.

    It isn’t so much lying to yourself as telling yourself positive things which will help you truly have confidence in yourself.

    But I do agree that you should be honest with yourself. If you recognize your flaws not only can you work on them but you can also appreciate more fully what you do well!

  4. I think this is really key and smart. I also think that a challenge is accurately remembering that we’ve done things like this whatever this is in the past. I’ve moved to a new city before, I’ve made new friends before. I’ve PRed before, but remembering those experiences as ones where I was competent is a trick inside the twisty brain. And everyone’s brain has some twists.

    • Yeah, I think a lot of us have a tendency to focus on the potential fails and pitfalls, but not because we are inherently negative nancies but because it’s how we are evolutionarily programmed. The problem comes when you just keep your lizard brain on automatic pilot without stepping back and taking a moment to assess your rue abilities. Lizard brains are always like “everything sucks and is scary!” which serves a purpose but not when it runs amok.

  5. I love this! I need to remember this not just in my running, but in my professional life – I’m about to transition into a new role with more responsibility. And congratulations on the PR!

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