Most people seem to think that confidence is something that must precede taking action; the common assumption is that anxiety or fear rises up and prevents acting, so you have to summon courage up to overcome the fear. Only then can you actually engage in the action you desired to take. But in my experience just the opposite is true: confidence comes after one has initiated an action, and it is acting that causes anxiety and fear to melt away. Anxiety has to be treated not as a barrier that prevents action, but simply as a temporary unpleasant sensation like hunger or tiredness that, while making you not want to do a thing, technically do not stop you and, if you desire strongly enough, you can, in fact, initiate and perform the action.
Like most people I was not a natural-born public speaker, but I have learned over time to become confident and engaging in speaking, to the point now where I usually do well at it and often receive compliments from others about it. Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show for fully three decades, once said in an interview that even after thousands of television shows he still got nervous every night before going on stage. Yet once he got out there he found his groove, mentally got into the process, and gave the impression to most of America that he was as comfortable speaking to an audience of millions as your best friend is when speaking to you. I have a similar experience when I speak in public: despite having taught hundreds of classes and given dozens of presentations, I still get a little nervous beforehand, but once I start, my confidence arises, I go with the flow, and even enjoy the process. I don’t need courage beforehand to start - I just have to start, and courage eventually comes once I do. And, of course, that initial nervousness diminished over time as I became more practiced and experienced. Confidence follows action: once you start fear begins to fade, and the more you do a thing the more confident you become.
I think this is true of political life as well. The Left has been suffering a terrible inferiority crisis for the last three decades as the Right has shoved it aside and defrauded or intimidated everyone into carping their ideology. But there’s no rational reason for this diffidence: the Left has better ideas, and even a better record of governance in economics, quality of life, and foreign relations. But the Left has gotten into the habit of not combatting the Right ideologically, intellectually, morally, and legislatively, and this avoidance has cost it its confidence. Remember this past August during the administration’s capitulation to conservative deficit bullying? The internet was awash with progressives who, long demoralized by their leader’s constant capitulation, had finally lost hope altogether and had completely given up on politics in disgust and despair. But then some students and artists in New York took action and Occupied Wall Street, inspiring many thousands of others to act as well. And now step back and assess the mood of the Left: despite the crackdowns on the Occupy movement, we feel the stirrings of hope, optimism, and confidence in a way that we haven’t in a long time. We certainly haven’t reached our full measure of confidence and courage yet - that will take many years - but defeatism has been pushed aside and the public discourse has been completely changed: equality is part of the debate again, the conservative candidates all look like fools, and the Left feels confident that it will win some victories in Wisconsin and elsewhere next year. Our side took political action, the direction of our politics changed to at least some degree, and we feel a lot better about ourselves. We should keep repeating that until our true confidence returns.
Confidence springs from action!