confidently curious

I head to the School of Life for a lesson in confidence.....

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Two weeks ago I was invited to take part in a class at The School of Life, a place I have been curious about since it opened its doors in Marchmont Street a couple of years ago.  

Set up by a board of eminent philosophers and intellectuals including Alain de Botton (who remains its Chairman) the School runs, four nights a week and at weekends, classes on the subjects of work, politics, love, personal growth and creativity.

Described by the London Review of Books as a combination of “night school, group therapy and speed dating” the classes cover pretty much every subject you can think of, from “How to have Better Conversations” to “How Necessary is A Relationship?”. The course I’m along for is “How To Be Confident”. 

To be honest, I’m not sure what to expect. I’m no stranger to self help. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve done a lot of it over the years. I’ve read everything from The Power of Now to How to Heal Your Life; I’ve had counselling, coaching and even hypnotherapy. I’ve even written a novel, one of the most powerful ways to excavate your psyche there is!

But despite being armed with all this knowledge I, like so many others, find myself hitting the same old stumbling blocks. And I suspect that deep down the problem is me and my lack of self esteem. I hold back because I worry too much about what people think. If only I didn’t care so much and felt secure in myself and my abilities…what could I do? Who could I be? So I’m ready to find out how to be more confident.

Act the way you want to feel

Before class starts, I mingle with my fellow confidence seekers upstairs in the attractive almost lab-like bookshop, filled with titles I wish I could buy one of each of, sipping a glass of sparkling (water) and nibbling on some delicious mini quiches. I decide to put the theme of tonight’s class into action and brazenly go up to the most friendly looking strangers and introduce myself – I end up having some great conversations about art and even getting some excellent advice on my London house hunt. “You seem very confident already,” observes one of the people I befriend. I’m merely acting the way I want to feel, I explain. But I tuck that observation away nonetheless.

The teacher is John-Paul Flintoff, a journalist, author and stand-up comedian, among many other hats he wears.  He delivers a friendly and inspiring presentation on confidence, first of all asking us to consider what the concept means to us. It turns out every person in the elaborately decorated basement classroom (with such beautiful artwork it almost feels like a stage set) has a different interpretation on what “being confident” means and looks like to them and so immediately this gets very interesting.

“Confidence is a spectrum,” explains John-Paul. “It’s all in the eye of the beholder. And like most things in life, what you’re looking for you tend to find.”

The simplest definition of confidence is that it’s a combination of self-efficacy and optimism. Confidence, like most cognitive skills we develop, has a few components that need to be learned and re-learned so John-Paul gives us lots of useful tips like identifying our own confidence role models, developing a support network and celebrating our achievements, however small. “When we’re at school, teachers and parents say to us ‘I’m expecting great things of you’ and we should say that to ourselves now,” says John-Paul. I scribble these pearls down in my notebook eagerly.

The curious observer

A key component of the class is John-Paul’s encouragement of us all to be curious about ourselves and identify how we cope with fear, anxiety and life’s various ups and downs already.  We’re invited to observe our natural instincts and reactions, on paper, in discussion and in the practical experiments that we try, such as drawing a picture of our inner critic and role playing.  

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Dealing with setbacks is something that the majority of the class has vocalised a wish to learn to cope with better, so that takes up a bit of the discussion. John-Paul’s background in stand-up is very useful here and he tells some illuminating stories. “When doing improvisation, you can only deal with what is, not what you wish it was,” he muses (my italics for emphasis).

My own personal guru on confidence is the Australian novelist Charlotte Wood. She says that confidence is a decision. That you don’t earn it, it doesn’t come from external accolades. It comes “when you decide to have it.” Another favourite writer, Anne Lamott, says something similar. Admittedly these women are talking specifically about confidence if you are an artist trying to put your work out into the world, but I think it applies across the board because, no matter what you do in life, it is dangerous to place your self worth in external validation. “If you aren’t enough without the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it,” observes Lamott in her widely-read and much loved writing guide Bird by Bird.

Putting it into practice

But as I mentioned at the beginning, despite having read all these amazing things over the years, I felt paralysed when it came to putting some of it into practice. But then it hits me, as we pack up and say goodbyes with promises to look each other up on Instagram or Linked In. I have put it into practice, that very evening. I went up to strangers and initiated conversation. Being confident had been a decision. It really was that simple. 

I had gone into this class with a somewhat narrow view of what confidence was but I was coming away enlightened, because I'd found out what it means to other people too. It reminded me how, no matter who we are, where we live and what we do for a living, most of us just want to be living authentic and meaningful lives where we aren’t afraid to be ourselves.  And also by being more confident in yourself, you actually improve the lives of the people around you too.  

This is, I think, the genius of the School of Life – it's a forum for invigorating discussion of topics that are of great importance to a lot of us, but possibly feel too big or vague to approach by ourselves. The School of Life gives you the tools to change your outlook on life and work but it doesn’t change it for you, that’s something you’ve got to do for yourself. Again, it comes back to Charlotte Wood’s theory of confidence. Making that switch, that decision, to stop relying on things other than yourself to give it you. 

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I chat to John-Paul briefly afterwards as he signs my copy of his book How To Change The World. I tell him about a few things that happened to me, quite a few years ago now, thatabsolutely destroyed the confidence I'd worked so hard for up to that point. He looks sympathetic but then asks me why I'm continuing to hold myself ransom to these things that happened in the past.

“Because I'm worried that if I let it go, it’s like inviting it to happen again. Whenever I let my guard down, something always happens. This way I’m prepared for it,” I say. As soon as the words leave my mouth I realise how silly (not to mention pessimistic!) I sound.

“So let’s say it happens again,” John-Paul says. “What would you make that mean? Does it really change who you are and what you do?”

The more he questions me, the more I realise how futile all my excuses actually are – but also, even more illuminating, that all my fears had way more power inside my head than they did when they were spoken out loud. The minute I said them, they were out there naked with nothing to back them up apart from some isolated incidents that were well and truly behind me.

Three days later, I published my last post on a blog I’ve written for the best part of a decade and launched this new website. I feel like a different person! Or rather, I’ve finally let the real me out after keeping her safe from view for about six years. And it feels fantastic.

"How To Be Confident" was one of the richest, most satisfying Thursday evenings I’ve had for some time and I would highly recommend it. I came away thinking not about the meaning of life, but how I could make my life, and those around me, more meaningful….and I can’t think of anything more important that should be taught at any school, of life or any other kind.

I attended the "How To Be Confident" course at The School of Life thanks to BRITA Water Filters who are running a Boost Challenge through the winter to encourage people to drink more water and less alcohol. One of the reasons people drink alcohol is to feel confident - after this class I won't need that excuse any more. Thanks BRITA!