DrPete.co Logo

The Confidence Cycle

May 19, 2014 — By Dr. Pete

I recently had a minimalist revelation – I was thinking about all of the advice floating around about success, and I realized I could distill a lot of it into just one diagram, thoughtfully saving you a few bucks on self-help books. I call it "The Confidence Cycle":


Put simply, confidence drives action, action (eventually) leads to success, and success creates confidence. This is a virtuous cycle, or what some people simply call "momentum."

Sounds easy, right? Of course, we all know that there's a gaping chasm between bumper-sticker wisdom and actually achieving momentum in our lives. Maybe if we could just jump into the cycle after some other hamster had already put the wheel in motion, life would be easier, but each of us is the hamster of our own lives. Ok, that's probably not going to catch on.

Fortunately, my revelation had a part two, and not like a Ghostbusters 2 part two, but a serious Empire Strikes Back kind of sequel. I realized that we can jump into this cycle at any point, and each point corresponds to a popular piece of motivational advice.

I. Fake It 'Til You Make It

Pardon a whole mess of clichés, but confidence really is a state of mind. You can't really fake taking action or being successful, but you can act as if you were confident...


I know a lot of people bristle at this advice, and I've struggled with it, too, because it just sounds fake (seriously, "fake it" is right in the advice). Why should I pretend to be something that I'm not?

I suspect that this advice is just badly worded. What if you simply imagined confidence? What does it feel like? How would it frame your perceptions of your current situation? How might you do things differently if you were confident? Think of a person who you believe is confident – what would they do in your situation?

II. Just Do It!

I sincerely regret going all Nike on you, but there really is no better way to put this advice – sometimes, the best thing you can do is to take action, even if you're not really feeling it...


Sooner or later, if you do enough, something is going to work. Here's the undeniable truth, and something I try to pound into my own head daily: if you act, you might fail, but if you don't act, you'll never succeed. Whatever your probability of failure, inaction has a roughly 0% success rate.

I know where your head's spinning, because I've set this trap for myself many times – what about the risks? Failure isn't free, and we humans can be a risk-averse bunch. It's a fair question.

Back in college, I got to hear Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of positive psychology, speak. In his keynote, Seligman admitted that he was, at heart, a pessimist. As someone who has studied and promoted optimism for years, Seligman's confession really got my attention, and his advice stuck with me.

Essentially, he said this: be risk-averse when the risks are real and high. If you're going to jump off a cliff with homemade wings or buy a house with 0% down the day before your boss wants to "have a word with you," then maybe you should think twice.

The rest of the time, though – and, realistically, the rest of the time is most of life – be an optimist. Many of our risks are imagined. The core problem is that the fear we feel, the fundamental fight-or-flight response, is the same whether we're about to speak in front of an audience or are being chased by a hungry bear. We have it in our power to rationally know the difference, but that's a choice we all have to make. The fear is real, but its power isn't.

III. Celebrate Your Victories

So, how you do you jump straight to success? It's not quite as easy as that, but there are two practices we can cultivate: (1) visualize success, and (2) celebrate your successes...


I've always struggled with the first one – even though there are reams of research about how picturing success in your mind can help you actually succeed, I'm just not very good at it. So, I try to focus on the second one.

Success isn't just an objective state – a lot of it is about perception. Take the time to stop and recognize your own victories – willfully frame them as successes, and stop putting yourself down for a moment. Sometimes, that's all it takes to move the wheel.

And Will You Succeed?

To quote the late, great Dr. Seuss: "Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!" Yeah, maybe the good doctor was a bit optimistic with that number. Failure is inevitable. It seems like we're obsessed with it lately – either failure is "not an option" or we have to embrace it to the point of madness.

I try to be more pragmatic. Failure is a setback, but it rarely comes without some form of lesson. Action almost always requires growth, regardless of the outcome. Action also leads to discovery, and sometimes you find the right path by ruling out all of the wrong ones. If that requires failure, and failure isn't deadly, then I guess failure is the price of admission.