What Really Builds Confidence?
In recent days, many people asked me if I felt anxiety about performing my first stand-up routine. The truth is that I was excited about performing. I know that I am at my best on stage, under the bright lights.
That’s not to say I didn’t have any moments of fear. Most of my fear came forward a few weeks before the performance. I worried that I wouldn’t be ready, that I wouldn’t have my act together, and that I would forget my act on stage. As late as the afternoon on the day of the show, I was tweaking and re-writing some of my material.
The surge of adrenaline that we often interpret as fear also signals anticipation. The only difference between them is the story we tell ourselves. And as I went on stage, I felt confident. I knew I would rock it and be ok.
Of course I had an advantage: I reminded myself that there was no risk of physical injury or death in getting on stage. That put me ahead of where I am when I practice hard tricks on trampoline and flying trapeze.
In fact, the lessons I learned about confidence from trampoline and trapeze came in handy when it came time to build confidence in my stand-up act.
Circus is life.
(1) Pre-requisite: Do the Thing
As I shared yesterday, the only way to learn how to do something is to do it. No amount of studying it, or reading about it, or watching it, or analyzing it, substitutes for doing it. This is true for everything from walking to writing.
Doing the thing is also how we build confidence in it. Practice is the path. In flying trapeze and trampoline, I practice certain skills over and over. For months. Sometimes years. I’ll practice a trick or skill in safety lines hundreds of times before feeling confident to take off the safety lines. And then I keep practicing the skill.
As my coaches say, you’ve got to get the reps in.
In the comedy class I took, I got my reps in by getting up in front of the class each week and doing stand-up. That was the structure of the class; it was focused on doing.
This part may be obvious. But there are two distinctions here that are worth calling out, especially for high achievers.
(2) Practice in Sub-optimal conditions
High achievers often want to practice in the best conditions. We tend to be perfectionists. We want optimal conditions so that we can ensure success.
In trampoline practice, I have learned the value of practicing under sub-optimal conditions. In September, I took my front tucks out of lines. I would be justified in a decision not to do front tucks on days that I’m tired or feeling weak. The trick is hard, physically and mentally. There’s a real risk of injury. Good reasons to play it safe. But even on those days, I still do front tucks.
One of my coaches is a former Olympic diver. She and I regularly discuss how practicing my front tucks even when I don’t feel that I’m at 100% capacity helps me build confidence in it. I know that when I am at 100% capacity I’ll be even better.
Practicing in sub-optimal conditions builds confidence on two fronts:
- you’ll feel even more confident that you can perform when the conditions are optimal
- you’ll feel confident in your ability even if you have some mishaps in your big moment
In addition to practicing in class, I also practiced at some open mics. Open mics are rough; nobody laughs. This helped me feel confident in going on stage before an audience that was warmed up and receptive.
(3) Allow and Embrace Failure
We often believe that success breeds confidence. And it does, of course. Although success can breed a false confidence, as I explained in today’s show.
We discount the value of doing something when we don’t do it well. Or when we completely fail in execution.
To boost confidence, we must practice in a way that allows us to fail.
How failure builds confidence
The biggest component of fear is not knowing what will happen if we fail. Once you experience that, you stop fearing it. Failure exposes the unknown.
When I first took my front tucks out of lines on the trampoline, I landed most of them on my ass. Eventually, I started landing them on my feet, and now I rarely struggle to stick the landing.
Those early day of not sticking the landing helped me know what it feels like. Not being afraid of that landing gave me implicit permission to push myself to improve my skill by bouncing higher and making other tweaks.
Most people fear public speaking because they fear rejection. This is especially true when performing stand-up. One of my fears early on was what if nobody laughs? I worried that it would throw me off.
Practicing at open mics helped me with this. At open mics nobody really reacts. Even if you’re funny, it feels like you failed. At my first open mic, this was disconcerting. But I knew the feeling of getting on stage, doing my set and getting no reaction.
That was the worst-case scenario, and knowing what it felt like removed any fear I might have had for the real performance.
When I took the stage at the main event, I had spent weeks practicing. I practiced in sub-optimal conditions and felt would it would feel like to completely bomb. This gave me the confidence to get on stage and deliver my stand-up act.
And it was that confidence, in part, that helped me crush it.
In the end, that’s the real secret to building confidence. Confidence, like all energy, is contagious. You build confidence with confidence.
Learn a few more distinctions in today’s episode of My Circus Life. Episode 82: What Really Builds Confidence?
Please share your takeaways in the comments.
Want to see my debut stand-up act? Make sure you’re on the list. I’ll share the video of the performance when I receive it.