Confidence Isn't Enough

Published June 11, 2019

Have you ever been told, “just have some confidence”? I didn’t question this phrase for a long time. I’ve recently recognized something from my teaching, my career, and my studies: you can’t just have confidence. It’s a prescription without an outcome.

The best way to illustrate my point is by directing you to someone else: Sophia Chang. She’s a very popular artist but is new to me:

Screenshot of her website

While her work is evidentally beautiful, I want to point you towards a few lines in her bio,

Internet presence is all what you make it, especially if you know how to market yourself. […] Sophia is a true product of her environment finding everyday excellence quite comfortable.

Sophia as the poised business beast that she truly is beyond hype.

That’s certainly a confident bio. But, before we start labelling her as anything–let’s talk about this concept of self-efficacy.

Self-Efficacy vs. Confidence

I have recently come across the concept of self-efficacy. Albert Bandura, a psychologist working at Stanford University, defines self-efficacy as the following and makes a distinction between it and confidence:1

…confidence does not specify what the certainty is about, whereas self-efficacy refers to a belief about a person’s specific capabilities and how they relate to their anticipation that they can produce specific outcomes.

In summary, self-efficacy means: “I can confirm I am capable of something and thus believe I will achieve,” while confidence is, “I believe,” with no indication of the speaker’s competance.

Self-efficacy, in his theory, is outlined as a key factor in persistence,

Efficacy expectations determine how much effort people will expend and how long they will persist in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the more active the efforts. Those will persist […] gain corrective experiences that reinforce their sense of efficacy, thereby eventually eliminating their defensive behavior. Those who cease their coping efforts prematurely will retain their self-debilitating expectations and fears for a long time.

People will avoid situations (fear) they believe exceed their coping abilities. Furthermore, in numerous studies about providing false feedback (you don’t fear this, have confidence, etc.), we have concluded that you can’t tell someone to get over a fear by saying it doesn’t exist.2

In summary: self-efficacy is different from confidence and is a key factor in persistence which is linked to higher performance. You also can’t tell someone to have confidence because it doesn’t change their behaviour.

So, how do you build your self-efficacy?

Practical Tips

Self-efficacy can be built over time either by yourself or with a coach or mentor. There are four parts to his theory:

Accomplishments

Start small with something you know you can do then gradually build. The more you fail, the more you think you’re going to fail–so you have to start small. Collect evidence of your success through documentation. Social media is great for this but so is a simple notebook. Don’t overthink it.

Experience

Find others who are doing what you eventually want to be able to do. Interestingly enough, it is identified that we learn more from people who struggle at achieving something than someone who appears to achieve it very easily.3 This could mean finding someone who is willing to walk you through their failures. Break down their actions and link it to consequences.

Persuasion

This is likely one of the easiest things to find: a supportive friend. “Have confidence” perscriptions are part of this too, which underscores that it’s only one part of the larger picture. One thing: your support needs to come from a credible source (credible is subjective here). If you don’t believe the person who insists you can do it, it will increase your doubts.

Emotional states

As much as you can, you must learn how to control your anxieties. It must be noted that identifying that you have anxieties is not enough and for some, it amplifies their negative thought processes. So, those giant confession threads or jokes about how much anxiety you have on Twitter? Cut it out. There are many coping techniques like journaling, therapy, meditation, and morning affirmations. Find productive ways to deal with your emotions.

Goal-setting

I am going to take this moment to further reiterate how important goal-setting, reports, and structured learning is. I believe it only reinforces Bandura’s theory and my own experience. A lot of what I’ve written above is a rehash, again, of what I’ve been writing about these past three months:

  1. Determine what you want
  2. Break it down into actionable parts
  3. Measure your success

In my teaching, I’ve created a cirriculum which heavily reinforces all four of the tenets of self-efficacy above. While teaching design skills is what I’m hired for, my primary objective is to teach a Designer how to learn because I firmly believe that’s what will serve them in the long-term.4

I didn’t forget about Sophia.


A lot of unhealthy online design discourse is centered about celebrity status or popularity when I believe it should be reframed as an exercise in collecting evidence of your career. After all, design is evidence and isn’t that what a portfolio is all about?

I wanted to highlight Sophia’s website because it’s a great example of someone who has more than confidence and I was thinking about how unfair it would be to her and to anyone else who wants to emulate her to tell them to simply have confidence.

It doesn’t work that way: you have to do the work, you have to build yourself the right environment to continue doing the work, and you have to collect evidence.


1 Bandura, Albert. (1977). Self-Efficacy - Toward A Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological review. 84. 191-215. 10.1016/0146-6402(78)90002-4.

2 I'm not going to cite all studies this comes from because this is not an academic paper. Although you can find the full citation list in the previous study: (Gaupp, Stern, & Galbraith, 1972; Hewlett & Nawas, 1971; Kent, Wilson, & Nelson, 1972; Rosen, Rosen, & Reid, 1972; Sushinsky & Bootzin, 1970)

3 Kazdin, A. E. Covert modeling and the reduction of avoidance behavior. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1973, 81, 87-95

4 I intend to write more about teaching design in September, when my current batch of students ends.