Even though I’d never do anything remotely as crazy as him, ski mountaineer and long-distance runner Kilian Jornet is still a huge inspiration to me.
At 29, Kilian currently holds the world records for the fastest ascent and descent of Denali, Mont Blanc and Matterhorn. He loves the wildness of the mountains and setting outrageous personal goals for himself.
All you have to do is watch a video of Kilian running on a harrowingly sheer rock face to get an idea of his speed and fearlessness. I start gripping the sides of my seat when I see this footage.
A couple of weeks ago, I got to see Kilian give a talk in the small town of Puigcerdà, Spain, where he grew up.
Kilian is a self-confessed anti-social (I guess you’d have to be to spend so much time alone in the mountains) so it was a rare chance to see him in person.
My favorite part of the talk was when a woman asked him about how he handles the level of risk he takes every day in his climbs. Don’t you get scared? she asked.
Kilian’s reply took me by surprise (and is paraphrased heavily here, since he was speaking in Catalan).
He said that he felt scared in the mountains much more often when he was young and a beginner. His climbs felt much riskier when he was inexperienced.
At that point, he said, he didn’t know as much about what he could ask his body and mind to do. He didn’t know as much about the mountains either.
He doesn’t have such a feeling of risk anymore, he explained, because he knows exactly how he can use his body and how far he can push it. When climbing a mountain, he knows where to place his footsteps, he knows where to strike his ice axe so it holds secure.
He knows himself and he knows the mountains.
As I listened, my mind drew an unexpected parallel between Killian’s explanation and some of conversations I’d had earlier in the week about self-confidence.
A lack of self-confidence and how to get it back is a topic I discuss a lot in my work. Kilian’s words sparked a realization in me that when our self-confidence plummets it’s because we’ve lost sight of all the experience we’ve amassed in our bodies and minds, and in our own mountain climbs.
Usually this happens, I’ve noticed, when we begin to obsessively focus in on one mistake we’ve made, or one perceived weakness. That’s when we stop trusting the whole of our experience. That’s when self-confidence feels like it evaporates.
The case of the missing self-confidence
“Self-confidence” is a pretty strange concept when you think about it. We pay attention to it only when we think someone has too much of it, or when they have too little. When it’s “just right,” we forget about it.
When we realize that we’ve lost our self-confidence in a particular area – say, for example, at work – we’re often stumped with how to regain it. It’s like “self-confidence” is a magical state of being and we wonder how to conjure it back up again.
I’d argue that re-gaining self-confidence is actually not that mysterious.
What causes our self-confidence to wane is by making a mistake or identifying a weakness, and then paying so much attention to that one thing (real or imagined) that we lose perspective on the whole body of expertise that we still possess inside.
We start believing that we’re defined by this one glitch rather than remembering that we’re complex beings with a whole variety of skills and strengths to offer.
The next time you notice a drop in your self-confidence, ask yourself what you’re most focusing on – the single mistake or weakness that you bring to this particular situation, or the whole body of experience on which you have to draw?
Take some time out to re-calibrate. Remember what you are good at in this situation, how many years of experience you have here, or what strengths or skills you can consistently rely on.
Also, if there’s a setting in your life where you find that your confidence consistently falters, consider getting out of it.
A mountaineer always carefully evaluates whether the planned route, the terrain, and the weather is right for her. She does everything in her control to ensure her climb is as safe and successful as possible.
Don’t force yourself to do a climb that isn’t right for you. Maybe this isn’t your mountain. Maybe this isn’t the right route or the right conditions for you.
Lean on your experience and trust your judgment.