Scott Peck tells a story of his time as an army psychiatrist. The army wanted to know what made successful people click, so they asked a series of questions to a dozen men and women who had been promoted ahead of time, who were also popular and had a good family life. One of the questions was to write down - without conferring with anyone - the three most important things in their life, in order.
The second and third responses ranged all over the shop, but quite remarkably, all twelve wrote the same thing as the number one thing in their life.
Can you guess?
It wasn't "love", or "family", or "God", or "my job".
It was "myself".
Peck suggests this was an expression of mature self-love. "Self-love implies the care, respect, and responsibility for, and knowledge of, the self. Without loving one's self one cannot love others. But do not confuse self-love with self-centredness. These successful men and women were loving spouses and caring supervisors."
In business we shy away from discussing anything like "self-love". So I am going to call it "self-confidence". Now, we need to be careful, because words are slippery. So I need to be clear about what I mean by self-confidence.
The Two Sides of Self-Confidence
In my view, self-confidence has what we may call a 'know-how' component. This is not self-confidence in the abstract or in general, but rather self-confidence in a particular domain. We are not equally confident in different places and circumstances. For example, I am out of my depth if asked to solve a mathematical equation, or to change the wheel on a car. Given a choice, I wouldn't even try. But ask me a question about business strategy or how to make money out of an opportunity, and I'm confident I can say something helpful. That's just what my background and experience have equipped me for, and it's what I like doing. So my confidence continually expands and reinforces my experience, and, I hope, my value in that territory.
Every person on the planet is good at certain things. The sooner we concentrate on the things we enjoy most and are best at - if there is a market for this type of work - then the happier we will be with ourselves, and, to a significant degree, the greater our self-confidence.
Yet self-confidence as I define it also has a moral quality. Deep down, it means being happy with who we are, and for good reasons - reasons that somehow connect to all that is most positive, loving and purposeful in the universe. Not being smug or self-satisfied for bad reasons, but being confident that we are "a child of the universe - we have a right to be here". It means having good relationships with people who are on the whole admirable. It means caring about who we are and what we do, and caring for those around us. We can't all be saints - and if we were life would be tedious and one-dimensional. But we can develop our character and become the best possible version of ourselves, as my friend Matthew Kelly nicely puts it. And if that doesn't give us a profound peace and self-confidence, what would?
Success & the Still Small Voice of Calm
How does this relate to success in business and life, however we choose to define success?
I think this kind of self-confidence is at the root of success, as Scott Peck's story attests. In general - not always, not infallibly, but far more often than not - the people who make the best out of themselves and are the most self-confident, are also the ones who achieve the most in the long run. Self-confidence that borders on self-love can be a magical potion, attracting excellent collaborators and getting the best out of them too.
I can think of no better reason for taking the time and space necessary to sort out our own heads and relationships. This probably requires us, at least for a time, not to work very long hours - yet another reason to cultivate "ambitious laziness" of the type I adore. The still, small voice of calm cannot be heard if we are striving too much and too busy to listen. Quiet, attentive self-confidence and self-love require that we put ourselves and our development first - for the benefit of the universe at large.
Are you allowing yourself the time and space to listen?
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