S3 Episode 3: Cultivating Confidence

Where in the brain is that little something that makes top performers feel so confident in their ability? Can that confidence be developed in someone who is naturally more timid? Dr. Nate Zinsser, director of West Point’s Performance Psychology Program and author of The Confident Mind, explains how a sense of mastery develops, and why butterflies in your stomach are a signal from the brain when you’re about to do something great. Plus… why Ted Lasso wants us all to be a little more like goldfish.

Phil Stieg: Hello, and welcome to Dr. Nate Zinsser, director of performance psychology for the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was mesmerized by his newest book, The Confident Mind.  In it, he outlines his system for the development of confidence and how he has applied it not only with West Point cadets, but also pro athletes like Eli Manning, NHL players, and Olympic athletes. Nate, thank you for being here with us today and hopefully helping our listeners to begin understanding how to develop healthy confidence and improve their performance.

Nate Zinsser: Dr. Stieg thank you so much for the opportunity to be here. I look forward to this just as much.

Phil Stieg: So let’s start off with a definition. What is a confident mind?

Nate Zinsser: A confident mind in my definition – which is all about performance and execution in the practical, real world – my definition tries to get out of an abstract sort of intangible, mysterious process and really think about the sense of certainty that you want to have about an ability or a group of abilities that you have so that you can execute those abilities pretty much unconsciously, pretty much without thinking and walking yourself through it. We all do things that are rather complicated, but we can execute them with almost a complete lack of deliberate, step by step thought.

When we tie our shoes, we engage hundreds of muscles and nerves and joints, and once upon a time, we had to think our way through it. But now we can do that automatically unconsciously. And there are so many other things that we could do in our lives, things that matter (maybe a heck of a lot more than just tying your shoes!). But we could execute those tasks with that same degree of unconscious certainty or informed instinctiveness. And in so doing, you’re going to do it better because that’s the way the animal is wired.

Phil Stieg: In going through the book, I was thinking about the differences in the confidence that is manifested in a Mohammed Ali versus an Eli Manning. Can you differentiate between the person and what confidence is?

Nate Zinsser: Absolutely. Muhammad Ali is the classic example of a naturally extroverted, naturally loud individual. Eli Manning is a textbook example of an introverted fella who just isn’t inclined to talk about himself a heck of a lot. Now, the common misconception of a confident athlete is to think, oh, it’s just those loud, outspoken, “Muhammad Ali type” fellas or gals. And so we tend to think of confidence as this loud, boisterous bravado. And we ignore or overlook all the quiet folks like the Manning brothers, like Serena Williams, like so many other great performers who have the same degree of certainty about themselves, but simply because they are naturally introverted – Tthey’re different kinds of people – Tthey don’t express it on the outside.

Phil Stieg: Contemplative people can be confident. You also emphasize that people with confidence have the ability to retain successful experiences and release the less successful experiences. And I think of the three-point shooter, the one that says, Give me the ball, I’m going to put it in. They’ve only shot 50%, but that shot is going to go in. They have that kind of confidence. Can you talk about that?

Nate Zinsser: Certainly. That sense of certainty is really the result of all the memories that you tend to hang on to. I find myself having to give people permission, so to speak, to retain the memories, to feel good about the moments where they have indeed come through and kind of deemphasize emotionally almost to the point of ignoring a little bit the number of times when it hasn’t worked out for them. Having that kind of “selective memory” where you are really looking for the things that are constructive is a very valuable skill.

Phil Stieg: Talk a little bit about the misconceptions of what confidence is. You spend a whole chapter reviewing that, and I think that it’s important for people to understand those characteristics,

Nate Zinsser: Certainly. Well, we touched on one in that confidence and outspoken arrogance are not the same thing, and unfortunately, they get co-mingled and confused. Another important characteristic is that confidence is not this all-encompassing attribute that pervades every aspect of your life. No, no, no. Confidence is really situation specific. You can be ridiculously confident about your ability to whip up a fabulous spaghetti sauce, but absolutely unconfident about your ability to hit the ball straight off the golf tee. And even within, say, someone’s golf game. You can be ridiculously confident about your ability to accurately read the way a green breaks, but not very confident in your ability to get the ball out of a sand trap. Okay. It’s so situation specific. The good news is that you can develop confidence in each and every one of those specific areas if you so choose. So let’s decide what we need to be certain about, and let’s build that up.

Another important misconception is that once you achieve a certain level of certainty about an ability or a group of abilities, it’s going to stay with you forever, and you’ll always have it. Boy, I wish that were the case.  No…Confidence is a function of how you think.  You can build up a sense of certainty by disciplining yourself, to retain and benefit from certain memories, from telling yourself particular stories about yourself, and by deliberately cultivating producing certain still photos and certain video clips through that wonderful production studio that is your imagination. These are methods that you can systematize so that you become more certain.

Phil Stieg: I think also is the fact that confidence isn’t fixed or it’s not an inherited trait. We all have the potential to become confident.

Nate Zinsser: Yes, indeed. That is another huge misconception that so and so. Oh, Muhammad Ali or Eli Manning or Serena Williams. Wow!  That person is just confident. And the mistaken impression is that they’ve always been that way.  They learned it!

Phil Stieg: I think one of the favorite quotes you had in the book is that confidence has little to do with what happens to you and a lot to do with how you think about what happens.

Nate Zinsser: Absolutely. We can have a great deal of success in our lives, but if we almost ignore some of that success, well, then it doesn’t contribute to our ongoing certainty. Conversely, you can be relatively unsuccessful. But if your filter is really good and you allow yourself to retain and feel good about those relatively few instances where you are successful, where there is a possibility of future success, then your certainty can be rather high. So it’s not what goes on, it’s how you think about what goes on.

Phil Stieg: I was thinking about one of my lines that I frequently use to maintain humility is I’m only as good as my last failure. And I thought, that’s a negative construct on something that I’m actually using to motivate myself. I don’t let my past failures conquer me. But in the same token, you don’t want to forget them and you want to turn them into a learning or a positive experience.

Nate Zinsser: Right. And once you have learned what there is to learn as a result of a failure or a setback or a mistake, then it’s fine to forget it. Some of your listeners may be entertained by the wonderful TV series Ted Lasso about an American football coach, who was mistakenly brought in to coach a British first division soccer team. And there’s a wonderful scene where he instructs one of his players to have the memory of a goldfish.

Ted Lasso Excerpt:


You know what the happiest animal on Earth is?  Goldfish. You know why?

Sam: No. No.

Ted: Got a ten second memory.   Be a goldfish, Sam.

Nate Zinsser: And it’s a great scene. It’s very entertaining, but it misses the point that, hey, player, let’s take a quick look at what happened out there that contributed to that mistake. What do you need to do different next time? Okay, it’s this coach. It’s that coach. Okay? Yeah, you got that. Now, now have a ten second memory. Now you can forget that thing because you’ve learned what there is to be learned from that moment.

Phil Stieg: You spend a considerable time talking about the mind body connection. Could you explain that to us?

Nate Zinsser: The mind body connection is a term that I think has gotten a little more traction in the last couple of decades, particularly because our technology today allows us to actually see changes that are taking place on a physical level in our bodies when we change the way we think. And the idea is that your thoughts, whether they be memories of the past, things that you tell yourself in the present or, again, visions of the future, all those thoughts, wow, really influence our emotional state. Those neurons that are firing in our auditory or visual cortex, they’re connecting to some of the emotional centers of the brain. And from those sections of the brain, there are connections that are going out to our various organs and systems. So our muscle tension, our heart rate, our hormone production, are all being influenced by the emotional state that we create with our conscious, deliberate thoughts. Now, that’s a very liberating concept. If you take it a certain way, it means I can influence my body by changing the way I think. And we’re doing that every day, all day, whether we realize it or not.

Phil Stieg: You remind me of when I have a difficult situation in the operating room. I’ll find myself I initially start with regulating my breathing, relaxing my shoulders, and then I start to just a little nonsense tune to myself, and it just sort of all of a sudden everything starts to feel kind of “Feng Shui”, then I get on with the task.

Nate Zinsser: Absolutely. You are aware that there’s a connection between your cognitions and your emotions and the tension in your body. And for a surgeon, that’s pretty darn important.

Phil Stieg: I hope so…. So when you’re coaching your mentees, how do you get them to become friends with their imperfections? What do you say to them? What do you make them do?

Nate Zinsser: I make them look really honestly and carefully at their idols or their role models for performance. Watch the best golfers   Watch the great Tom Brady throughout an entire game. What are you going to see? Well, he threw 35 passes and three of them were in the dirt. He wasn’t perfect either!

I really have to work hard to get people to accept the fact that we are all imperfect human beings. These mistakes are going to happen, and it’s how we respond to them that really really matters. There is no single answer to the question, Doctor Stieg, there’s just this exploration of have you ever been perfect? Have you ever seen anyone be perfect? Can we strive to be perfect? Moment by moment, drill by drill, game by game, class by class, meeting by meeting, can we strive for it? And yet, when it doesn’t occur, can we not demand it and not despair over the fact that we weren’t perfect? Let’s strive, let’s go for it, but let’s not hold ourselves to a ridiculously, impossible to achieve standard.


Narrator: In this edition of “This Is Your Brain – The Guided Tour,” we take a closer look at Ted Lasso – that improbable coach of the fictional Richmond Associated Football Club.  Ted didn’t know much about soccer when he took over the team, but he knew a thing or two about performance, motivation, and confidence. Like Dr. Zinsser, Ted believes that imperfect human beings can strive for perfection – no matter their culture or their sport.

Ted Lasso: So I’ve been hearing this phrase y’all got over here that I ain’t too crazy about. “It’s the hope that kills you.” I disagree. I think it’s lack of hope that comes and gets you. Now, where I’m from, we got saying too. Do you believe in miracles?

Narrator: Ted knows that the stories we tell ourselves – how we manage our memories and frame our experiences – can shape our futures. We can wallow in our failures, or we can use them as learning experiences and move on.

Ted Lasso:  Hey, you all played a heck of a game out there. We may not have won, but y’all definitely succeeded. You gave the champs 90 minutes of hell…  Now look, this is a sad moment right here for all of us. There ain’t nothing I can say standing in front of you right now that could take that away. But please, do me this favor, will you? Lift your heads up, look around this locker room.  Look at everybody else in here. And I want you to be grateful that you’re going through this sad moment with all these other folks. Because I promise you there is something worse out there than being sad. And that is being alone and being sad.  Ain’t nobody in this room alone.  Sam, do you remember what animal has the shortest memory?

Sam: A goldfish.

Ted: That’s right. It was a goldfish. Sam, what do you think we should all do once we get done being sad and/or angry about this situation?

Sam:  think we should all be a goldfish.

Ted: I agree. Let’s be sad now. Let’s be sad together. And then we can be a gosh-darn goldfish.

Narrator: A lesson in confidence – from the grateful goldfish of the Richmond Football Club – closing out this edition of “This Is Your Brain, The Guided Tour.”

Phil Stieg: I can’t believe there’s a person out there listening to this that hasn’t experienced the butterflies. You’re doing something. What’s your recommendation? How do we control that?

Nate Zinsser: Well, I don’t know if control is exactly the right word, Doctor Stieg, we’re human beings. We’re designed by our nature, our evolutionary heritage, to experience a physiological arousal in the moments before we do something that’s important.  We have to mobilize energy in order to move, in order to escape danger, in order to pursue food, etc. And any time we’re about to do something important, like taking that history midterm, or taking that three-point shot, or stepping into that arena to give the presentation, there’s going to be a little surge of energy. Our glands are going to produce adrenaline, et cetera. And a side effect of that energy surge is an innervation of your stomach lining where you’ve got a whole lot of neurons, and they’re going to start buzzing a little faster, and that might feel like it’s flipping up and down.

That sensation is an indication that your body has elevated itself in order to help you perform. So you need to take that perspective, that understanding. So when the butterflies kick in, you’re not saying, oh, wow, I feel really uncomfortable. This is awful. You’re saying, “oh, I’m feeling different. I have a State-of-the-Art performance enhancing chemical circulating in my body that’s here to help me. That’s kind of cool. I can deal with the fact that it’s not 100% comfortable. I can deal with the fact that it’s not a normal sensation because I’m not about to do something that’s normal”. Taking that midterm is not a normal thing. You don’t do it three times a day, stepping into that arena to play in the NBA playoffs or the Wimbledon or the Super Bowl. That’s not normal. Why would you expect to feel normal? Your body is giving you something special because your body knows that this is important, that this matters to you, and it’s going to give you something to help.

Phil Stieg: All of us living in America are so used to instant gratification now. I can go to the web, I can turn the channel on the TV, and you’d spend a fair amount of time talking about the delayed returns of practice. Can you emphasize that, so people understand that this is not something that you just I’m going to be confident and tomorrow I’m confident.

Nate Zinsser: When we’re gaining skills, we don’t necessarily develop instantly an improvement in our skill level. It can take some time. It can take some time for the neural pathways that govern our execution of anything. Playing the piano, making a presentation, doing a negotiation. It can take a while for the neurology that underlies that to reach a level of sophistication that allows it to happen quickly.

That’s a slow process. It takes as long as it takes. Be aware and be happy that this change is taking place. We don’t see the results of it initially. It might take 100 reps. It might take 200 reps. At some point that series of neurological connections is going to reach a critical mass. And bingo, that’s when you have the A-HA moment. Oh, yeah. Now my forehand is hitting better. Now my footwork is better. Now I finally understand all the subtleties of the Napoleonic Wars because it took me three or 4 hours of dedicated study, 30 minutes a day over a period of two weeks. I finally get it and I can write a great essay on it.

Phil Stieg: So we’ve had that a-ha moment that you just described. You go into details about how to maintain constructive thinking in the present. As you said, confidence. Once you have it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have it forever. You can lose it. So you’ve got to have constructive processes to maintain it.

Nate Zinsser: Absolutely. We all have various opinions and beliefs about ourselves. I’m good at this. I’ve struggled with that. I had a young man in my office just 2 hours ago who said, I’m not naturally smart. I have to work really hard to maintain my academic GPA. I’m not a great writer. Those stories that he tells himself will confirm the belief that he began with. And we are all subject to that. So it’s very important that we become aware of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

And I instructed this young man to be thinking instead of I’m not a good writer, to think I’m a careful writer. I submit my drafts early, I get quality feedback. I made great revisions, all of which is true. But he was overlooking it. And as a result, now he has the opportunity, if he keeps repeating that story to himself, to build a sense of, yeah, I’m an effective writer. I’m an effective writer. Rather than I’m not a good writer. And we are all subject to that ongoing self-fulfilling prophecy.  It’s just a principle in human behavior, and we can either ignore it and let it control us, or we can take advantage of it and have it work in our favor by learning to talk to ourselves about what we want, a skill, a quality an outcome. Talk to yourself about what you want as if you got – it right now in the present. Even if you don’t, that moves you toward it.

Phil Stieg: I enjoyed the mnemonic you used for ESP: Exercise Success and Progress, which you suggest are important in mining your memories.

Nate Zinsser: Indeed – that’s just a way to operationalize the idea of looking for the best in yourself day by day. Confidence, as we’ve been discussing, is indeed the outcome of the ongoing repository of thoughts that you maintain about yourself. So if we can look every day for a small episode of quality effort, where did I get through my procrastination? What did I push myself through in today? Let’s record that. That is a valuable memory. That’s a little deposit into your mental bank account. I do the same with success. What did I get right today? It doesn’t have to be a big thing. What did I get right today? Oh, yeah, I made a little improvement in my seated position when I was shooting the small-bore rifle. That’s another little deposit. And then P for progress. What does it seem like I’m actually getting better at over the course of yesterday, the day before, the previous days? Do I have a sense that I’m getting better at something? Am I looking for that progress? So acknowledging those small episodes of e-Effort and s-Success and p-Progress. Those are ways of just systematically building up the confidence bank account that leads to that sense of certainty that you want to have when it’s time to step into the arena.

Phil Stieg: And that raises the next question a little bit about we all will fail. We are human. You raised this point earlier. And we’re all familiar with the baseball player that’s in a batting slump or the three-point shooter that’s been in a slump for a while. So we’re human. How do we protect our confidence or what actually is going on? Is it their confidence or something else?

Nate Zinsser: It’s really important because we do fail, because we are imperfect, that we keep our failures and our imperfections in their proper perspective. And there’s a way that this can be done. And the model that I offer is, consider your imperfections in three ways:.

Think about them as temporary. You acknowledge they happened, but think about them as, okay, that happened. That happened at one time. But it was just a temporary occurrence as opposed to having something go wrong and saying, oh, here I go again. And at that point, you almost expect it to happen again. You even create the likelihood that it will happen again. But you don’t have to do that.

You can discipline yourself to react to a mistake saying, okay, it happened. It just happened at one time. That’s one way to do it.

Another way to do it is to look at that same mistake and say, yeah, it happened, but it just happened in that one setting, in that one place.  And because it happened in that one place, I can leave it there and I can expect success in all the other settings and all the other situations and all the other places. I’m leaving the mistake in the place where it occurred. I’m not taking it with me.

And the third defense, if you will, is to treat all those mistakes as not representative of you as a player, as a performer, as a human being. Yes, it happened, okay, but it doesn’t tell the whole story about you. So refuse to buy into, “oh, I made a mistake… Maybe I’m not good enough?”. You can’t go to that conclusion. You have to keep that mistake in its proper, temporary and limited perspective.

Phil Stieg: It kind of reminds me of I was working the sidelines of the Super Bowl between the Broncos and the Seahawks. The first snap to Payton Manning went over his head into the end zone. The game just went downhill from there. What do you do? What are the steps to regain your confidence after an event like that?

Nate Zinsser: Yeah, in a moment that is as big as that. Hey, we’re talking Super Bowl here. Big mistake. Ouch. That is when you really have to tighten down your mind. Okay. It happened. It just happened there.  Let’s remember how we got here, and let’s just do the things that we’ve been doing all season long that have enabled our appearance in the Super Bowl. I remember the Seahawks were in the NFC Championship game. And at the end of the first half, the Seahawks were down like 35 to three.

Phil Stieg: That was against the Packers. And I never forget that game because I’m a Packer fan.

Nate Zinsser: Okay, alright. And in the locker room, (I’ve had the privilege of talking to coach Pete Carroll about this) in the locker room. The message to his players was, “fellas, we’re going to get back one touchdown at a time. We’re not going to get it all back at once. Let’s just play our game. Let’s chip away at it. We got 30 minutes of football. Let’s pursue each possession patiently. We’re going to get there”. And that was the message that he had been preaching all season long. We just play one play at a time. We execute the best we can. We’re not looking too far into the future, so let’s continue to do that. And the Seahawks had a rather remarkable comeback in that second half.

Phil Stieg: What’s the neuroscience behind all of this. You’ve done a lot of reading and writing. Can you summarize it and make it easy for us?

Nate Zinsser: Not being a fully trained neurosurgeon in neuroscience, I have looked at this from the position of a physical educator and coach, and it’s quite clear that in states of high performance, the overwhelming evidence is that there is an economy of brain activity when we are performing at our best. The brain processes that are essential to perform a task, whether it’s a take down and wrestling, a cross court forehand or the proper answer to a question, the neural centers that are important to perform that task are indeed engaged, but all the other ones that are unnecessary momentarily step out. So instead of thinking about how important it is to answer that question, instead of having a sort of background noise about how good you’re doing so far, those processes just suck up your energy and basically distract you from what is important. The neuroscience says, let’s just engage the parts of our brain, the parts of our spinal cord, the parts of our peripheral nervous system that are necessary, and let’s allow the other ones to drop out, because all that’s going to do is create interference. It’s going to interfere with our perception of the relevant stimuli. It’s going to interfere with the recall from our storehouse of experiences, the proper response, and it’s going to interfere with the delivery of the neural commands to our eyes, mouth, nose, feet, whatever to produce the proper response. That’s my quick summary of a whole lot of neuroscience, Doc.

Phil Stieg: That’s perfect! Dr. Nate Zinsser, thank you so much for enlightening us in performance psychology. I hope that people have found this applicable in all walks of life. As we emphasize it’s for CEOs, it’s for athletes, it’s for firefighters, it’s for lawyers, all of us for teachers, all of us can achieve that in the zone feeling if we really focus, work at it and allow our brains to stay focused on that subject. Thank you so much for being with us. It’s been a great hour. Dr. Nate Zinsser, thank you so much for enlightening us in the psychology of confidence. I’m sure that people who read your book, The Confident Mind, will find this applicable in all walks of life. Thank you so much for being with us.

Nate Zinsser: Dr. Stieg, thank you so much. And my best wishes for health and success to all your listeners.