Confidence and Change

Confidence is among the central pillars of behaviour change and also among the most complicated of them. Confidence can be gained, lost, and used to our advantage and to our detriment. This makes it among the most interesting and important aspects of change-making we can attend to. The latest episode of Censemaking: The Innovation Podcast looks at this topic in depth.

Confidence: Learning from History

It was the early 1900’s and aviation was, all puns intended, taking off. Flying was a perilous act filled with mechanical failures and pilot deaths from those who sought to jump out of their failing aircraft.

Franz Reichelt was convinced he could change this.

Reichelt was an Austrian Tailor living in France in the early 1900s and he was a man full of confidence and ambition. He was certain that he could design a form of suit that would enable a pilot to fly — or at least float — through the air much like a parachute allowing pilots to be saved should their aircraft fail or be damaged in flight.

As a knowledgeable and skilled tailor Richelt was convinced that he had a design that would not only save lives but bring him fame and fortune. So confident was he of his knowledge and skills that on Sunday, February 4th, 1912 at 7:00 am he climbed to the lower platform of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and, before a crowd of onlookers including over 30 journalists and filmmakers, and wearing his parachute suit, stepped off a stool and over the railing to showcase his design to the world.

Reichelt dropped like a stone – albeit one covered in over 9 kilograms of fabric – plummeting 57 metres to the ground to an untimely death.

(For those interested, the video still exists of the entire effort. Please watch with caution. While not graphic, it does depict the entire act to its end).

In 1961, 49 years after Reichelt’s death — and long after the parachute had been perfected and air travel was common and safe enough – John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of congress and confidently proclaimed that the United States would put a man on the moon within a decade. This despite barely having rockets at the time that would sustain liftoff to orbit, never mind the earth’s closest relative. Before the decade was out, NASA had successfully landed two manned missions to the surface of the moon (and would have four more after that).

Whether you’re flopping off a tower or reaching for the moon, confidence plays a big role in making things happen.


Confidence is often associated with self-esteem or self-improvement and is at the heart of our efforts to change. Confidence is a sense of trust and hopefulness attached to our actions and what we wish to accomplish. It is one of the pillars of behaviour change, but as we’ve just shown it can lead us both to success and to failure.

Confidence works through two pathways: observational learning and experience. In most cases, these two things go hand in hand. Observational learning is all about studying and watching others and integrating those insights with other means of study like reading or watching videos. If we see others doing something we can pay attention to the techniques, mindsets, tools, or situations that enable us to do what they did.

Experience is built from the attempts made at the thing you want to do or change and the integration of feedback gained from those attempts. Without this learning, it’s unlikely you’ll build confidence. Both of these can work in surprising ways, particularly when it comes to innovation, which is doing something new and often means we don’t have the experience starting out.

This can manifest itself in two strategies of thinking that can either limit us or enable us to succeed.

Real and Fake Confidence

Imposter Syndrome is a non-clinical term for a set of thoughts and feelings experienced by many people who achieve success but might not feel they deserve it or are as qualified as others at the same station in life. This is a situation where we lack the confidence that might be appropriate to our situation. In this case, we might have all the appropriate qualifications and rights to something, but our perspective doesn’t allow us to see or accept them.

An alternative is sometimes called fake-it-till-you-make-it where we are genuinely unqualified or out of place, but act as if we are. This approach can work because it opens us up to gaining experience in doing something while keeping that humility in check. What it means is that we might not know the answers, but that we’re proceeding as if we did (yet with the curiosity as if we didn’t). Research suggests this can be an effective strategy, particularly when approaching a new situation because projecting confidence can help others trust you and engage you more, which increases your ability to learn, achieve and use observational learning and positive experience. Not bad.

These illustrate another feature of confidence is self-awareness. Self-awareness is our ability to stand apart from ourselves and see ourselves as others might and allows for a better appraisal of our skills and abilities in relation to others. Without self-awareness, we can’t know the degree that we know or have skills in something. We also won’t know how to question something or accept change.

Awareness of whether we fit or don’t can help us take the actions to ensure that we do fit.

Building Confidence

What are some lessons we can take about building and understanding the place of confidence in change?

First, Confidence is best paired with humility and curiosity. NASA was curious about discovery knowing that they had much to learn while holding a belief they could be successful. They were cautiously confident. Franz Reichelt was convinced he had the answer and sought to prove it. His lack of humility and persistence in learning more ahead of his actions cost him his life.

Second, different perspectives are important: our confidence can only be nurtured outside of a vacuum. Feedback from those around us — directly or indirectly, through observation and comments – is vital to improving our performance. This is why NASA succeeded in putting a man on the moon: they had many different perspectives and engaged in much feedback gathering.

Third, know thyself. Take feedback in, assess it against your values and beliefs, and see how it fits. By being humble, bold, and open to feedback and how that fits with our values and goals we can create the confidence to take action.

"Everyone has to believe in something. I believe I'll have another cup of coffee" – Many of us.  Coffee (or tea or whatever you enjoy) is more than a drink: it's a vehicle for innovation. The cafe culture that began in Turkey, spread through Europe and brought a humble bean (actually, it's a cherry!) from Africa, South America, and Indonesia to cups around the world is both a literal and metaphorical embodiment of innovation. In this episode, we speak about what it is about coffeehouses and innovation and what lessons we can learn from what they bring.  We look at how coffee can bring people together, give pause, and create a third space for us to learn, share, create, and innovate. Thanks for spending your coffee break listening to this episode. For more to learn, visit the links below:  James Donison's Reaching for the Middle Podcast: Ray Oldenberg's Third Space/Place theory: The Evolution of the Coffee House: Spurce Eats Hugo Coffee's The Incredible History of Coffee Houses: From Beer to Caffeine: A History of the Coffeehouse: Censemaking: This is Season 2, Episode 1 – for more on the entire series follow, like, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.  — Send in a voice message:
  1. 13. Coffee and Change
  2. Getting Out More
  3. Sticking Our Change-making Together With Glue
  4. Creative Environments for Change-Making
  5. Change and Support (With a Little Help from Our Friends)

To learn more about building behaviour change strategies listen and subscribe to the first season of Censemaking: The Innovation Podcast as we explore the key foundations of behaviour change and innovation psychology. For more in doing this work with your organization, reach out and let’s talk more about how I can help you. Thanks for reading.

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

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December 2021