Final Approach

How do you inspire others to challenge you?

My general demeanor is pretty confident. I don’t see much reason not to be – I might have plenty of self-doubt or hesitations, but those don’t provide me with any value if I express them, so I don’t. Even if you’re only 51% certain that a given course of action will be successful, once you’ve decided to act on it, you’d better act as if you were 100% certain.

One of my father’s great stories is about how he snuck into a concert without paying not by being stealthy or hopping a fence or anything like that. Rather, he found the employee entrance to the venue’s burger joint and burst in, loudly. He started shouting orders for people to flip those burgers faster, we’ve got hungry people waiting, those fries look done mister, go fill up the condiments! And then while everyone scrambled to obey his commands, he walked confidently out the front door into the crowd. Not only did he enter the concert, he probably raised production of the snack area by 10%.

The lesson that this story and so, so many others taught me is that with a truly insane level of outward confidence you can accomplish pretty much anything. You can will your desired place in the world into existence. The method works because the confidence becomes like armor – it keeps anyone from challenging you.

But sometimes you want to be challenged. Sometimes you need it.

See, the confident demeanor separates you from friend and foe alike. It keeps naysayers from dragging you down, but it naturally creates a sort of barrier between you and others. Even if your confidence is 100% friendly, and you never put anyone else down or give the impression that you’d use your powers for evil, it can dissuade people from approaching you.

“He’s so confident in his position, surely he won’t react well to someone disagreeing,” they might think. “Even if he isn’t argumentative or mean about it, he won’t budge. My opinions will fall on deaf ears. He might be great to lead people who don’t know what they’re doing, but I do know what I’m doing. In fact, I have information that would improve this process significantly, but there’s no way he’ll listen.”

That might be true or it might not be. But it’s 100% the signal you give if you act… well, if you act the way I do, let’s be honest.

I have thick skin, in a professional context. You could throw a pen at the back of my head, tell me to shut up, and erase my notes and start over, and as long as that was the level of discourse you’re comfortable receiving as well as dishing out, I’ll take no offense and in fact be thrilled at the bluntness. I mean, let’s solve problems, people! But other people have no way of knowing that. Egos can be fragile, and sometimes you challenge a confident person’s shtick and they lash out from wounded pride, resentful and vengeful. You’re probably right to be cautious.

But I don’t want that caution around me. My very presence can be silencing other voices, without a single conscious act on my part. I can welcome every single comment that comes my way, but still be discouraging them with the way I take over.

In the movie Pulp Fiction, there’s a scene where two of the main characters are in a real bind (to undersell the scene considerably), and they call in a specialist – Winston Wolf, who “solves problems.” He immediately takes over, giving curt orders and expecting immediate deference. When called on his bluntness, he explains that he’s there to handle a specific task and that time is a factor, so effectiveness in executing his expertise is more important than consideration of others’ feelings.

It’s a cool scene. And in a lot of high-pressure situations, I’m that guy. Calm under pressure, can act quickly and decisively, generally competent. What I’m absolutely terrible at is realizing that not every situation is like that. I’m not navigating an endless series of time-sensitive crises all the time, but I very much often act as if I am.

It’s not deliberate, and I’m definitely working on it.

But it’s not my strong suit.

What makes someone approachable? What signs about someone tell you: “this person won’t dismiss my thoughts and ideas, won’t be upset if they get challenged, won’t resent me for not following along?”

Another drawback of the Armor of Confidence is that I’ve never much had to consider how “approachable” someone is, because I’ll approach anyone. So I don’t really know what subtle signs one gives to assure other people that they are, in fact, not going to bite them.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: This goes on my Big List O’ Flaws. But that list isn’t carved on a stone tablet (I hope). It’s something to work on, and that work starts with reaching out. Like almost any problem in the world, you can’t solve it in your own head. If you had all the information required, it would already be solved. So this is my starting point for that research. I like my confidence, I like my, for lack of a better word, presence. It’s a trait that’s served me well. It’s armor against the world. But like armor, it needs to come off sometimes, and I’m trying to figure out when that is, and how to take it off.

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