The Confidence/Knowledge Paradox

Confidence is a strange beast. Some seem to possess it inherently, others seem to fight to find it their entire lives. Musicians are notorious for this dichotomy, many acting as their “own worst critics” or constantly chasing some sense of artistic achievement that’s always out of reach.

The mighty Beethoven, a true master by all accounts, once wrote in a letter to a young admirer:

“The true artist is not proud, he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.”

Even a man of his tremendous achievement is plagued by doubt, disheartened by some goal that always seems just over the horizon. Maybe it’s just part of being an artist…

But it’s also just part of being a human.

The internal experience of confidence is psychological (at least partly), and like everything brainy in nature, it’s affected by countless internal and external factors.

And so, digging into to such a “problem” is a nearly insurmountable task – we’re all wired a little bit differently, are more susceptible to various influences across the spectrum. Still, just like the lifelong pursuit of perfecting a single stroke roll, every inch of ground gained is a step in the right direction.

Trying to understand even the most basic bits of where confidence comes from, where it leads us astray, and how we can build on it in a healthy way, we can at least clear away some of the fog.

Confidence from Ignorance

One of my favorite bits of psychology, the Dunning Kruger Effect is a phenomenon where: “people of low ability have illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.”

Essentially, it means that the less you know about something, the less capable you are of determining whether or not you’re any good at it.

We’ve all seen this in the “all talk, no walk” guy at the jam, who tells you all about how good he is… And then… Isn’t.

To a lesser extreme, we can probably remember our own experiences with the phenomenon. As young players, before we ever hear Vinnie or get checked by a veteran player or teacher, we think we’re the shit. We simply don’t have enough context – enough knowledge – to know any better.

It’s a sliding scale, really, and can affect even the most “informed” people on any subject. If there’s a big gap in information, you just don’t know what you don’t know – and are thereby likely to misjudge your own understanding, not to mention your conviction that the judgement is accurate.

If you’re dumb, you’re too dumb to know you’re dumb…

Confidence as Quality

If we use “quality” as a barometer of whether or not you should feel confident in whatever is you’re doing (say, playing a musical instrument), then there are two kinds of quality worth addressing immediately.

On one hand, technical quality – think of it as the quantitative end of the spectrum. Some time signatures are more “difficult” to comprehend than others. We can appreciate high levels of sophistication, risk taking, an understanding of theory or facility on the instrument that is well beyond the norm, or at least the norm we’re used to.

On the other hand, artistic quality – the qualitative side of things…

Feel is everything. Something “easy” on paper is not so easily reproduced on the bandstand. Listen to Steve Jordan or Phil Rudd – they may be playing some of the first beats most of us learn, but we sure has hell can’t play them like they do…

This is some of the essence of punk rock. It might be sloppy or a little out of tune, but dammit, it has attitude.

Both sides of the coin are valid from an observer’s perspective, and in as much as we base our confidence on the feedback of others (explicitly or inferred), they both present “reasons” to feel good and confident about your own art, music, person, whatever.

A personal example:

If I were asked to play a jazz gig, I would NOT feel confident. I love the style, but simply haven’t put the time and energy into truly learning how to play it authentically. I could spangalang my way through a song or two, but any kind of “legit” jazz cats would see right through me. The lack of “quality” translates directly to a lack of confidence… On both ends of the spectrum.

A funk or rock gig, though, I’d likely feel pretty good about. Whether qualitative or quantitative, I’ve spent enough time in that arena to have some confidence that I won’t embarrass myself.

The point is, if you think/know you’ll do all right, you’re more confident in executing… Whatever.

Of course, Dunning Kruger is an exception to this concept – but with some self awareness, and enough information about a subject to form an opinion, you can pretty reasonably base confidence on your predicted “success rate.”

The expectation of some degree of quality is enough of a foundation for confidence to be built upon.

Confidence as Acceptance

There’s a component of confidence that comes from simply accepting who you are – knowing where you’re at musically, knowing who you are creatively, and just understanding that we can only be who we are in a any given moment.

Some people are incredibly adept at this… Or at least they don’t display self doubt the way so many of the rest of us do. It’s this devil may care attitude, some aspect of “here I am, who cares what anyone thinks” that seems to exude confidence. In plenty of cases, this can be even more important than what they actually play – that punk rock attitude again…

Even outside of music or musicianship, the concept of “owning it” is paramount to unapologetic confidence. The people most comfortable in their own skin, regardless of what that “skin” may be, tend to act and “be” with conviction.

Easier said than done, right?

In this vein, it doesn’t really matter how “good” you are. Instead, it’s about how comfortable you are with… Who you are.

The Problem of Education

The more you know, the more you understand how much there is to learn…

Through study, we gain more and more information about the nuances of what we do. Each bit of practice or new concept gives us another filter to examine the wide world of drumming, and inadvertently, that many more ways to judge our own playing.

Learning, then, has an accidental way of chipping away at confidence. It’s that comparison problem again, but instead of just comparing ourselves to other players (and feeling bad about it), there’s an endless list of qualities to become painfully aware of NOT possessing.

Instead of just thinking, say, that Tony Williams sounds great (or not even knowing who he is), you learn to dissect all of the “whys,” the density of what’s actually going on below the surface.

Even without this comparison problem, the rabbit hole just continues to stretch out ahead of each and every one us. Every new thing is a beginning, not an end point. This is a daunting proposition, and well, endlessness doesn’t really inspire confidence. You can enjoy the journey, but you’ll never get to the end.

If you know all kinds of shit… There’s always more. No matter how accomplished you might be, you could always be more accomplished, whatever that may mean to you.

This awareness of what we don’t know is like inverse Dunning Kruger… Instead of being blissfully unaware, and confident in our state of ignorance, we know TOO MUCH – and feel like a very small fish trying to navigate the ocean depths.

The Solution of Education

So, we feel inadequate because of all there is to know, how much there is to learn, all the things we can’t do

But what’s the ONLY solution?

Learn more. Get better. Develop skill.

If we accept this idea of confidence from quality, then the path to building confidence is – obviously enough – increasing quality.

Whether that’s working on technical elements or expanding creative voice, learning new styles or refining a unique sound… The better we are at making art, the better we feel about it.

That bear of self doubt doesn’t go away, of course, and neither does the problem of “the rabbit hole” – but still, experience leads to comfort, and comfort leads to confidence.

Practice works. Human beings thrive through repetition. If you’re terrified of your first gig, you’re probably significantly less afraid of your hundredth. If you (like me) aren’t comfortable playing jazz, spend a couple years doing it, and you’ll feel a hell of lot more prepared…

There’s really no getting around this. Each notch on your belt is a reason to feel better about the craft, and experience/information is the only way to earn those notches.

As for the matter of “acceptance,” this idea of education works the same way. Finding reasons, methods, even raw information to support the idea that you are only your unique self, are all “education” in their own right. From psychology to life coaching, there’s plenty to learn about embracing this visceral source of confidence.

We can all “learn” to come to terms with who we are, shortcomings and all… And we can all put in the effort to develop into who we want to be.


So what are we left with? The problems are just as murky… Are we confident because we know a ton, or because we don’t know enough?

Is a lack of confidence well-founded in inability, or is it Beethoven’s lament that we’ll simply never be as good as we aspire to be?

…Or is it just a matter of self acceptance and worrying less about comparison, the rabbit hole, and the whole rest of the world?

I find that it waxes and wanes – is situational and flexible. There are good days and bad days, confident situations and intimidating ones… And maybe that’s part of the lesson. Confidence isn’t a permanent state of being. Instead, like happiness, it’s something we experience fleetingly, and the pursuit is about frequency, not perpetuity.

Regardless of how often – or even why – the sources of that elusive confidence come from both self awareness and self improvement… And those both seem like perfectly noble pursuits to me.

What affects your confidence? I think this is something most people struggle with, whether or not they express it, and if information is one of the things that helps… Let’s talk about it.



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