How to design your way to increased self-confidence

How to Gain Constructive-Confidence

James Buckhouse


In the new series on how to design anything, we take on different topics. This week: how to use design principles to improve your self-confidence, recognize your shortcomings, and perpetually improve.

First, some background:

Whether you move through life as a musician, athlete, surgeon, artist, business leader, salesperson, or poet—confidence matters to perform at your best. And yet the extremes—too little confidence or too much confidence—will both lead to failure. So how do you get it right? How do you summon just enough confidence that you achieve your best, but not so much so that your unchecked hubris hurts more than it helps? How do you walk into a high-pressure situation and succeed? How do you help yourself become your best?

Imagine a continuum….

Under-confidence → Neutral-Confidence →Constructive-confidence → Over-confidence


We know what under-confidence feels like, but where does it come from? Under-confidence occurs when we don’t believe we can succeed. We don’t think we’ll win. We second-guess our choices. We over-think. We hold back. If that describes the symptoms, then what describes the disease? I would posit doubt as the root cause of under-confidence. Once doubt creeps in your confidence evaporates. We doubt our choices. We doubt our abilities. We doubt our chances. We doubt our luck. We doubt our teammates. We doubt ourselves. We doubt our worth. We doubt our past. We doubt our future.


Just as an abundance of doubt engenders under-confidence, a deficit of doubt fuels over-confidence. Impossible hopes… delusional aspirations… the active dismissal of clear signals of danger. Unchecked over-confidence results in humiliation, destruction, failure, and in the extreme, death.


Between under-confidence and over-confidence, we find constructive-confidence. It’s not dead in the middle—that would be some sort of neutral-confidence state—instead it’s a bit past neutral heading towards over-confidence, but somehow not too far gone. The position just past neutral matters. We need to feel the lift towards greatness. Without that exquisite pressure, we gain no advantage. And we crave that advantage. Constructive-confidence feels in that moment as if we become as gods.* Time alters. Our abilities expand. Opportunities appear. Obstacles yield. Vexation ceases. Inter-dimensional pathways unfold. Solutions emerge. Instinct activates. We just do it.**

The Doubt Conundrum

You can’t pretend that doubt doesn’t exist, or you’ll just walk into a trap. You can’t succumb to doubt, or you’ll never get anything done. You have to deal with it. The solution to the doubt conundrum lies in the problem itself. We can disarm doubt through its opposite: trust. Activate trust and you’ll defeat doubt. But the trust must ring true. Earned trust. Learned trust. Real trust. Notice I didn’t say “faith.” Faith comes from hope, a wish or belief. Trust comes from proof. And proof, as we’ll see, unlocks the entire apparatus.

Proof-based trust

Practice free throws enough times, with enough diligent attention to errors and corrections, and you’ll improve. When the big moment comes, and you must make a free throw to win the game, you can close your eyes and remember all those moments of practice and recall all those made shots and concentrate on what you do when you do it well and BOOM your constructive-confidence will kick in and help you succeed. You disarm doubt when you activate trust based on proof (all those shots made in practice) to elevate your performance in a moment that matters.

This means to increase our confidence, we must devise ways to build a surplus of proof.


Practice yields nearly endless bounty. Deliberate Practice (see Talent is Overrated) transforms you from average to exceptional through focused effort. Yet practice does secret extra work—practice helps you stockpile “proof” that builds self-trust so that when you need it most, you can summon your confidence.

Practice shooting a basketball, but while you shoot, break down the complex tasks into small tasks. Improve each small task by making adjustments at each micro-step. Hold yourself rigorously accountable for each micro-step. Work until you master it. Make abundant corrections.

And yet… while you undergo your deliberate practice, harvest a second bounty from your efforts. Make a mental note to stock-pile each moment of proof of your competence at each micro-step. Deliberately remember it as evidence that you can perform that part of the process correctly, that you have improved.

As your results improve through deliberate practice, again take note of your progress and heave it onto your proof pile.

The process transforms the usual path of failure and struggle and turns it into a fascinating cycle of effort, analysis, micro-progress, and ever-increasing confidence—based on factual self-trust as evidenced by a huge proof pile.

This works for creative tasks as well. Break down impossible creative activities into micro-tasks. Gleefully endeavor to tackle each micro-task, failing and fixing and remixing each step of the way. When you overcome a small obstacle, celebrate as you deliberately store it in your proof pile as evidence that you can do this. It’s only through much such doing, Ira Glass tells us, that our abilities can catch up to our ambitions.

An example:

“I need to write a joke for this big-deal TV series, even though I’ve never written jokes (officially) for TV before. This is my shot. I don’t want to screw it up. But can I do it? Sure I can… I’ve been telling jokes my whole life. And most important, I know how jokes work… I know the structure… you create a set-up that no one realizes is a set-up, and then deliver an unexpected, surprising, utterly un-before-seen payoff where the truth of the moment is the opposite of expectations… I can do this! Now which direction do I want to start… work forward from the set-up? Or work backward from the payoff. I’m going to start with the payoff. Because I have an idea about a payoff that I can totally use for this…”

Mental Practice

In addition to actual practice, you can “mentally practice” the areas where you want to improve. Mental practice requires only your imagination, but instead of envisioning glory or fantasy, you imagine yourself in a tricky situation and then you watch yourself work your way through it. Run the scenario more than once. Get better each time. Use your successes from your initial runs to create even more daring and successful subsequent runs. Practice in your mind. Note your successes—every micro-step along the way—and gather your strategies and techniques, and then add them all to your stockpile of proof.

Side Story

I went to Camp Cascade basketball camp in middle school. It was a sleep-away camp where we played basketball 50 hours a week. It was in the Cascade mountains that formed the eastern wall of the Willamette Valley, a region now famous for Pinot Noir, but during my youth was known mostly for the collapse of the timber industry, the rise of grunge, and an abundance of rain. The camp was spartan. Outdoor asphalt courts. Douglas Fir trees. Grey skies. Imagine Twin Peaks, but with everyone wearing hightops. One of the coaches told a story about a camper who was struggling with free throws. He held him back after practice and told him to go the free throw line and make 10 free throws using an imaginary ball. Half an hour later, the child was still out there, trying to make imaginary free throws. He came back to the coach and explained that he just couldn’t do it. No matter how many times he shot, the ball wouldn’t go in. The coach turned to him and said, “if you can’t make a free throw in your mind, how will you ever make one in a game?”

Already aware I craved a life of art and story, not an existence on the hardwood, I looked up from where I had been listening, some 100 yards from the basket at the far side of the asphalt, and I imagined making a shot from where I was standing, an impossible distance, but not for my mind. To this day, whenever I pass a hoop, no matter the distance, it could be hundreds of yards, I imagine making a shot as I walk by. I imagine every detail. I allow for the long float time it takes for the arc of my imaginary ball to peak high in the sky and then for the rock to drop in through the bucket. I hear the sound of the net, sometimes made of chains, other times of nylon, and then the thump-echo slap of the ball on the ground after it passes through. Sometimes, on special days, I even hear the roar of the crowd, cheering me on, rooting for me to succeed in some private endeavor known only to us.

Activate your stockpile of proof

A stockpile of proof will only help if you can learn to activate it. Learn to pull the best proof you need to help you in that moment. Your proof pile is only potent if you can summon it. Learning to do this also takes practice. Like the Hogwarts students learning to cast spells, you have to practice to get good at bewitching yourself. So practice. The effort is small and the rewards are lasting.

Activate your body

Our body’s nervous system extends passed our brains to our whole body. As such, you can use your entire body to adjust your brain. We activate our own emotions, confidence, and cognition through our physical configuration. We tell ourselves how to feel. Ask a pianist or a dancer—they know—our minds and bodies work together. So why not see it as a two way street? Where physical actions can help trigger mental associations? Read Oliver Sacks for more on the connection.

A few shortcuts: to gain confidence, stand upright and balanced. Drop your voice to relax your anxiety. Smile to trigger happier thoughts in your own mind (yup—force your face to smile and it sends “happiness” triggers to your brain). Move your body through the familiar motions of success stored in your self-trust proof stockpile. You’ll see basketball players do little motions with their arms as they summon full-bodied, physical memory evidence from their success-proof stockpile as they gear up to shoot. Ballet dancers do the same as they do a micro-version of the dance in the wings prior to the start of the performance. This is called marking—and it doesn’t mean just skipping the hard parts to avoid injury—dancers “mark steps” as a special type of mental rehearsal.

Go Further

Warning: if your proof pile contains only what you have already achieved, it won’t give you the biggest possible boost to your confidence. Instead, it will limit you to what you’ve already done. To push further, we need to imagine a greater future. We must imagine doing the best we’ve ever done, with our proof-pile pointing the way. Here we summon a meta-proof point: I’ve exceeded my past limitations before—I can do it again. I’ve improved before—I can do it again. I’ve had moments of greatness—I can do it again. The core technique to exceeding your past efforts (after practice and self-trust through confidence stock-piling) is to remember you’ve improved before.


Thank you to Pieter Kemps’ daughter for suggesting the edit to the continuum.

*from the opening sentence of the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, by Steward Brand, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

** You may recognize Just Do It from Nike, but where did the slogan come from? It was adapted by Dan Wieden (Wieden+Kennedy) from Gary Gilmore’s final words (as told in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song).



James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford GSB/ & Harvard GSD