How to have the confidence of Alexander the Great

The Oracle had declared that whoever could undo the knot on an ox-cart in the city of Gordium (in present day Turkey) would rule the whole world. But the knot was so intricate that many had tried and all had failed to untie it.

Ambitious men had spent days trying to unravel the knot. 

When 20 year old Alexander came to visit Gordium on his first conquest after becoming King of Macedon, he too tried his hand at it. He too struggled without success. And so finally, Alexander drew his sword and cut the knot in half. What did it matter how the knot was undone?

Alexander the Great went on to win the world because of his this stellar attitude. His immense confidence in himself even when the task seemed impossible made others follow him.

Can such confidence be imbibed in us?

Meryl Streep is one of the finest actors the world has seen. She has been nominated for a record 21 Oscars and has won three! And yet, she feels like she is a fraud. Self doubt plagues her: “Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

What can one do when they feel self doubt? 

Become an actor and act. Literally.

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues conducted an experiment in 2010. 42 participants were randomly added to one of two groups. The first group was the high power posing group: they were asked to sit tilted back in a chair with hands behind their head and their legs propped up on the table for a few minutes. The second group was the low power posing group: these people were asked to sit with their arms closed to their body and their hands in their laps.

All of them were then given $2. The participants could either pocket this $2. Or they could bet it on a game with 50/50 chance and either double it or lose it all.

The participants were also asked how powerful they felt on a scale of 1 to 4.

12 of the 21 folks in the low power posing group bet their $2. And their average rating of feeling powerful was 1.83.

In contrast, 18 of the 21 people in the high power posing group bet their $2. Their average rating of feeling powerful was 2.57!

That’s not all. Cuddy and her colleagues also took saliva tests of all the participants before the experiment began and then once again 17 minutes after their pose on the chairs.

Participants in the high power posing group showed higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol! Participants in the low power posing group showed the inverse: low testosterone and high cortisol levels. (Higher testosterone leads to more confidence and lower cortisol leads to less stress and anxiety!)

Sitting in a powerful pose changed people’s emotions and hormones. Made people take more financial risks and say that they felt more powerful!

“Fake it till you make it” is such good advice. Because how you act changes how you feel. If you act confident, you’ll feel confident too.

Ritualizing for confidence

The other action you can perform to make yourself feel confident is to build up a ritual. Athletes who follow rituals before their game feel more confident about their abilities. And this confidence leads to better performance.

Even funny rituals work. Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina University shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game. Virat Kohli adjusts his helmet in a peculiar and unnatural way before every cricketing shot he plays.

Research done by Barbara Stoberock and her colleagues from the University of Cologne show that even a simple ritual like crossing your fingers for luck makes people feel more confident.

Why do rituals work?

Because we feel anxious in new and uncertain situations. And rituals help us feel in control. Anything that you do to reduce your anxiety will help you with your confidence. This could be playing a pep song before attending sales meetings or clapping your boots together before entering a room. Build small rituals and you’ll feel in command and full of confidence.

But what to do if you want to feel confidence deeper – in your bones? Can you level up to method acting?

The difference between normal acting and method acting is that normal acting is just about changing behavior physically. Whereas method acting is feeling the emotions mentally so that acting seems natural. What can we do to feel confidence from within?

The pygmalion effect experiment that changed people

Robert Rosenthal is famous for conducting a psychology experiment that has become a classic. In an elementary school in California, young students are given an IQ test. After the results, their teachers are told who of them have potential to really bloom intellectually and are in the top 20% of the class. 

The trick is that the teachers are lied to. Rosenthal randomly names the students, without looking at the results of their tests.

The weird thing? After a year, all the students are given another IQ test. The students who were listed as being in the top 20% improved their IQ scores by 10-15 points when compared to their peers!

Expectations changed performance. The children who were labelled as smart, ended up increasing their smarts the most!

You’ve got to label yourself as confident. But how do you do that and make yourself believe your labels? 

How to make self-labeling stick?

Researcher Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis and his colleagues at the University of Thessaly in Greece conducted a research experiment with the help of 60 swimming class students. The students were asked to evaluate their skills for playing water polo. They were tested on how accurately they throw the ball and how far they throw it! Each student was tested for 20 minutes.

Half the students were given instructions to talk to themselves between every time they threw the ball. And these students who used motivational self-talk dramatically improved their performance and became better at throwing the ball than the others!

Motivational self-talk sounds woo-woo mumbo jumbo. But it works. Just repeatedly telling yourself that you’re a confident person will make the label stick.

(Side tip: research done by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan shows that self-talk in second or third person works better than first person. Saying “you can do this” instead of “I can do this” to yourself works better because it makes you think objectively.)

Action Summary:

  • Reduce self anxiety to boost your confidence.
  • You have to work on your emotions to feel more confident. Work on the physical: with power posture and simple rituals. And the mental: with peppy self talk.
  • Surround yourself with people who think highly of you. Their expectation will affect your confidence and change your performance.