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An excerpt from
The Confidence Course
by Walter Anderson
HarperCollins, 1998, trade paperback.

Chapter One—Who I Am

You made the right decision.

By taking the risk to be here, to be with me on this page, you've taken the first step toward greater confidence. You'll find the information in this workbook to be direct, easy to understand, and effective. Yes, this stuff really does work. In fact, if you read only through the third chapter, absorb only its message, and take on only the challenge at its conclusion, I know you'll not only enjoy the results—you'll also grow in confidence. Welcome to The Confidence Course.

Okay, I'm here. I turned the page.
Now, why will I be more confident?

The Confidence Course, anchored in practical life experience, will work for you because we can transform ourselves.

The truth is, you and I define who we are every day by the choices we make, and thus we choose who we want to be. I create myself. So do you. I invent myself. You do too. You and I are not what we eat; we are what we think. Confidence, by definition, is an attitude—and your attitude toward people and situations, just like mine, is subject to change. You're going to learn here how to swap one set of perceptions for another. The world will remain the same; how you see the world will be different.

When do we start?

Right now. Here's what you need to know about The Confidence Course to get the most out of it: The course is a personal workbook. It is taken and developed from what I believe to be the most practical and useful material in articles and books I've written, talks I've given across the country, and, of course, The Confidence Course classes themselves that I've taught as a member of the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City.

You'll see that, as you work at the course, your confidence will grow. So read and attempt everything. Mark up and fold down the pages. The more wrinkles in the seams, the greater this book's value. Write in the margins, highlight paragraphs and points. It is your life that makes this book come alive. Without you, these are merely words on paper. Truly, it is you who will give this book its life. I may be the guide, but the adventure is yours.

Now, here are some details about The Confidence Course you should find useful: The book explores questions that occasionally trouble all of us about competition, mistakes, courage, failure, loss and tragedy, risk-taking, relationships, noble motives, and love. It contains, among other things, practical advice on how to structure a talk, tell a story dramatically, give an unforgettable introduction ...

But this is not a book about public speaking—it's a book about personal confidence. We need to recognize, though, that the dread of being asked to speak before a group is as many national surveys indicate, the number one fear among a majority of adults. The Confidence Course thus describes how to master this painful anxiety—and how to use your body, your voice, and the stage itself to achieve "presence."

So how does public speaking relate
to personal confidence?

Normal people feel real terror when asked to stand up and speak before a group. More than being merely acknowledged, such an obvious and often-discussed fear must be welcomed in a course about confidence. We have much to learn from this particular anxiety, even if we never speak at a podium. Because, when you think about it, don't we speak publicly most of the time? Just as we're all salesmen, so too each of us routinely is a public speaker. The two are related. We sell to ourselves every time we decide that we can or cannot do something. In fact, have you ever noticed how amazingly persuasive you are with yourself—particularly when it comes to the cannots? This has a lot to do with communicating.

As Henry Ford suggested: Whether you say you can or whether you say you cannot, you are right. You regularly communicate with yourself, and in nearly every contact with another human being, you are either a speaker or a listener. In other words, you're almost always communicating. Would you like to be better at it?

You can be. So can I.

The power of words certainly is not limited to the podium or the stage. Even the most popular performers on earth spend only a tiny fraction of their time before an audience. Each of us observes—and is observed—every day. We need and are affected by other people, whether it's the cashier at the checkout counter, a boss, a client, a surgeon, a lover, a teacher, a friend ... the list is endless.

To help understand and face our daily challenges, The Confidence Course is a guide to reaching the peak—which is how to give a talk and perform more effectively before others. But, more, it maps the mountain itself, illustrating how to communicate better and with more confidence in normal life situations, whether your goal is simply to feel better about yourself or to conclude a personal or business relationship. It's about dealing with real-life fear and real-life joy, sadness, and disappointment. And it's about triumph. What every one of my students learns, finally, is that performing before an audience is merely strutting our best, our most practiced, stuff. I once complimented the actor Gregory Peck on the brilliance of an off-the-cuff comment he had made. He replied candidly, "My best extemporaneous remarks are those I've rehearsed the most."

Keep in mind that your goal in The Confidence Course is to learn to climb the mountain of your choice—and to enjoy the trek as well.

You'll find it useful to read about the experiences of successful people—some famous, some not—that appear throughout the book. You'll also find "One-Minute Stories," which are provided as examples to help you improve your own storytelling, but also are often inspiring. And, finally, throughout The Confidence Course you'll read actual questions that I've received from students, like this one:

If, as you said, I can create the person I'd like to be, how do I start?

Say, "I am responsible," and accept personal responsibility for your own life. This is the first—and most important—of the Seven Steps to Self-Fulfillment:


  1. Know who is responsible.
    Accept personal responsibility for your behavior. When you say, "I am responsible," you can build a new life, even a new world.

Theologians and philosophers have observed and preached for centuries the simple truth that destiny is not something that happens to you, not something you wait for: Destiny is a choice, your choice. You choose the life you lead. Each of us has the capacity to make happiness happen.

But my circumstances are terrible!

Look, I can hold your hand, share a good cry, commiserate, tell you that I know life is not fair, that you got dealt a crummy hand, that you've been cheated by things outside your control, that the ill which has befallen you is not your fault. I can say with conviction that I understand and sympathize with the fact that we cannot prevent all of the disappointments, losses, and tragedies that occur in our lives, and I realize that we are not born with equal abilities. We agree, life can sting.

So where does that leave us? Right where we began, with the first of the Seven Steps to Self-Fulfillment: Know who is responsible. I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines MY character and the quality of my life.

I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have—life itself. You and I are human beings, infinitely capable of change. You can lead a fuller, richer life. When—finally and with no excuses—you accept responsibility for your own life, you not only gain incredible power to achieve positive goals and be more confident but you also are able to diminish the pain that inevitably accompanies an emotional wound.

To fully accept responsibility, though, we need to understand who we really are. Have you ever asked yourself, "Who am I?"

Three factors determine who we are: heredity, environment, and, most important, your responses to both.

You are the only you who will ever live. In front of a mirror or in front of a microphone, you are who you are, and accepting this plain truth can be both the toughest and the most rewarding challenge of your life.

There has never been anyone quite like you, or me.

I once asked my friend Dr. Carl Sagan, the distinguished scientist and scholar, to calculate the chances of a particular individual being born:

"One thing to consider," he advised, "is how many spermatozoa exist in a single ejaculation. Let's say it's three hundred million. That's three hundred million possible human beings. Next there are questions of the physiology of both parents—and timing. The three hundred million spermatozoa represent only one sexual act at a particular time."

The arithmetic helps us to understand just how special we are. Imagine more than three hundred million chances to be you! Consider that your mother had three hundred million chances to be precisely who she was, that your father had another three hundred million. It could be argued that the odds against your being born are 300,000,000 multiplied by 300,000,000 multiplied by 300,000,000 multiplied by whatever the chances would be that your folks would meet in the first place and create you when they did. You are indeed a long shot, my friend—the winner, the day you're born, against odds of billions to one. You are unique!

Now, let's take this a step further: Is it our genes (or our chromosomes or some chemical factor) that determines who we are? Only partly. With heredity, our uniqueness merely begins. Heredity—all those genetic combinations that tell our cells to produce brown or blue eyes, curly or straight hair, and that predispose us to and sometimes immunize us against certain ailments or diseases—is like the car we drive.

Road conditions and weather are the environment. The car may be capable of speeding one hundred miles per hour on a bright, sunny day along a freshly black-topped highway; but change the environment to a muddy logging trail at night during a hurricane, and the car may not move at all.

Heredity dictates how high we can jump under perfect conditions. It determines how much information we can possibly absorb and retain, how tall we can possibly be, how fast we can possibly run. Heredity is our potential, but environment is our opportunity. If you were genetically capable of being the greatest long-distance swimmer who ever lived but, unfortunately, you were born two centuries ago to an Eskimo family in the northern reaches, it's a safe bet that you would never achieve your potential as a swimmer. You would lack both the opportunity and the environment.

If heredity is the car and environment is the condition of the road, then you are the driver. It is you, more than any other factor, that decides the speed and safety of that car.

Who you are evolves from the potential you've inherited, the opportunities you receive, and the choices you make. The final factor—your response to heredity and environment—is more profoundly important to you than the arithmetic of 300,000,000 multiplied by 300,000,000 multiplied by 300,000,000. It is your choices that make you uniquely you.

We are handed our heredity with no apologies, and our environment is often beyond our control. We have the power, though, to face life, to make choices, and, most important, to hope. A stroke may render a woman helpless, but it is hope—true hope—that moves her to stretch, to test her muscles, to learn to speak again.

True hope dwells on the possible, even when life seems to be a plot written by someone who wants to see how much adversity we can overcome.

True hope responds to the real world, to real life; it is an active effort.

False hope, on the other hand, is dangerous; it is pathological. False hope is the cancer patient denying his illness; true hope recognizes the disease and seeks to conquer it or cope with it.

True hope reminds us that each of us is the driver of his own car, that we are not helpless behind the wheel.

I can speak with conviction because I feel this deeply. As I said, I grew up on the south side of town in Mount Vernon, New York. I remember one night when my mother asked me to walk to the telephone booth across the street from our tenement to make a call to my older brother. I was fourteen. We had no telephone at the time.

I can't remember the message or our discussion, but I clearly recall the incident because, when I replaced the receiver, I noticed blood on my hand. I touched my face with the other hand and found more blood.

I wasn't bleeding, but whoever had used the phone before me had been hurt or wounded, which was not unusual in the neighborhood in which I was raised. Opening up the glass bifold doors, I looked to one side and then to the other. I ran across the street, bounded up the stairs to the door of our railroad flat, nervously opened it, stepped inside and up to the kitchen sink, and washed the blood from my face before my mother could see it.

About an hour later, I sat alone on the front stoop and wondered about the mysterious person whose blood had covered my face.

Then I became angry.

I'm getting out of here, I promised myself. And, for the first time that I can remember, I meant it.

There's an often-told story in the Far East about the Chinese grandfather who, each day of his life, rose early, climbed to the top of a nearby hill that blocked the early morning sunlight, picked up a pebble, walked back down the hill, and dropped the pebble on the other side of the stream near his home. His son and grandson joined him in this task. "Why do we do this?" the grandson finally asked.

"As long as you continue to do this and teach your children and grandchildren to carry the pebbles," the grandfather promised, "we're going to move this hill." The boy persisted, "But, Grandfather, you'll never see the hill moved."

The old man nodded and replied: "Yes, but I know that someday it will be moved."


The spirit of The Confidence Course is true hope: the certain knowledge that you and I are not helpless; that you can, when you set your mind to it, move a hill—or a mountain—of doubt. Gaining confidence, like living with true hope, is a conscious active effort.

So, during the next seven days, pay attention to all examples you observe of true hope versus false hope, the little incidents as well as the big ones. You may be surprised to discover how many instances you note.

Keep a list. Examine the examples you've gathered at the end of the week. Include in your analysis these questions:

  • Do others respond in the same way to the person who lives with true hope to the person who lives with false hope?

  • In each case of true hope or false hope, what does the person involved seem to be focusing on?

Remember to save the list. We're going to examine these results further.

© 1998 Walter Anderson. All rights reserved.

Read Chapter One| Chapter Three | Chapter Thirteen

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