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Building Confidence in Your Ability to Learn

When preparing for war and for the unknown challenges that protectors and warriors will encounter in the future, a person’s confidence in their training is an essential element of their development. Because confidence is a significant contributor to a person’s belief that they can overcome adversity, improving confidence minimizes the risk of hesitation in the face of threats.

Confidence in the ability to hit a target when they pull the trigger is why infantry Marines and soldiers spend so much time practicing their marksmanship. It is why magazine reload and malfunction drills are done to the point of muscle memory and why people spend countless hours firing from a variety of positions and conditions.

Confidence to act is one of the reasons why first aid training is repeated until each member of a unit is comfortable and competent enough to provide a certain degree of medical care to themselves or others. These drills are done until the person knows they can perform the task in the most time-constrained and stressful situations possible.

These are tasks that require such a high degree of self-confidence that there is nothing about a person’s ability to perform the task left to chance. In an age when our enemies and adversaries can adapt at a breakneck pace to avoid our strengths and attack our weaknesses, we need to develop the same level of confidence and proficiency in our ability to bring our most powerful weapon system, our brain, to the fight. In order to ensure that we are prepared to out-adapt our future adversaries, that in turn means we must ensure that we are confident in our ability to learn.

Building Resilience in Confidence

The purpose of this post is to address some ways that you can develop confidence in your ability to rapidly learn in dynamic, complex and changing situations. But before I can address some of these methods, it is worth noting that there is a difference in self-confidence that has been earned and the perceived self-confidence that is the result of bravado and the mindset that someone can simply “do anything,” even without putting in the work to master it. The difference between earned confidence and shallow bravado is important because it can help determine how resilient or how fragile your confidence is.

Something that is fragile will break when it is exposed to stress, while something that is resilient will stay the same when exposed to stress. To understand this distinction, you could put a pint glass and a plastic cup next to each other on a table that is at least three feet high. Push each of them off the table onto an uncarpeted floor. While the “stressor” of falling off of a table is not what the glass or the cup were designed for, you will see that the plastic cup is resilient (it has stayed the same) while the pint glass is fragile (it is in a hundred pieces on your floor). Confidence in your abilities should be thought of in the same way. The choices you make about how you develop confidence determines whether that confidence breaks or remains steadfast no matter what stressor it is exposed to.

In a future battle or conflict where our adversaries are adapting in unanticipated ways, our skills will be tested (like the pint glass and plastic cup) in ways beyond what they were originally designed and developed for. This makes the way that we develop our confidence an essential component to a training program, as it is what will lead to the resilience of earned confidence and not expose us to the risk of hesitation when we are engaged in life or death situations. For any skill we are looking to assess our confidence in, we can turn to research by Albert Bandura, a psychologist out of Stanford University, who identified three primary ways that a person develops their belief in their ability to perform at a given level. You can develop confidence in your ability to do something if:

  1. A person tells you that you are able to learn and do a task.
  2. You see a person (someone you see as a peer) do a task.
  3. You have done a task and have experienced it enough times where you know that you can do it again.

Each of these three approaches has strengths and weaknesses, and each has a time and place in your development, but they each lead to different degrees of fragility or weakness that result from their use. Of these three sources of self-confidence, the first is a source of confidence that is likely the least resilient, and the third is a source of confidence that is likely the most resilient. Knowing which of the three sources has led you to feel a degree of confidence in your ability to perform a skill is critical when self-assessing whether your confidence is earned or not. To highlight this, consider two different scenarios often encountered in training situations:

Scenario #1: Going back to the marksmanship example, consider all of the training events and practice opportunities that were used to develop a high degree of confidence in your ability to accurately engage the enemy. You may have attended classes that allowed you to fire at day and at night. In the sun and in rain. While stationary and while on the move. While seated, while standing and while in the prone. Against stationary targets and moving targets. At close range and from a distance. Practicing while you are relaxed and in situations where your heart rate was spiked to simulate the stress of combat. As a result of having fired, and fired accurately, in each different setting, you have earned a degree of confidence that you could do it again if the situation called for it. As a result of all of these training events, your confidence is probably pretty resilient to whatever conditions in which you find yourself firing your weapon in the future.

Scenario #2: Now contrast your confidence in marksmanship with a skill you may have learned in a five-day course that mixed classroom instruction with a handful of practical application exercises. Imagine it was a class where, because it was introducing a new skill to you, the only requirement to “pass” the course was to show up each day. In this type of setting, you may have seen groups go through one of the exercises and fail to perform the task that the course was designed to improve performance in. Following that failure to perform, there was likely a debrief, given by an instructor, to help the students realize where in the process they fell short and an explanation about what they could have done differently. But, because of limitations in training time and resources available, they wouldn’t get another opportunity to do the exercise again before graduating from the course. These types of training events often conclude with a bit of a “rah rah” type speech by the lead instructor where they express their belief that all of the students will be able to perform the skill when they need to. While motivational, the talk may also feel a bit disconnected from the actual performance of the people finishing the course. It also results in confidence that can be fragile to future stress.

The point of highlighting these two scenarios is to show that, for protectors and warriors, a degree of awareness about why you feel confident in any given skill is required. If you were just exposed to a new skill in a Scenario #2 setting, the confidence that you have (until you have experienced success using it) has resulted from the first source of confidence that Bandura describes. If your confidence is limited to an instructor expressing their belief that you can perform the skill, your confidence could prove to be very fragile as soon as it is exposed to the stresses of combat in the real world. The same realization of knowing where your confidence comes from can be also be applied to the process of learning.

How This Relates to Confidence in Learning

As I discussed in the article, “Combatting the Strengths of Our Adversaries: Learning How to Learn,” there is going to a cycle of adaptations that our adversaries make if the early battles of a war result in significant, but not catastrophic, losses for them. This is why developing a resilient confidence in your ability to learn is so important. When the enemy changes their strategy and tactics to combat our strengths and attack our weaknesses, there will be a significant amount of stress involved for those expected to understand what shifts were made and how to combat them. During this time, there may be an increase in those killed or wounded as a result of the shift in enemy tactics. The anticipated timeline for the war might have just extended, impacting pressures from the American people to “figure it out.” If your confidence in your ability to learn is lacking, and if you aren’t sure if you are able to execute the learning process fast enough in order to be successful, that just became an additional stressor and will further limit our ability to win future wars.

Our ability to learn has to be trained and developed so well that it is impenetrably resilient. You may be face a situation in your career when someone looks you in the eye and says, “I know you haven’t done this before, but I know that you’ll be able to figure it out,” and you’ll have to rely not on your confidence in overcoming the specific challenge being faced, but will need to turn to your confidence in your ability to figure out what is happening (learning) and find a way forward.

The only person who can assess your ability to learn is you. The repetitions and the practice required to reach the point of resilient confidence in your ability to learn can only be determined by you. The way that you develop this confidence is by pursuing mastery in the act of learning while simultaneously pursuing mastery in the skill you are focused on itself. To do this, consider the steps that go into the Apprentice Phase of learning a new skill (described in the article here) that form the basis of learning: the deep observation step, the practice step and the experimentation step.

Start with a subject that you’d like to develop and find a book on the topic. As you read the book, you are developing two things simultaneously: you are learning about the rules that govern success and you are also deliberately practicing your ability to extract the rules of a subject from the book. You can see this relationship in the graphic below.

Your goal may be to practice the identification of rules and understand how different authors choose to share them with you, but the beneficial by-product of that practice is that you also end up with a thorough list of rules on the subject you’re interested in learning more about. You are practicing your deep observation, and the by-product of that practice is a deeper understanding in the subject matter itself.

Once you have built an initial list of rules that results from the deep observation step and are able to begin identifying the rules faster and achieve a point of accelerated returns in the apprenticeship, you can progress in your ability to execute the learning process while, again, deepening your understanding of the subject as you begin designing a creative way to practice the list of rules you have assembled.

At this point in your pursuit of mastery in learning, you are at the experimentation step. You are creatively thinking of new ways to drill and practice the rules you identified. You are seeking the point of accelerated returns in your ability to do the task being studied (left column), while exposing your ideas to the public through yourself and to others in your workplace (the learning column on the right). As you practice, you’re assessing the ways you can practice better, furthering the experimentation and getting better with each additional repetition at these phases of the apprenticeship.

The Payoff

The result of the effort required to practice the learning process directly contributes to, and improves, the resilience of our confidence. It provides deliberate examples and experiences that you will be able to call on in the future that lead you to believe you will be able to learn when that skill is needed.

The same way that confidence in your ability to use your rifle can be developed by applying the principles of marksmanship in a number of different conditions, you can do the same thing with practicing extracting the rules through observation. You can do this through written books, audio books, podcasts, videos, online and in-person classes, interviews, white papers, reports, blog posts as well as the intentional observation of people or situations. With specific experience learning from each of these mediums, you further enhance your ability to learn quickly and deeply regardless of what form the information is presented to you in.

With each repetition through the learning process, our confidence grows because we get better at executing the three steps of the apprentice phase of learning, we add depth to our ability to learn and we make it harder for our adversaries to out-learn us and keep them reacting to what we do, decreasing the time required before they lose their will to fight. With each time we go through the cycle, we watch our confidence develop, allowing us to go into a fight knowing that we have done the work required to prepare for war and have countless experiences that support that belief.


This article is also published on Medium.

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