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I have a Nemesis at the bouldering wall.
For those who can’t picture a bouldering wall, imagine a huge gallery of walls – that is, climbing walls (with plastic holds). The walls don’t go very high and the floors are covered in crash-mats. Rather than long climbs supported by ropes, the routes here consist of just a few moves up or across the wall. The aim of each problem is to get to the last hold and then drop, jump or control your fall down to the mats.
Indoor bouldering is an important feature of winter nights for the Sheffield climber. On weekday mornings, a somewhat Middle-Class posse take their Toddlers along: there is a nice, easy boulder with a slide down from the top. I am officially a reformed climber (I was never very good at it anyway) but have gradually become drawn in again for the occasional session of my own.
Anyway, my Nemesis: the red route in the back right-hand corner. I can get my feet on two parallel footholds while clinging to two more with my hands, but – and here is the big ‘but’ – there’s a massive leap to grab the next hold, which is on a section that juts out above my head. I’d physically have to jump off my two safe footholds and stretch to reach it, hoping to grab the hold then gain purchase with my feet to go about getting myself up the overhang.
I have stood there maybe twenty times and considered this. I have decided to go for it, wimped out last minute, made a faint-hearted lurch without convction and missed the hold. I usually land in a controlled manner on the crash-mat, thinking I could have done that, if I’d really flung myself at it. But the trouble with flinging is that if you miss you might scrape yourself; land awkwardly; get hurt.
Maybe next time I comfort myself, rubbing my hands together and feeling the creak of the sweaty, chalky filth on my palms.
I remember a few years ago watching a woman walk into a restraurant where we were having dinner. She was stunning. She entered with the charisma of someone stepping onto a stage. When she shook her umbrella and propped it up against a wall, she somehow radiated style. She smiled at me, smiled at the waiter and explained that her friends were following. She turned a chair from the big window table to face the room. She lowered herself neatly into it and picked up a menu.
The waiter frowned and said something sharp: the woman jumped and registered the little card saying that the table was already reserved. Just as gracefully, she laughed lightly at her mistake, apologised, stood up and threw a smiling mock-grimace in my direction that the waiter didn’t see. She asked him politely where she might sit and he showed her to another table. She sat, ordered a drink without being asked if she would like one and went back to the menu that was still in her hand.
Of course now that she was reading I could safely turn my head to stare. And of course, she wasn’t beautiful at all. Viewed in a purely objective manner she was a fairly average-looking woman. Comparing her to Kate Moss for instance, her forehead was a little more lined, her figure definitely a lot chunkier and her nose dominated her face, sporting a hawky hook. (I am comparing her to a Kate Moss-ish ideal, you understand, because that is how women tend to judge all women including themselves and not because I necessarily endorse the practise).
I’d assumed that it was her aesthetic splendidness and in a way it was, but it was her confidence that made this woman stand out. Average she might be, but she carried herself beautifully. She had a bright dress and a disarming smile: she positively seemed to float. She looked pleased to be there; she was enjoying her drink. Her ten minutes solitude certainly hadn’t been ruined by being asked to move out of the best seat in the restaurant by a slightly graceless waiter.
Confidence like that is rare. A lack of confidence is common.
‘I can’t work technology.’
‘I didn’t like to ask the doctor why that was…’
‘No, you wouldn’t be as good at it as I am.’
I was, believe it or not, staggeringly unconfident myself for a short time. I was terrified of the others in my form at school: I took it so much for granted that I wasn’t worth speaking to that when other kids spoke to me I’d assume they were trying to be patronising.
I didn’t know how to approach the girly thing, so I decided that I ‘didn’t do’ girliness. I think I alternated the same two jumpers for the whole of sixth-form, paired with a set of leggings with styrrups. I told myself that wanting to look good – or even half-decent – was superficial and silly. But if I was honest with myself, I admired the charismatic girls and wanted to be stylish myself.
The truth about confidence dawned on me slowly between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven. This might not be original advice (you’ll see in a moment that long before self-help books, Jane Austen had it nailed) but it’s important. I’ll make sure my children understand it before they even turn seven. Here goes:
Confidence isn’t an attribute that you are born with: it is a skill like any other. As Miss Eliza Bennet explained to Mr Darcy, ‘My fingers do not move over this intrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do…..But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any woman’s of superior execution.’
Thus the man who skitters into an interview room with his eyes on the carpet, is no less physically able to greet the panel than the man who strides in, looks each in the eyes and confidently offers his hand. Neither is the first man any more afraid than the second: it is just that the second is making himself appear cool and calm; he is taking, or has taken, the trouble of practising.
The restaurant woman had learned to carry herself proudly into a room, ignore a tiny mishap and engage the people around her. Plenty of people don’t even like to walk into a restraunt by themselves. Perhaps it came more naturally to her than me, but I’ll bet it’s something that gets easier when you’ve tried it fifty times before. As is going out of your comfort zone in any way: using an unfamiliar computer system, speaking on the phone, asking doctors questions – whatever it happens to be that people associate with ‘having confidence.’
Confidence is simply the skill of accepting that something is difficult or might go wrong and going for it anyway; stealing yourself for failure, picking up the phone and giving it your best shot.
Anyway, I’m over thirty and I know that now.
So back to my Nemesis at the climbing wall. I reminded myself that it is necessary to ‘make’ yourself do things, sometimes. So I climbed up to the hard move, focussed my mind and slapped for the hold….
…and missed it. I landed on my bum on the mat.
But I did feel a great deal more satisfied for having actually tried.