Does taking risks build confidence?

improve self esteemBack to work and usual routines after our vacation, although as I write the house is quite. My eldest daughter flew back up north to Yorkshire on Friday to attend a wedding and our 17 year old twins have invaded Cornwall, south west England, to stay in a caravan with friends.

Holidays give you plenty of time to reflect. I know when I was the age of my children I certainly lacked the confidence to do the things they are currently doing (and planning!). Yet we constantly hear stories on the media about how over protected children are in modern society. They get driven to school and we don’t let them out of our site to play with friends for fear of abduction.

Schools and local governments become more risk minimizing and ban many activities for fear of being sued if accidents happen. Councils cut low branches off trees to prevent children climbing them, schools put bubble wrap on sharp corners of tables to prevent injury!

Despite all this my children seem to be emerging into adulthood far more confident than I did. I’d agree that in many ways they have been more sheltered than I was, but I don’t think that paints a true picture.

Do we have to put ourselves at risk to gain confidence?

One of my daughters took an instant liking to climbing trees. Many years ago, when she was about 8, we were staying at a friends house and she climbed to the top of a tree (about 40 feet high) – which freaked all the adults out. She got down safely – and was quite proud of the fact she had done something the other children hadn’t.

A few years later, whilst on holiday together in North Wales, we came across something called Ropeworks. This is a purpose built adventure park, with several high towers linked with ropes. Much was made of the character building nature of tackling these courses:-

There is no set way around the course, your confidence will grow as we journey around the climbs, swings and jumps.

Oh yeah?! My lasting memory is trying to help one of my daughters (the other twin) move from where she was frozen with fear, whilst trying to ignore the fact I was petrified myself! The instructor was bubbling over with psycho babble about how great it was for our confidence when we eventually reached safety….

By coincidence I recently came across this on a US Government page:-Confidence tower 1

Confidence Tower

The Infantry soldier has to develop the highest degree of self-confidence, demonstrate aggressiveness and build teamwork.The soldier will develop self-confidence by negotiating obstacles on the Confidence Tower. The Confidence Tower is an eight hour block of instruction demonstration negotiation. The soldier is trained on knot tying, tying a Swiss seat, and trained to rappel from a 40 foot tower.The soldier negotiates one, two, and three rope bridges.The Confidence Tower is conducted twice during the training cycle, the first time early in the cycle and then once more later in the cycle.

Confidence tower - 2So the philosophy of Ropewords is identical to the US Army – build confidence by conquering fear. There is a big flaw in this approach of course. Doing something once doesn’t mean you can repeat it – in fact you will more likely recall the fear you felt (and humiliation of being scared) rather than the elation (or relief) of eventually succeeding.

And, of course, building confidence on a high tower is not going to be transferable to other scary situations. Having negotiated the Ropeworks course, it didn’t prepare me for giving a speech on my return to work the following week.

Writing this has reminded me of when I was in the school army cadets, about 37 years ago, and how much I hated going away on a weeks training camp. It was an ordeal I survived with relief, vowing never to repeat, rather than building my confidence and other character traits for the future.

Bruce August 3, 2008 at 3:04 pm

I agree that one time on an obstacle course does not give one lasting self confidence. I spent 3.5 years on active duty with the Army and another 21 in the military reserves.

It wasn’t one thing that built my confidence, but repeatedly pushing my limits and then teaching and helping others to do so that built my confidence. You can not become confident enough to try new things unless you learn that you can survive and flourish in situations you once feared. You have nurtured your children and taught them you will come for them when and if they need you. That is how I was taught in the military. No one thing did it for me. It was experience after experience, knowing that if I got into trouble, I might be embarassed but my buddies would help me.

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Debt Free or Bust August 3, 2008 at 5:09 pm


There is a big difference between the U.S. Army’s training on the tower and the Ropeworks course. In the Army, they have to do it twice at least, and it’s part of an overall physical and mental warrior training program. The people in boot camp are there by choice (the U.S. military is all-volunteer as of this writing), have somewhat of a macho ego to start with, and already have a good deal of self-confidence. They aren’t just trying it. They want to be soldiers. Being a soldier means strengthening your body to the point that you have complete confidence in your ability to move your body over any terrain and any obstacle.

At present the U.S. is at war in the Middle East, so these volunteers believe they are ready to face being shot and killed or blown up in combat. A rope tower is of little consequence compared to that. Most soldiers who come home from combat don’t want to go back and often suffer PTSD. Being shot at and watching your buddies being killed puts real fear into you.

All that being said, I think that taking risks has to be your choice, not something forced upon you, for it to build your confidence. Ropeworks would be better if they allowed you to be taken off of it safely if you get to a point where you don’t want to continue. Just knowing you can get down if you want may relax you enough to complete it.

If you take the calculated risk of starting your own business and you are willing to take the obstacles as they come in stride to achieve your goal, the risk is worth it. If you succeed, taking the risk will build your confidence.

Any risk you decide to take has to be within your risk tolerance. I think of it as a place between your comfort zone and you maximum risk tolerance. If the risk is above your tolerance, you will become petrified with fear.

But I agree that risk-taking by itself just builds fear and reminds you to never do whatever it was that scared the heck out of you again.

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David August 3, 2008 at 10:11 pm

On reflection it was an error to take the military tower exercise out of the context of the overall training recruits go through – I just came across that single example which highlighted that self confidence came from that task.
But does it follow that using military style exercises will work in the way intended, as with Ropeworks? Do our children reach adulthood with less confidence because they miss out within our more risk adverse society?

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Nick Grimshawe August 4, 2008 at 2:08 am

Self confidence is a strange beast. It’s not something that is an across the board thing. You get people who can face the heat of battle yet stand terrified before an audience of friendly faces.

You can do some general things to gain self confidence especially in areas you feel the lack of.

I guess over all you could put the task down to a willingness to push your own limits until you feel you may not have total self confidence but you have the fortitude to tackle anything. I suppose when you get to that point you could say you have total self confidence: one of those two sides of the same coin situations.


Debt Free or Bust August 4, 2008 at 2:28 am


I actually think kids are more confident because they were more sheltered by us. They have us to protect them from themselves more than our parents did for us. That let them know that we are okay with them taking certain risks, but we were going to be there to monitor them and help pick them up when they fall. We help them avoid really dangerous risks because we keep closer tabs on them.

Our parents pretty much let the chips fall where they may, and we may have learned to be more risk-averse because the world was more dangerous than we could handle on our own.

Knowing someone is there to help and protect us lets us stretch our wings more, not less.


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Evan August 4, 2008 at 4:59 am

Who says we have to go beyond our comfort zone?

Desiring the next challenge is very different to being bullied (even if the bully is one we have interiorised).

Evan August 4, 2008 at 5:00 am

PS. if we value learning it is a good idea to minimise anxiety.

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David August 4, 2008 at 9:36 pm

Nick – I think thats where the military training works, building the “fortitude to tackle anything” and to follow command as part of a team.
Sherri – thats an interesting viewpoint, which I hadn’t considered – has a lot of merit.
Evan – I agree about minimizing anxiety as I think the impact of anxiety on our functioning is underestimated.

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Jenna August 5, 2008 at 4:26 pm

Interesting post. I’d never heard of the Confidence Tower before.

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Ohm August 7, 2008 at 5:59 am

In some ways risk taking certainly does build confidence. At other times it can actually reduce it. In the end it all depends on the outcome of the exercise, don’t you think?

Confidence usually starts with one small steps in the right direction.


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aran August 8, 2008 at 12:33 pm

As a long serving (27 years) outdoor activities instructor and mountaineer, I am afraid that I am going to have to disagree strongly with you.
I have had the honour of dealing with many people from all backgrounds and ages, over the years; most of whom have benefitted greatly from trying to master their inner fears through the medium of adventure (risk taking). I say most, because , like everything, this medium does not suit everyone (cf. the 80/20 rule).
What is crucial, of course is the role of the Instructor or the coach in this experience – a good one can help a candidate to dig deep into their psyche in a very short amount of time and help that person to develop strategies to overcome their fears in “real-time”. A bad one (sadly many ex-military take the bullying approach) will scare the b’jaysus out of you.
In my own life, the adventures that I have had, from the high Himalaya to the hills of North Wales, the nights spent in the open air, the terror experienced in Scotland in winter etc. etc have all helped to build and maintain a strong inner resilience that supports my everyday endeavours.
Like everything in life, it depends upon the individual.
I use my extensive experience, moderated with some good old fashioned common sense with my own 3 children and we seem to be doing just fine.
Interesting post, though.

aran’s last blog post..Moelwyn Ramblings

David August 9, 2008 at 10:18 am

Ohm – I’m a great believer in small steps rather than jumping in at the deep end!
aran – I think your point about the instructor and how they help someone overcome their fears is central to this discussion. It does tie in with Ohm point about small steps, or gradually pushing your comfort zone.
Going back to my Ropeworks example, one of my twins (the tree climber) loved the experience. The other, suddenly finding herself (I guess) 20 feet above ground couldn’t cope.
Since writing the post I have also recalled two experiences from when I was at Grammar school (11 – 16). One was a days orienteering around the New Forest in small groups and the other a week learning to sail at Calshot (Solent estuary). I can recall the fear of being lost and the short tempered, Miss Trenchbull person in charge at Calshot (she was called Bren, as in machine gun rather than Brenda!) Despite spending my life on the coast I have never since had the urge to try sailing.
So I do accept your point that good adventure can build confidence, especially with a good instructor. And perhaps I’m biased through my own experiences. But going back to your 80/20 figure. If its a negative experience for 20% – the lasting impact on them of doing something they find frightening or extremely unpleasant cannot be ignored.

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Ned August 19, 2008 at 7:24 pm

I think it is less about taking risks and more about taking responsibility.

I am a machinist and I run machines that cost $500,000 on the low end. These machines move very quickly and one over-sight could mean an expensive repair and lost production time.

When I first started doing this kind of work, I was extremely nervous and I would triple check everything I did to ensure I wouldn’t destroy something. One of the first things they taught me was that scraped parts, broken tools and crashed machines happen everyday and not to worry about it.

What improved my confidence with machining was accepting the consequences of crashing a machine beforehand. Once I could accept my own fallibility, I became a lot better at my job. The reality is, people with twenty years experience doing what I do still make those kind of mistakes.

In your article, you mention how governments, parents and others are over-protective in our society. I think this leads people to not take responsibility for themselves and their behavior. And, in turn, they lack self-confidence. Confidence means there is no one to blame. You take full responsibility. And the truth is, government or no government, you are responsible in the end.

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Leadership Development Course September 10, 2008 at 10:14 pm

I notice that there are times when experience creates an even larger fear and lack of confidence within us. Experience alone cannot help us to overcome. The mindset that helps us to improve if nearly blind to the results can help us to gain confidence. Embarrassment is a pivot. Pain is a pivot. Even happiness is a pivot on which we must decide if we are wanting to continue pursuing that which brought us those feelings.

Wolfy September 30, 2008 at 9:26 am

I think exercises like the Rope Bridges are not meant to make you lose the fear, but rather to make you lose the unwillingness to attempt them. It’s a subtle difference.

So the next time you hit the course, you still have nearly all the same fear but at least this time you won’t be petrified… you did it once so now you have no justifiable reason to not do it the second time so you’ll step off the platform and just do it, by default, while still scared inside.

aran October 1, 2008 at 8:32 am

@ wolfy: isn’t that the definition of courage?

Wolfy October 6, 2008 at 9:41 am

I guess so. So the rope bridges don’t actually build *confidence*… they build *courage*!

aran October 6, 2008 at 7:01 pm

without wishing to sound pompous, pedantic or whatever, i culled these from the OED

• noun 1 the ability to do something that frightens one. 2 strength in the face of pain or grief.
— PHRASES have the courage of one’s convictions act on one’s beliefs despite danger or disapproval. take one’s courage in both hands nerve oneself to do something that frightens one.
— ORIGIN Old French corage, from Latin cor ‘heart’.

• noun 1 the belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something. 2 self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s abilities. 3 the telling of private matters or secrets with mutual trust. 4 a secret or private matter told to someone under a condition of trust.

for further reading on using the outdoors for personal development, the first place to start is
hope it is of interest

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