Thoughts on Confidence, Experience and Sailing

I have always loved water. It’s my happy place. I enjoy swimming, paddleboarding and kitesurfing. So the decision to learn sailing came naturally. 

At first, there were so many new things – especially with wordings – that it was confusing (note aside, I would have never guessed what luffing up! meant). And due to my lack of experience, I was not really confident.

And we all have been there. 

When we try learning a new skill or do something new for the first time, we are hesitant. We don’t know if what we are doing is correct. Did we forget something? Was it the proper way to do or prepare something?

Psychologist Albert Bandura developed the concept of self-efficacy, which relates to how much we believe we are capable of accomplishing a task¹. 

For instance, am I able to steer a boat? If my self-efficacy is high, I am convinced I can do it. If it’s low, I’m not confident in my ability to complete this task successfully.

And it was found that we can improve our self-efficacy through vicarious and mastery experiences².

The first one – vicarious experience – means that we see someone we relate to doing the task successfully, and it builds our conviction we can do it. 

The second one – mastery experience – is easier to understand. We have already done the task successfully – or we have done other similar ones – and this increases our confidence we can perform effectively.

If both experiences can help us increase our self-efficacy, one obviously has better results. 

As I’m trying to learn different knots, my instructor patiently explains and shows the different loops and how to feed the rope in them. Of course, seeing him make the knot helps me be more confident, but that’s when I’m practising by myself, completing a knot, that I know I can do it. 

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And there is one more layer to it.

After each sailing lesson, I tried rehearsing the steps mentally to tie the different knots I had seen. It turns out this didn’t really work for me. I had to buy a rope and physically recreate the knot pattern in three dimensions to train and truly master it.

Tying the knot with an actual rope enhanced my spatial awareness and solely then was I able to repeat the process mentally. As I became better at visualising my knots, I was able to do them much more rapidly. 

This should not come as a surprise as scientists have consistently demonstrated the positive impacts of spatial thinking and visualisation over the last two decades. For example, it helps us better organise our thoughts³, improve our learning skills⁴ and boost our verbal abilities⁵.

To me, this echoes the memorising technique called the “mind palace” (or method of loci), where you memorise elements by visualising yourself moving into a palace. In his TED Talk, Polyglot Tim Doner, who learned and mastered more than a dozen languages, explained that he used this technique to link places he knew with foreign words and memorised them faster. 

More broadly, designing our own visual representations, like drawings, schematics or models, can help us gain skill mastery and then increase our self-efficacy. 

So when managers ask me how they can empower their team, nudging them to be more confident and proactive, I like to ask them about the learning process they use. An answer that is pretty common in the software industry and always baffles me is: “Well, they can Google it or read the documentation.

That’s like giving employees a “Sailing 101” book and hoping that if one day they end up on a boat, in the middle of the ocean, left to their own devices, they will feel proficient and confident to handle the situation.

We hire smart people. They will figure it out”.

Yes, some people might get it after a few trials and errors. But what about their “security”? And what about team efficiency? And if they cannot make it work, what about their confidence and willingness to try and learn new things?

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So if we want to build confidence and encourage proactive behaviours, we can, in addition to theoretical learning through reading, do the following:

  • Find an experienced mentor, someone that knows how to do the tasks to create vicarious experiences (like the sailing instructor showing me knots), 
  • Do the task (or similar ones) in a supervised or safe environment to get mastery experiences (like making knots on the boat before leaving the marina),
  • Bonus, document the task with a visual representation like a drawing or a schematic to develop your own mental representations and reinforce your learnings (like visualising the different steps to tie a knot).

 I hope you enjoyed this newsletter and thank you for reading it! 

To your success,



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[1][2]- Bandura A., “Self-Efficacy”, The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2010

[3]- Heideman P.D, and other, “Effectiveness and Adoption of a Drawing-to-Learn Study Tool for Recall and Problem Solving: Minute Sketches with Folded Lists”, CBE Life Sciences Education, 2017

[4]- Van Meter P., Garner J, “The promise and practice of learner-generated drawing: Literature review and synthesis”. Educational Psychology Review, 2005

[5]- Cortes R.A., and others, “Transfer from spatial education to verbal reasoning and prediction of transfer from learning-related neural change”, Science Advances, 2022

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Lison Mage

I help clever individuals and teams conquer overthinking and perform at their full potential. Together, we can go from a place of uncertainty and being paralyzed by doubt to gaining clarity on your current situation, where you want to go, and how to get you there!


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