On my vacation last week, trekking over a pass in the Himalaya mountains, I slipped and fell. No big deal. Nothing was injured, except my dignity. Still it gave me another insight about confidence, self-confidence in particular but also confidence in general.

I was exhausted from having climbed up 3,000 feet from our camp on a path that was frequently muddy. The weather that day was good — glorious, in fact, allowing us all to take in the extraordinary variety of spruce, pine, rhododendron and daphne that filled the forest, as well as the blue primroses, ferns and mosses that carpeted the ground. Exhilarated, I was none the less increasingly winded by the exertion of climbing and the effects of the altitude. And then, starting our descent on the other side of the pass, I lost my footing and fell in the mud.

Helped by the guides, I quickly got up and cleaned myself off, as best I could under the circumstances. But I soon realized that something important had changed: I had lost my confidence. Having exhausted my energy, feeling a loss of control over my body, almost as if I were drunk, I made my way down the rest of the trail unsteadily. Soon I accepted a guide’s suggestion I hand him my relatively light backpack. I welcomed the help — and fortunately I got it — as we all got down to 9,000 feet again on the other side of the pass.

As I stressed in my last post on Self Confidence, a key element is self-knowledge: you cannot have confidence in yourself without knowing what you are capable of. I still think that is true. In this case, I did not know the limits of my strength and my vulnerability to high altitudes. But this experience brought home to me that self-confidence is also about being able to have control over one’s actions. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that self-knowledge is in the service of the ability to assert control of one’s behavior as needed.

A study of the unconscious makes clear that virtually all our behavior is not under conscious control, but consciousness does usually allow us to assume control when needed. We do not need confidence when driving with cruise control, but when we encounter bad weather or a rough road, we do need to assert control — and this is where confidence comes in. But if with your awareness and skill you cannot gain control of the car, you cannot have confidence in getting to your goal, much less avoiding an accident. In Bhutan, I had lost that ability. The guides helped me to get enough of it back to get down the rest of the trail. They supported and encouraged me, but I was deeply shaken.

What I am getting at here is not so much the question of personal confidence, what we need in moments of individual stress, but the larger social and economic question of what it means that we have lost confidence in our economic institutions: that our automatic pilots no longer seem to work and we are all at risk. Economists have tended to think of it simply as a matter of our assumptions or our ability to predict the market. Consumer confidence is a measurable scale. But as I hope is becoming clearer from these reflections, it is much more than than.

In my next post, I will start to make links with these larger questions.