Existential Confidence – Part 1

A New Take on Problem Solving

By Jim Selman and Srini Pillay, M.D.

This article, co-authored with Dr. Srini Pillay, offers a new take on problem solving. It was originally published on May 7, 2019 (Medium).


Every day you and your leadership team show up to work. And every day you face a seemingly unending series of complex problems. Economic uncertainty, geopolitical unrest, staffing shortages, and stiff competition from nimble startups (to name a few) challenge your mandate to increase quarterly earnings. As a senior executive leader, your job is to solve all these challenging, interrelated problems as they arise.

While this approach sounds sensible, in today’s “real-time world” it doesn’t always work well. Problem-solving puts us as leaders in the position of always reacting to what is happening, always behind the waves of change that are happening faster and faster, always at the mercy of the unpredictable and the unprecedented. Small wonder that recent research demonstrates problem solving often leads to despair, depression and anxiety, especially when you start to believe your problems are out of control, begin to feel helpless, or simply lack confidence.

What if you could build your confidence — even when you have no idea whether a particular solution will work?

We believe you can.

Existential confidence is the ‘killer app’ for any problem-solving dilemma.

In our approach, we combine perspectives from philosophy, neuroscience and psychology to show how you can build “existential confidence” (EC) and not have problem-solving create constant emotional turmoil. Five fundamental constructs underlie how you can work with problems in an EC existence. We outline the first two below and the other three in our next article.

1. Use being — not thinking or doing — as your first go-to.

The first prerequisite for disentangling the “problem-solving dilemma” is to operate from an existentially confident way of being. Philosopher Martin Heidegger asserts, “Being” is an undivided state in which subject, object, consciousness and the world are one. When you are not separate from the world, then there is no “subject” or “object”. When you are Being this way, you can peacefully design the right actions to take.

Medically speaking, we see our organs as being separate from each other. We see ourselves as being separate from others. This is because our perceptions tell us that there is some physical separateness. But quantum physics teaches us that there is no difference between energy and matter. Recent research and approaches in medicine have determined that it is valid to think of ourselves as systems of energy that are continually in motion, dancing at the atomic and molecular levels within our bodies and with the external world as well.

When we operate from “Being”, we operate with this continuity in mind.

2. Develop trust.

When you have EC, you trust that you are sufficient to deal effectively with whatever challenges arise when undertaking an unprecedented and unpredictable journey. Trust is also a way of “Being” and a commitment to a possibility you see.

When you trust, you accept things as they are. In this way, you prepare your brain to make a clear-headed commitment by decreasing amygdala activation and its associated fight, flight or freeze responses. This evokes a positive mood of optimistic resolve and the capacity to commit to a possibility before there is evidence that what you are committing to is possible. This is similar to the growth mindset. In the brain, this means that any errors that cause brain conflict will be a source of learning, rather than a source of anxiety that stops you in your tracks.

All inventions and scientific discoveries use this trust-based approach. First, you make a hypothesis. Believing in it as a possibility activates dopamine systems in the brain. This will motivate you to explore and discover, updating your thinking and plans as you go.

Ordinary trust is based on assessments of future circumstances or another’s sincerity or competence to keep promises and is past based. Self-trust can also be grounded in assessments. However, it is primarily a state of being, and a relationship with an uncertain or unknown future along with an understanding that you have the competencies to deal with or invent what is needed, whatever might emerge. It is trust in yourself even when you can’t ground your assessments.

Read Part 2 of this article.