Several years ago I was coaching a team of community college educators. They were struggling with a cohort of students who harbored big dreams but lacked the skills to effectively pursue them. “These students know how to dream. They know how to think big,” the administrator said, “but they don’t have the abilities needed to move forward. And when they realize the gap between their ambitions and skills, it’s crushing.”
These educators were battling a pervasive myth: Simply tell children to believe that they can do anything they aspire to, and they will develop great self-esteem and confidence. The problem with this statement was that if often lacked the follow-up guidance to develop the required skills, willpower and way-power to pursue such ambitions. As a society, we’ve observed that confidence doesn’t come through words alone, but more likely earned through actions.
As a result, the equation confidence = competence has taken root. By developing competencies and mastering skills, confidence and improved self-esteem should follow.
But this isn’t absolutely true either.
I’ve coached several highly competent executives and seasoned professionals who secretly share a nagging lack of belief in their abilities. It rears its ugly head in my own life as well. Achieving a high-level of competence in one domain doesn’t mean we’re more confident overall. In fact, it can negatively impact our ability to take new risks outside an area of expertise. It can be hard to hop on a new horse!
Confidence comes from both who we believe and know ourselves to be, and what we believe and know we can do. And this belief is bred through comfort with the learning cycle – traveling from novice to expert, from unknowing to knowing, from ignorance to understanding. It’s how we navigate this process of becoming competent that reveals our confidence quotient. This process can be informed by many factors – a sense of purpose, realistic optimism, self-awareness and resilience, among other things –all foundational attributes of confidence that can both be developed and leveraged.
The rallying cry “fake it until you make it” is often used to encourage people to step into the unknown despite a lack of confidence. And there seems to be some magic to this. But I believe what’s really happening is that people call upon some of these other foundational attributes of confidence to help them through an arduous learning curve. In reality, it’s not so much about faking it, but about relying on self-awareness, resilience, curiosity, and other foundational attributes in the face of not knowing. And in my work with professionals who might be susceptible to feeling like an imposter, it’s critical to differentiate faking it from relying on other factors positively affecting confidence.
Three foundational attributes that I’ve found to render particularly high impact on one’s confidence are curiosity, connection and choice.
Developing a Curious Mindset
Think about a time you were curious about something. What feelings or reactions did you experience in this curiosity state? Was it a sense of wonder? A desire to learn more? A nudge to look more closely?
Curiosity is an inviting stance. It calls us in and opens our minds. It begs for questions as opposed to demanding answers. It invites us to engage in a non-competitive way. If we approach new learning from a place of curiosity as opposed to a place of demanding expectations, we’re more likely to dive in and tackle a trial & error experience without the fear of failure hovering over us.
Being curious tells us it’s okay to explore and be a beginner. It can shift the focus from internal bantering of “I might not be good/smart/capable enough…” to a less judgmental view point of “What might this be like?” or “How might this work?” or “What might I experience?”
Approaching a daunting situation from a curious mindset helps us to listen more intently and take in information from unlikely sources, to entertain alternative points of view, and explore different approaches. Perhaps a better approach to building confidence involves developing an aptitude for curiosity. Here are some questions to consider:
- When feeling less confident, how likely are you to approach the experience from a place of curiosity?
- Where can you replace worry with a curious mindset?
- How might being curious shift your approach to a situation where you lack confidence?
- What can you say to yourself to remember to stay curious?
Establishing personal connections supplies us with allies and resources to navigate new terrain. Knowing we have someone to turn to with questions or when in need of affirmation can make all the difference in boosting our confidence.
Such connections also create a sense of belonging, which can be a critical component for confidence. Research originally pioneered by Dr. Uri Treisman shows that when college students connect with others and experience a sense of belonging, they are more likely to overcome challenges of being in a new learning environment. Many colleges now embrace the idea that a sense of belong for students, whether in the form of a study group, a connection to a faculty or staff member, or membership to a campus organization, are critical factors for student success and retention. I believe the same rule applies for the larger world. When we feel connected to others, we’re more likely to build confidence and stay in the game.
In addition to connecting to others, the ability to make connections between our personal experiences provides huge confidence boosts as well. Rarely do we deconstruct both our failures and successes, and make critical connections to identify what key influences led to particular outcomes.
When considering a past experience that was challenging you might reflect on the following:
- Where within the experience did you experience ease?
- What was challenging about the experience?
- When did a temptation to quit hit?
- What contributed to feeling overwhelmed?
- What coping mechanisms worked well?
- What was the tipping point when things began to come together?
An example for me comes from when I was nine and attempting to ski for the first time. After a morning spent on a ten-foot mound learning to snowplow and stop, the instructor told me I was ready to take the chairlift to the top of the mountain. I looked over at the lift that carried passengers 20 feet high off the ground. It careened up and over the mountain’s horizon beyond my view. Not being able to see how the passengers dismounted, I assumed they had to jump from the chair in mid-air. I quickly told my instructor I was sick and spent the rest of the day drinking hot chocolate in the lodge. That evening my sister explained how the lift lowers skiers to a small ramp where they easily stand up and slide down on their skis. After feeling slightly embarrassed by my fear, I was willing to give skiing a second try.
Today, when facing daunting challenges, the mental chatter still attacks with a loud roar. This is out of your zone. You don’t know how to do this. Who do you think you are to try this? The doubts go on and on. To keep them from completely stripping my confidence I connect to my memory of skiing for the first time. I tell myself: Get on the lift. You can’t see beyond the horizon yet. Connecting with this metaphor keeps me moving forward.
Perhaps an approach to building confidence should focus on connecting – with people, personal stories and metaphors that help to manage doubt and see the big picture.
- What personal connections would you like to cultivate?
- Who in your network boosts/strips your confidence?
- What metaphors can you connect with in the face of doubt?
- What past successes can you deconstruct to examine how you learn, how you move through not knowing, and how you handle ambiguity?
Making Powerful Choices
What was the last powerful choice you made? What outcome resulted?
A lack of confidence can hold us back from making powerful choices, taking on new opportunities and developing our full potential. Many opportunities require a leap of faith. They demand we say ‘yes’ in the face of uncertainty. They rarely guarantee success. But by making a conscious choice to move forward, we plant a seed for confidence.
The practice of stepping out into the unknown, precisely when we lack confidence, actually breeds this belief in our powers and abilities. Think of the young child shivering with fear on the diving board who transforms with a look of absolute joy after jumping in and coming up from under water.
It’s a bit of a paradox. The best way to build confidence is to act on situations where we lack it. And doing so in incremental ways allows us to develop skills and see ourselves in new ways without risking huge failures. For example, if you lack confidence voicing your opinions at work, you might commit to contributing one thought at every meeting as a constructive way to start. A small, but powerful choice to push yourself out of your comfort zone today will help you build the confidence to make the big leaps tomorrow.
When powerful choices are aligned with a greater purpose, confidence can grow exponentially. How many of you have witnessed a parent who is quiet, reserved and uncomfortable speaking out until his or her child is hurt or negatively impacted by a situation. Suddenly, the protective tiger kicks in, and the parent swiftly makes a move. When required actions aren’t about us, but about those we serve or about our greater purpose at large, the ability to move decisively and confidently seems to appear out of nowhere. This idea takes us back to other foundational attributes of confidence, such as a sense of purpose, which I’ll address in another blog.
- What powerful choices are you making to build confidence?
- What incremental steps can you take today to shape who you will be and what you can do tomorrow?
- Where are you in service of an idea or person that ignites your confidence? What connections can you make about this?
Practicing the Power of “Yet”
Building confidence happens over time, and for most of us, it’s something we practice continually throughout our lives. There’s one word that helps to travel this cycle from not knowing to knowing – yet. I don’t know yet. I can’t do this yet. I’m not competent yet. I don’t believe in myself yet.
By remaining curious, making connections, and choosing to boldly take steps in the face of uncertainty, you’ll build your confidence quotient. And when success isn’t immediate, take time to remind yourself – you might not be there yet, but you’re on your way.