Are we born with a certain level of confidence? Or is it a skill that we can learn to cultivate? These are only two of the big questions journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman tackle in their book "The Confidence Code."
As we read, we’re invited along on their odyssey taking us through the cutting edge of neuroscience and psychology on a hunt for the confidence gene. Ultimately, what we find is a hopeful conclusion: While confidence is influenced by genetics, it is not a fixed psychological state. That means we can choose confidence! But what does that choice look like? According to Kay and Shipman, it looks like “less people pleasing and perfectionism and more action, risk taking, and fast failure.”
When a colleague recommended this book last year, it caught my attention. The No. 1 goal for my clients has been to develop confidence or projecting an executive presence when they speak. And I’ve always been fascinated by the variety of what it takes for each individual to feel confident.
"The Confidence Code" really enhanced my understanding of the science of confidence. But Kay and Shipman explore beyond the science by including interviews with leaders from politics, sports, the military and the arts to examine how these real-world role models have tapped into their personal reserves of inner self-assurance. The insights from these sections stuck with me the most.
Here are a few nuggets from the book I hope you can use in your work and home life:
Do more, think less
One of the biggest obstacles to confidence is a mind that’s obsessed with perfection or getting all of the pieces in place before moving forward. It often feels more comfortable to keep planning and plotting rather than diving in and taking action. But staying in this comfort zone inside our own heads is precisely what prevents us from believing we can succeed -- and believing that we will succeed is crucial to confidence.
What we really need to believe in our ability is to prove it to ourselves through confident action.
In other words, confidence is not all in your head. In fact, if you think about the most confident person you know, you probably chose that person because of what she does and the decisions she makes. This shows that confidence is really all about getting out of your head. Kay and Shipman put it succinctly: “Confidence occurs when the insidious self-perception that you aren’t able is trumped by the stark reality of your achievements.”
Confident action can take many forms -- a decision to say "yes" to an invitation to speak in front of a global audience at an industry event, a conversation with a potential mentor or an opinion voiced in a setting where you’ve been reluctant to speak up. The message of hope here is that action is something we’re all free to choose.
Quick confidence-boosting habits
Yes, the primary aim of the book is about developing big confidence habits and gaining self-assurance over the long haul. But Kay and Shipman also offer some quick tips that we can all enact for an immediate confidence boost. Many of these tips below can even help with managing fear in the moment, like when stage fright rears its ugly head.
I’ve been playing around with these tips myself ever since I read them and I’ve noticed a difference in my mindset day-to-day:
- Meditate. You can literally rewire your brain using meditation to gain an increased ability to control your emotions and to be more clear and calm about your goals.
- Be grateful. Gratitude is one of the keys to happiness. All you have to do is notice and feel thankful for tiny things throughout your day, like when someone lets you merge into traffic.
- Think small. Break down overwhelming tasks into smaller pieces. When you take them one step at a time, you’ll be able to manage and move forward taking confident action.
- Sleep, move, share. A lack of sleep and exercise creates an anxious mind and being close to our friends boosts oxytocin levels. So make sure you’re getting enough of all three.
- Practice power positions. Sitting up straight makes you feel more alert and can give you a short-term confidence boost. These power positions may not have the magic power that some have suggested, but there’s no doubt that if you don’t sit at the table, you’re conceding power.
Try some of these tips for yourself and see how they affect your self-confidence. The best part is the more you practice confidence, the easier it becomes. That’s why I love these little confidence-boosting actions.
Confidence is a choice
This is perhaps the biggest takeaway from the book. Whenever you see someone exercising confidence what is your first thought? If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I wish I had half of his confidence” or “Wow! She’s so fearless. I can’t believe how lucky she is to have been born with that big personality,” know that all that confidence, and more, is available to you.
It’s true that feeling confident comes easier to some people, but confidence, like athleticism, can be developed. Whenever you push yourself to compete for a job or promotion you want, you gain in confidence. Whenever you make a decision and stick to it, you gain in confidence. Even the experience of not succeeding in the way you envision can increase confidence if you look at your action as a fact-finding mission. Sure, you might not get the promotion or your decision might not have the optimal outcome. But each time you dare to compete or to make a decision, you learn valuable lessons you take forward with you.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to take the biggest risk you can think of; you can take small steps to prepare for bigger risks. Nervous about asking for that promotion? Practice making the case for how you’ve contributed to the success of your department with a confidante. Prepare five reasons you’re qualified. Small steps like these help you build your confidence muscle.
When we make a point of getting out of our heads and stepping out of our comfort zones in a way that still feels authentic, we are well on our way to cracking the confidence code.
If I were to choose one sentence to sum up Kay and Shipman’s book, it would be the following: “In the most basic terms, what we need to do is start acting and risking and failing and stop mumbling and apologizing and prevaricating.”
Developing confidence has been a running theme in past books chosen for my summer reading series. If this topic grabs you, too, here are some of my favorite past book reviews to explore:
- "The Confidence Gap" by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
- Enhancing Your Executive Edge" by Kim Zoller and Kerry Preston
- "Presence" by Amy Cuddy
- "Emotional Agility," by Susan David
Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.