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Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action

Grow in self-belief, self-esteem, self-compassion and optimism

Confidence is a tricky beast! I can feel confident and behave in a confident way in one situation and completely the opposite in a different situation. To say to yourself or others that they or you lack confidence is really a very vague, sweeping and obviously demoralizing statement.

What exactly is confidence? It is a difficult concept to pin down. Loads of books and research will give you various definitions, but the one I like the most is “confidence is the characteristic that distinguishes those who imagine, from those who do. It is the stuff that turns thoughts into action; it is life’s enabler”. (The Confidence Code, buy Kathy Kay and Claire Shipman)

What are the confidence killers?

  • Comparing ourselves to others
  • Worrying over things we have no control over
  • Perfectionism
  • Seeing failure/mistakes as the end of the world and ruminating over them
  • Always staying in our comfort zone
  • Worrying about what others will say/think

I read a story recently about Arthur Murray (the famous American ballroom dancer and business man who had over 500 dancing schools named after him by the time he died in 1991). It is said that early in his life after mustering the courage to ask a young girl to dance, she found him so inept that she complained he danced like a truck driver. For most people this would be enough to give them a reason to never dance again, but clearly Arthur’s confidence was not quenched and he danced for decades and was incredibly successful. He did not fall victim to worrying about what others thought of him, or seeing mistakes as the end of the world.

How was he able to overcome a set back and get back out there to dance again?

He probably tapped in to some of the supporting acts of confidence:

Self-efficacy: the belief that he could learn to dance, even if he wasn’t great right now. Believing that he had learnt other skills in his life, so why would dancing be any different? He probably started with simple steps and a less critical partner e.g. a granny at a wedding. Perhaps he celebrated small accomplishments: I didn’t stand on anybody’s toes! He also probably watched others and practiced when he stakes were low. He may even have done some reflection on his past successes.

Self-esteem: the internal belief that he was worthwhile, good enough. Self-esteem grows through every challenge overcome.

Optimism: a cultivated hopefulness about the future or the success of something. Optimism is often an internal state, not necessary expressed, but instead of dwelling on the reasons why something won’t work, it is spending time thinking about the reasons why it will.

Self-compassion: being kind to himself. When mistakes happen, or when things don’t go as well as one would hope, self-compassion is steering away from the tendency to beat ourselves up for all the things we didn’t do, or should have done or considered.  Rather, gently and kindly reflecting on what went well and how we could learn from what didn’t for next time.

In my next blog, I’ll flesh out some ways to build confidence. In the interim, think about areas in your life where you feel confident and areas where you don’t. I believe that confidence is not ubiquitous. In my life, I have very low confidence with mountain biking, but pretty solid confidence in road cycling. In two very closely related sports, I experience myself as two very different people. Similarly, I am very confident meeting new people related to work, but less confident meeting new people in a social or sports club setting.

Building Confidence – The inner voice

Train your critical inner voice to speak a more constructive repertoire.

Senior leaders will often look at the pipeline of leaders in their organisation and pronounce that “Janine just isn’t very confident”. Poor Janine may or may not get this feedback, but if she does, she is at a complete loss as to where she lacks confidence and how to build confidence so that next time her name comes up in the talent review the feedback is: Janine has really grown in confidence and is ready for her next role.

Let’s start with looking inside. And by inside, I mean waaaay inside… the part that no one but you are able to access. If you know anything about the Jahari window, this is the known-to-you and unknown-to-others quadrant. In this quadrant live your hopes and fears, dreams and desires, unexpressed emotions and thoughts etc. What is present in this quadrant is your inner voice. Your inner voice can be kind and gentle, or loud and aggressive. This inner voice, if you listen to it is like the narrator of your life, it is the David Attenborough of your day to day nature program. Women in particular often struggle with a very critical inner voice, a voice which is always expecting them to do better and be better. A critical inner voice can completely undermine your confidence:


Lerato stepped up to lead the bid to put a proposal together for a client, but the client went with another supplier.

Lerato: Thank you for letting me know, I’ll stay in touch so we can consider other opportunities to work with you in the future.

Critical Inner Voice: You idiot, why do you think they’ll want to work with you again? You clearly missed the mark this time. What makes you think you can lead this type of work? You are obviously not ready.

Result: Lerato is reluctant to try again and doesn’t call again or reach out to others in case she fails. She moves back into her comfort zone, where she helps others on their proposals but doesn’t get the credit or recognition.

Alternative (Trained) Inner Voice: Oh bummer… you worked hard on this one. It stinks to work so hard and then not win. I wonder what we can learn from this? As a first go, it was good experience.

Alternative Result: Lerato takes a breath, reflects on what she did well and where she needs to finetune her proposal approach for next time. She thinks about other new things she has tried over the years and where these have been successful. She confirms her commitment to lead and why she wants to do this  with herself, and makes an appointment with her manager to share her learnings and eagerness to lead the next bid.

Training your inner voice is like training a wild horse. Picture those horse movies where the wild stallion is “broken in” by the cowboy and eventually wins the race? Well the process is much the same.

STEP 1: Identify the voice that is loudest in your head, maybe even name it, draw it, write down what it says to you. Growing in awareness is the first step. Then the training begins. You now have your wild stallion in the paddock.

STEP 2: Each time you hear the voice, remind yourself that it is a voice, not the voice of truth. It holds an opinion, not the opinion. As a result you can change it.

STEP 3: Start training it with what you would like it to say.  This is an active step. It is really like teaching a new language to someone. You can’t be expected to speak French unless you have been taught it. So teach your inner voice words that will help you grow and learn.

Starter language kit for wayward inner voices:

  • That was tough for you, I wonder what we can learn from that?
  • That didn’t go as you planned, what parts did?
  • There may be things that go wrong, but let’s think about what could go right.
  • You may not have the experience for this yet, but you can learn. You have before.
  • This doesn’t have to be perfect, you need to get it done though.
  • You can do the first step, don’t think of the whole, just do the first step and then the next.
  • You’ve got this.

George Lucas spent four years sending the script for Star Wars around to the various studios and racking up numerous rejections in the process. If he’d let his negative inner voice get to him he would never have ended up having the highest grossing film of all time. Think of all the great Lucas movies we might never have seen if he’d let those rejections get to him.

Confidence – The Comfort Prison

Break out strategies for those who are trapped.

I have written and spoken about the Comfort Prison before. We usually refer to it as a comfort zone, but in my experience it is a lot more sinister. You may find that you are in a comfort prison, with no idea how you got there, or how to escape! There are a lot of voices wanting to keep you inside this prison.  Most of the voices are inside your own head! But there are some other voices such as culture, family expectations, stereotypes etc. that are just as eager to keep you locked up where you are. This comfort prison can serve others very well, because when you are inside, they are not. Whilst you are doing the work that you have always done, they don’t have to.  Whilst you are not putting your name forward for the tough assignments, they are. Whilst you are not progressing and taking up leadership space… they are!

Prison Break strategies:

Awareness: Realizing that you are in a place of comfort is the first step. When colleagues come to you to ask how to do this, or where to find that, and everything around you works as it should, but yet you still doubt your capabilities: you are likely in a comfort prison. You aren’t growing and haven’t for a while, it is the same procedure each day/month/year with minor changes. You are afraid of risks and are negative about ideas that may bring change and put off for tomorrow the adventures/ challenges/ opportunities that come across your inbox today.

Planning: Realising that you are in a comfort prison in some areas of your life is tough, doing something about it is tougher. What holds you inside is often the inner voice that I wrote about in my last blog. Read that for some guidance on where to start. After you have started taming your inner voice it is time to stick your toe outside the door of your prison. I am not suggesting a huge leap. I am suggesting a small shuffle out. For one of my coaching clients it meant setting a target to speak up once in every team meeting; for someone else it meant thinking through a new approach with her manager which included standing up for her priorities. For you it might be deciding to learn a new skill (see my blog on investing in personal equity). Whatever it is, plan it and commit to it. A coach can be helpful to keep you accountable, but a fierce friend will do too!

Doing: Don’t delay for tomorrow what you can start today. Get going on your new strategy. Remember the definition: confidence is the characteristic that distinguishes those who imagine, from those who do. It is the stuff that turns thoughts into action (The Confidence Code, buy Kathy Kay and Claire Shipman). Doing something new might be scary, and yes it might fail, but at least it is done! And Done is better than To Do: just ask any list maker! When you start doing, the doing builds momentum. The doing starts telling you that you can do new things. Not everything will work brilliantly, but Doing takes the scary out of the To Do…. And DOING builds CONFIDENCE!

Doing the plan is the way to ESCAPE the prison. Thinking about the plan, will keep you locked up, talking about the plan will pin you to your prison bunk bed, researching will solder the lock shut. It is in the DOING that the door unlocks and the prisoner walks free!

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