“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right”. So said US industrialist Henry Ford – condemning half the population to self-fulfilling under-confidence. Ford’s maxim is, in fact, wrong, beacause Ford misunderstood the nature of confidence.
So confidence can be acquired, although there’s a definite alchemy to confidence. First there’s optimism. Confident people not only hope for the best, they expect it, which allows them to act. This is about how we inwardly explain success or failure. If success suits our personal narrative, with failure an aberration, we’ll be optimistic. If it’s the other way round, we’ll more likely be pessimistic, which will undermine our confidence.
Psychologist Michael Seligman counters this with the notion of ‘flexible optimism’. This sets limits on our pessimism – for instance on the extent of blame attributable to ourselves for a negative event – which reinforces rather than undermines the strongest card of the pessimist, which is realism. We do not have to ignore our own – perhaps evidence-based – view of reality. Flexible optimism is simply introducing additional questions such as what’s the alternative view, and what are the limits to the downside?
Resilience is key
Being irrepressible by absorbing the punches without them impacting our overall outlook or conviction. Like so much else, resilience is developed in childhood – often learnt, or otherwise, vicariously from a parent who may themselves have had strong or poor coping skills. Yet resilience is often misunderstood. It isn’t about survival, which may have been achieved at enormous emotional cost or trauma. It’s about coming through stressful or negative situations with more confidence, not less.
We need to cope with stressful situations as they occur, not after we’ve calmed down. Yet this, too, can be learnt, as long as we can first deal with the emotional aspects of stressful situations. Yet we must also be adaptable and aware that “now” is what matters – not the moments before or after the crisis. Other than that, the key is not to choke (i.e. collapse under pressure) once victory is in sight.
the self-knowledge that we have strong skills in a particular area, as well as the fact we, indeed, possess such skills. Our beliefs are not illusionary. Of course, developing competence in a particular area should strengthen our self-efficacy. And this should increase our willingness to take greater risks – to push the boundaries of our talents or acquired skills, making us willing to develop new skills in tangentially-relevant areas. All of which will add to our confidence.
That said, self-efficacy has its limits, not least the fact it’s ‘domain specific’. This means we can gain strong self-efficacy in one area with no impact on our confidence elsewhere (which is why champion jockeys should avoid driving racing cars). Nonetheless, gaining self-efficacy in one area is beneficial if we can recognize what’s happened and apply the methodology to gain self-efficacy elsewhere.
Talent, or is it?
Nearly all confidence gurus agree that high achievers are no more talented than many others. They are just more focused, more committed and – above all – extremely hard working: prepared to repeat perhaps mundane tasks again and again in their drive for perfection.
Whether skills such as music, or attributes such as intelligence, those that are talented often start no more than average: attaining their ‘talent’ through years of endeavour. Indeed, many high performers are incredibly hard on themselves. No matter what grade they attain, their discontent remains – meaning that talent and confidence make awkward bedfellows.
Which is something confident people have in spades. In fact, it can seem like their defining quality – allowing confident people to act, and therefore prosper, while the under-confident hesitate, and therefore languish in frustration and feelings of inadequacy.
So courage is something we must develop. And while this can seem disabling, it isn’t. It means there’s nothing innate about it. Anyone can become courageous. Strong preparation and lots of practice can remove the terror, allowing us – despite our insecurities or fears – to act. And while this seems like an overly-simple solution for an old-fashioned need, it’s also true.
This is a personality-type identified by legendary psychologist Carl Jung. The extrovert has an outward flow of personal energy – making them sociable, enthusiastic and incautious, although also potentially shallow, unreflective and volatile. Meanwhile, the introvert is characterised by an inward flow of personal energy – making them imaginative, self-contained and reflective, although also potentially shy, hesitant and withdrawn.
Of course, the under-confident could potentially reframe themselves as introverts, which is a more positive label. Yet we are concerned here with confidence, which – at least externally – requires the attributes of the extravert. So if introverts want to get ahead they must be prepared to get beyond their comfort zone – especially in social situations – while retaining the advantages of the introvert (such as strong observation and listening skills).
Seventh is trust. Trust and confidence are interchangeable words, although this type of trust deals with relationships. It means having inner confidence with others. In this respect, trust is a vital building block for confidence – not least because distrust destroys our confidence more effectively than just about any other external consideration.
Yet trust from others requires that we are – first – trustworthy. We must behave in ways that generate trust before we expect others to trust us or be themselves trustworthy. This is potentially a major barrier for the under-confident, not least because their past may be filled with examples of betrayed trust. So by changing our direction of travel – meaning that we are trustworthy first and that we trust in others before we expect others to trust us – we can start to undermine the contrary evidence caused by our negative experiences.
This comes from developing confidence in other areas. In fact trust and judgement are connected, because lost trust can quickly destroy our judgement, while trust in others and ourselves can strengthen our judgement. Key to strong judgement is the avoidance of heuristics such as ‘confirmation bias’, in which we favour information that confirms our preconceptions while potentially ignoring or discounting information that could challenge these assumptions.
True confidence comes from being able to challenge our prejudices – including our fears – without triggering our insecurities. Indeed, being wrong – and being able to admit it – is a strong sign of confidence.
By Robert Kelsey
Robert is an author, founder and CEO of a London PR agency, and co-founder and deputy chairman of the Centre for Entrepreneurs. www.robert-kelsey.co.uk