BEING MORE CONFIDENT
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t you’re right,” said US industrialist Henry Ford.
But what if you’re on the wrong side of Ford’s maxim? What if you lack the conviction for success? If so, Ford’s quote can feel like a depressing condemnation – of a life spent battling against poor confidence, low attainment, pessimism, anxiety and even depression. Indeed, under confident people are more likely to drop out of school, be overlooked for promotion, divorce or never marry, acquire criminal convictions, have nervous breakdowns and even commit suicide. Their life can be nasty and brutish and their life-expectancy shorter.
Being under-confident can therefore seem like a life (and even a death) sentence. So can anything be done about it? As Robert Kelsey there’s nothing innate about confidence. It is something we can all obtain, although first we have to understand how we became under-confident (often through scripts given to us in early childhood). From here we can learn, or at least understand, the attributes of the confident: what Robert calls the “alchemy of confidence” – that sometimes practical, sometimes mystical (in fact sometimes mythical) set of qualities that the confident seem to possess in abundance and the under confident appear to lack.
And then we can plan for achievement, because achievement is the key attribute of those with real and sustainable confidence. As Kelsey states, confidence requires discrimination: confidence in what? This book helps us calculate this – via the creation of our blueprint for the future – as well as plan for a better result.
In this follow-up to his international bestseller What’s Stopping You? Robert Kelsey offers a deep understanding of confidence, using extensive research and analysis, as well his own experiences, to help you to:
- Identify the truth about confidence – its root causes, as well as the damaging self-beliefs that generate poor confidence
- Accept who you are, while planning your path towards confidence through achievement
- Understand the myths around confidence, such as the need to be outgoing or to have talent
- Overcome the most common barrier to strong confidence: other people,
- Deal with other barriers to confidence such as shyness, anxiety, stress, prejudice and even hubris.
Luke Johnson, RSA Chairman, Financial Times columnist and author of Start It Up!
‘Robert Kelsey’s combination of searing honesty and genuine curiosity about how our lives are shaped make for compelling reading, and his consistent message that we are in control of our journey is a welcome one. His books are like service stations on the motorway of life (without the stale buns) zoom past them at your peril.’
Fi Glover, multi-award winning broadcast journalist and BBC radio presenter
‘At last – a book about how to be confident written by someone who has struggled with it himself. Robert Kelsey’s own experiences help him distil the essential lessons for making self-confidence a way of life.’
Roman Krznaric, author of How to Find Fulfilling Work and co-founder of The School of Life
‘Not the usual snakeoil self-help salesmanship – Kelsey really could make a difference to you.’
Oliver James, author of They F*** You Up!
‘Robert Kelsey has distilled the thinking of numerous acknowledged writers and added insights borne of his own experience, to produce an invaluable resource for anyone lacking confidence.’
John Caunt, author of Boost Your Self-Esteem.
‘If you want to stop talking and start doing, confidence is important. In this personal and readable book Robert Kelsey explores the roots of poor confidence – including his own – and why it can be so debilitating for our personal progress. Using this insight he guides the reader along a practical and sustainable path forward.’
Richard Newton, author of Stop Talking, Start Doing.
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right,” said US industrialist Henry Ford. This pithy maxim from the man that brought motoring to the masses observes the gulf that exists between high and low confidence, and the fact the resultant potential outcomes are so different the term “chalk and cheese” seems inadequate. Venus and Mars more like, though even here we’re comparing two rocky and distant planets. How about Switzerland and Somalia, with the self-doubters condemned to life in a self-generated failed and piratical state?
Yet Ford’s statement makes the stakes higher still. Far from being declared a failed state, the under-confident are being written off as such. Their poor self-beliefs mean they remain the personal embodiment of Somalia no matter what they do or how much they change their behaviour. This is a terrible conclusion. But is it true? Can Somalia ever hope to become Switzerland: a quietly confident, highly productive, contented and peaceful state, if a little finicky about cigarette butts and chewing gum? And can we as people become confident when once we were riven with doubt? Not according to Ford, it seems, because self-doubt and low confidence will lead us to incorrect evaluations – bringing forth poor judgement, terrible choices and, yes, self-fulfilling and disastrous behaviours that confirm and compound our poor confidence.
But immediately we think of Singapore: once a marshy and malarial island occupied by a few-dozen locals, some Chinese immigrants and the odd gin-soaked Brit, and now a gleaming high-income hive. Then there’s Costa Rica: a backwater jungle of the Spanish empire with no natural resources, and now a stable democracy in a neighbourhood noted for civil wars and unstable regimes. And what about Botswana: once a desert with warring tribesmen and now Africa’s prosperous and democratic gem?
The confidence industry
So countries can become Switzerland, meaning that – as people – we can surely develop the confident attributes of those in the happy half of Ford’s conundrum. Can’t we? According to the self-help industry we can. There are mountains of books, DVDs, coaching courses, therapies and gizmos dedicated to banishing poor confidence. Hypnotism, acupuncture, yoga, pilates, meditation, even medication (legal or otherwise): all claim wonders when it comes to confidence. We can even have operations aimed at changing, removing or adding body-parts – with no other outcome promised than improved confidence.
Yet none of it can move us permanently to the positive side of Ford’s quote because they all make the same mistake of assuming we’re no more than raw materials ripe for processing. We’re a blank canvas, they consider, ready to be filled with their colourful (and admittedly useful) methodologies and prescriptions for a more confident future.
If only it were so. We’re far from a blank canvas. The under-confident are filled with the agonizing and detailed images of painful memories. If a canvas, we’d be a Picasso-like contortion of humiliations, defeats and put-downs. Of lost battles and spurned opportunities. For the under-confident, the journey towards confidence doesn’t begin at zero. It begins at minus one-hundred.
We are complex humans that are the sum of our experiences, which – for people with low confidence – are usually negative if not downright painful. Painting confidence onto such a distorted canvas is not a cure, in my view. It’s a recipe for further confusion and distortion, as well as a potentially painful reckoning as we struggle and then fail to reconcile our past humiliations with the buoyant and strident instructions being propagated.
Confidence is not like an immunization jab. It isn’t injected into us through fine prose and motivational exercises. Confidence comes – almost exclusively – from experience. From getting something right and – importantly – understanding the how and why of its correctness, thus making it replicable (what’s known as self-efficacy). Confidence is also a personal tool box, mostly of positive and repeatable achievements but also of attributes learnt through trial and error. A box that can produce successful outcomes, but also one that can deal with unsuccessful outcomes. That can cope with setbacks without being knocked off-course. And one that can even accept the negative view of others while remaining focused on our own positive outcomes.
That said, if deep, sustainable confidence requires one thing it’s self-knowledge. It’s knowing what we’re good at, and realizing and accepting why – including the fact that talent, as we shall see, may have little to do with it. But it’s also to know what we’re not good at, and to accept this and also understand why. Confidence is about trust, courage, optimism and resilience, although it’s also about not being over-confident or arrogant. More than anything, confidence gives us the ability to act, although it also gives us the ability not to act. To speak but to know when silence is the better option. To offer praise and accept criticism. To be open to ideas and learning. And to be reasonable, fair, humble, charitable and empathetic.
Confidence is. . .
It’s everything I’m not in other words – or, at least, wasn’t. Indeed, my own story is one of distrust, cowardice, pessimism and weakness. Perhaps from birth or – as we shall see – more likely from early experience, mine was the script of the under-confident person: a fate seemingly carved in stone from an early age – very much in line with Ford’s prophesy. This was despite my mother’s efforts at increasing my confidence. Enrolled in judo classes, or the cub-scouts, or the village drama club: each time I’d look at the competence of those around me (colour banded in the case of judo) and assume such capabilities beyond me. Each time, no sooner had I joined than I sought a way out, my poor confidence exacerbated by the experience.
Poor confidence led me to fail my 11-plus, to perform poorly in the rough secondary-modern turned comprehensive I attended – somehow managing to avoid the mediocre education on offer and fail the tough-gang acceptance test – and to screw up my first career as a building surveyor. I approached each experience with fear and misgiving, and with an inner belief that failure was the likely outcome. Of course, I soon proved myself right. No matter what the avenue, everyone seemed to be better than me: brainier, cooler, tougher, more popular.
Only now – having gained confidence (at least in one area) – can I look back and see things more clearly, perhaps also noticing some of the barriers. A big one was motivation. The poor educational fare on offer, the dull pastimes of exurban housing estates – even the humdrum pursuits of a surveyor in the featureless Essex marshes: nothing inspired me or aroused my desires to the point where I became determined to gain competence. Only once motivated towards something I truly desired would I develop the resilience to overcome the hurdles. This happened when taking A’ Level history at evening classes, when doing a degree in politics and modern history at the University of Manchester and when finally winning a sustainable role as a journalist on a financially-focused magazine.
Yet on each occasion the doubts remained. My background – of poor confidence compounded by failed endeavours – reared up to undermine the achievement. At key moments, my confidence deserted me. It seemed brittle, temporary, somehow going against the grain and therefore easily refuted. And when it wasn’t, my insecurities led to hubris that soon brought me down with a bump.
For instance, my “success” as editor of a financial magazine eventually led to a job offer in an investment bank. I worked both here and in the US but my poor self-beliefs meant my shallow early competence gelled into a disabling ineptitude (not a great trait for a banker), which had me soon admitting defeat and retreating – sheltering in my earlier journalistic competence by writing a book about my experiences in New York. Yet the book’s lukewarm reception left me reeling. Rather than see it as a strong first step as an author, I became convinced I’d utterly failed: a conviction that, as Ford correctly noted, fulfilled itself.
The truth about confidence
So, unlike many self-help authors (a good number of which are quoted in the pages ahead), I’ve lived with poor confidence throughout most of my adult life. Even now – with a “successful” PR business under my belt, and as the author of the “bestselling” What’s Stopping You? (on fear of failure) – my under confidence is easily triggered, perhaps in areas where I still feel less than capable. Every pitch meeting, every speech – even every telephone call from a client or chat with a journalist – rouses the inner demons and still occasionally produces the results I most fear. Even the descriptions of my achievements feel false (note the use of quote marks in the statements above), or temporary or somehow fraudulently acquired.
Which brings me to my motivation for this book. The under-confident need to be told the truth about confidence: what it is, what it isn’t, how it’s developed and – importantly – how it’s sustained. Certainly, I’ve had to learn every step as if walking a tightrope. And still my footing feels unsure and I worry excessively about the gentlest breeze – perhaps over-reacting so that my grip is all the more threatened. Yet that’s the point. It’s a truth no high-fiving motivational guru can impart because until you’ve experienced the deep, gnawing, silent (but screaming), claustrophobic dread of poor confidence – and how it impacts your every utterance or encounter – you cannot hope to encourage a better outcome.
After all, Ford was speaking from the right side of his prediction, meaning he had little to offer those he’d condemned. That said, he was wrong. A more accurate maxim would finish: “if you think you can’t – you’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of you” – although I admit it has less of a ring to it.