Are you the kind of person who fades into the background, avoids talking in meetings and generally prefers not being noticed? Do you wish you could take centre stage, be confident and calm, always in control?One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Yet all of us have felt insecure at one time or another, we’ve worried about failure, we’ve felt unsure about our welcome, we’ve been nervous about our approach or plan. Even when the people around us are encouraging, sometimes our own perception can weigh us down.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for confidence. Simply telling yourself you are wonderful and to be confident is not enough. In fact, in my experience, the only real way to build confidence is to achieve something.
Every year I train a new crop of graduates at the beginning of their careers. Some are determined and bold, others are reserved and shy, and yet by the end of their six-month internships all of them have succeeded in their projects. They then go on to build upon that foundation. Knowing that they have achieved good grades, that they have completed a difficult internship gives them the confidence to tackle the next challenge. Tackling this next challenge brings them even more confidence, and so on.
What can we learn from this? Well, confidence doesn’t happen overnight. In fact it can be said to be a cycle.
Step 1: Ambition. The Oxford dictionary defines ambition as a strong desire to do or achieve something. You’ll never take that first step towards confidence unless you really want to. You need determination and desire.
Step 2: an achievable goal. Start small and build. For example, many people fear speaking up in public or asking what they think is a stupid question in a group setting. Regardless of the fear, one of my favourite questions at this point is “SO?”.
People might disagree with you. SO?
Someone might laugh? SO?
You might get it wrong? SO?
Face this fear. I can guarantee that in reality it won’t be nearly as bad as what you think it will be! People are generally much more accepting than we imagine. In fact most people are dealing with the exact same fears. One goal might be to speak out at every group discussion. If you are successful, this will help you to build confidence with the group and indirectly, you’ll become a better public speaker. Stop worrying about yourself and concentrate on the contribution you’re making to the group. You won’t worry as much about your own flaws, if you are thinking about the group’s success.
Of course to achieve this goal, you’ll need to face your fears. To do this you need Step 3: motivation, a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in this different way. Imagine what success will look like. Imagine how facing your fear will help you. Imagine how the change in your confidence will affect your life.
Then you’ll achieve your goal, and feel the benefits, Step 4: Success. Knowing that you’ve done something and done it well, you’ll feel a rush of euphoria. You’ll feel able to do more.
With this success under your belt, you’ll become more assertive, more sure. It may only be a smidgen more sure than before, but it is more. This is Step 5: Confidence. This is where you should celebrate and then make plans to build on your success. For example, expand your one question per meeting objective, to a 5 minute talk on your current project. Each small step will give you the confidence you need to reach the next step.
Of course, you will not always achieve your goal the first time. You need to know your limits and expand them slowly. If you reach too far too fast, you will inevitably fall. However, you can learn from each fall and become stronger from the knowledge. Reflect on your existing achievements. What worked well? Why did you fall? How can you build on what you’ve done?
Remember, what you currently perceive as being your limit is probably not even close. Try expanding your horizons. Move the goal posts little by little. Remember in reality, the sky is the limit. Eleanor Roosevelt also said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”