How confident are you? What does confidence mean to you? I used to think that people either had confidence or they didn’t. Some people just exude confidence – they appear to be sure of themselves and very comfortable in their own skin. I assumed they were born that way – that they were naturally good at things and they knew it. I didn’t include myself in the ranks of the confident.
I was at a networking meeting last year and the question put to the room of women was, “What is holding you back from doing all you want in life and business?” Confidence was the main thing these businesswomen said held them back. It was enlightening for me to realize that confidence is not the default for most people.
It was even more enlightening for me when the speaker, Sharon Lewis, asked us what it feels like to be confident. My initial reaction was I don’t know – I’m not one of those naturally self-confident people. Then she gave us her description of confidence. It’s not something we are born with. It is simply what we are sure of. To be confident is to know something – to be certain of the outcome. That’s when I began to more clearly understand that self-confidence is how we view our abilities. For example, I am confident in my ability to drive an automatic transmission car. I have done it many times before and I know that I am capable of doing it again. That’s what it feels like to be confident. Cool!
So how do I develop that kind of confidence, that kind of certainty, in other areas of my life? When I choose to drive my car, my brain very quickly scans past patterns and sends the message to go ahead – I know how to do this, I’ve done this before, all systems go. However, I realized that my default reaction or brain pattern to new or challenging situations is to think “this looks hard and I may not be able to do it”, so my brain sends the message to stop. I want to reprogram that mindset.
This type of default thinking is what Dr. Carol S. Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls a Fixed Mindset. As kids, many of us were only praised or measured on our abilities. That kind of ability-praise creates a fixed mindset. You get good grades in school so you must be smart. Or, you don’t get good grades in school so you must be dumb. Dr. Dweck’s studies of students showed that kids with a fixed mindset would reject attempting a challenging new task that they could learn from because they didn’t want to do anything that “could expose their flaws and call into question their talent”.
Dr. Dweck gave a group of kids a fairly easy test on which they did well. They were praised for their ability – you did well, you must be smart. Next they were given a much more challenging test on which many of them didn’t do well. This one poor performance was enough to make the ability-praised students lose faith in their abilities. When given the easier tests again, they didn’t do as well as when they started. The fixed mindset kids had let the tests define them, “If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”
One of my current goals is to develop a Growth Mindset, the opposite of a fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that if they do poorly on something it doesn’t mean they are dumb, it just means they need to work harder and learn how to do it better. They don’t let failure define them. I want to change my default brain pattern from this looks hard, I’m not doing it because I may fail and look stupid, to this looks hard but I am doing it because I know if I work hard I can eventually figure it out.
So to build confidence, I need to change what I am sure of. However, like strengthening a muscle, it isn’t a one shot deal. Like Dr. Dweck says, “change isn’t like surgery. Even when you change, the old beliefs aren’t just removed like a worn-out hip or knee and replaced with better ones. Instead, the new beliefs take their place alongside the old ones, and as they become stronger, they give you a different way to think, feel, and act.”