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Why you should stop trying to be confident

Confidence is not a starting point or prerequisite. Confidence is not something you mentally cultivate through sheer will or positivity that – when you eventually ‘mindset’ it into being – will help you to do great things. Confidence is a by-product of courage. It comes last, not first.

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Image by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash
Image by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash

“I’ll do that when I’m more confident”, “I could never do that, I don’t have the confidence”, “How do I become more confident?” If you have ever said or thought something along these lines (and let’s face it, who hasn’t) stop it right now.

Confidence is a big misnomer.

When I was starting my business, I asked a handful of colleagues what they had learned from me, what they’d like to learn from me or what they’d seen others learn from me over the years, that my clients might benefit from. Confidence came up a lot. High confidence is equated with success, self-esteem, going after what you want, thinking big. While low confidence is equated with lower self-esteem, not going after what you want and thinking small. Why wouldn’t we all want more confidence, right?

Actually, we’re missing the point. 

Confidence is not a starting point or prerequisite. Confidence is not something you mentally cultivate through sheer will or positivity that – when you eventually ‘mindset’ it into being – will help you to do great things. Confidence is a by-product of courage. It comes last, not first.

What we should all be trying for is more courage. Courage means taking action despite feeling terrified, unsure or unconfident – not waiting around for that fear to go away first. Having courage = taking action = more confidence. It doesn’t work the other way around. When you know this (really know it) you will alleviate that burden of feeling like you can’t take action because of a lack of confidence and, instead, free yourself up to take courageous moves outside of your comfort zone which will (surprise surprise) grow your confidence.

Courage and discomfort are neighbours

Willing away discomfort – or believing that when discomfort goes away, you’ll be able to take action – gets you absolutely nowhere. It’s simply not going to happen, and you shouldn’t expect it to. 

I coach people on how to present more effectively and this often requires me to get up and present in front of a room full of people. The pressure is really on to be a bloody good presenter if your topic is How to be a good presenter. After many years, I still have moments of discomfort in the lead up to a session but because of courage I take action anyway. I’m pretty sure the audience thinks I’m incredibly confident but actually, if I was waiting around for complete confidence before I stepped in front of that crowd, I’d never do it. I’ve learned to accept that my natural fight and flight response will kick in, in a primal attempt to keep me safe. I accept the discomfort as a natural physiological state and trust that it will dissipate through courage and action. And every single time it does.

One of things I always tell my clients to do in these moments is to turn that nervous energy into excitement, it’s the same sensation anyway. Never mistake discomfort as a reason not to take action – in the words of Gloria Steinem, feel the fear – and do it anyway.

Mastery begins with not knowing

Think about something that you’re already so comfortable with you don’t require confidence to do it. If you’re struggling to come up with something, think of your every day: riding a bike, driving a car, going to work. They may seem like minor examples because they’re so effortless now but before you mastered them, they started out as something new. Starting a new job, for example, can be nerve-wracking – going into a new environment for the first time, meeting new people, things not coming naturally, not knowing where anything is. There is a normal period of discomfort that is ultimately overridden by plucking up some courage and taking action which (over time) leads to confidence. The more you do something, the more proficient you become and the easier those actions are to take. Eventually you have a natural ease and you no longer need to be propelled by courage because you’ve put in the work and developed confidence. 

Think about something you’d like to do that you’ve not done yet because of a lack of confidence. Now imagine someone who did have the confidence – what are some of the actions they might take? Maybe even list those actions down on a piece of paper.

The truth is, the only difference between you and this imaginary confident person is finding courage and taking action. Pick an action off that list and commit to doing it (make it time-bound too). All mastery begins with not knowing so start somewhere, anywhere – just start.

‘Confident’ people take risks

I’m an extrovert. I’m a drama kid. For most of my childhood, I wanted to be an actor. I’m not known for being shy or retiring (or quiet) and am often considered to be very confident by friends, family and colleagues. But I haven’t always felt confident, in fact I struggled with low self-esteem as a teenager and for much of my early twenties. What I always had, however (which translated to others as confidence) was gumption. I had balls. I’d say ‘yes’ even when I had no idea what I was doing, I’d put my hand up, I’d throw my hat in the ring, I’d go for it. None of this was through confidence, it was courage. Overtime, with enough courage and action, confidence happens. For me, it emerged without me realising it, it’s only through looking back that I know it wasn’t always there, it’s a by-product of my courage.

I take risks. It’s a value of mine (those risks have become much more sensible as I’ve matured, thankfully) but I live at the edge of my comfort zone and it helps my life grow, it keeps me moving forward. A quote that I’ve often had on the walls of my bedrooms and studies over the years is by French writer Anais Nin “Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage. These are words to live by.

Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage

Anais Nin

Say ‘yes’ and figure it out later

Try saying yes to opportunities that scare you and then figure out how to do them after you’re committed, it forces your hand. I had a boss who was constantly asking me to do things that were way out of my comfort zone. I said “sure!” every time and my opportunities (and confidence) expanded exponentially.

If you’re striving for anything, strive for courage. The pursuit of confidence is wasted energy, it’s evasive, it never comes through sheer will and positive thinking. I promise you, if you strive for courage and take action, confidence will take care of itself.

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