Good news, gals. You don’t have to adopt guru-level amounts of self-belief to win the confidence war that is life and work. The key to cracking the code is easier and less cringey than you imagine. It begins by kissing the perfectionist mindset goodbye and directing your thoughts, intelligence and energy out into the world rather than torturing yourself with thoughts of Am I doing this right? That’s just one of the ideas presented in The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay (authors of the 2009 bestseller Womenomics).
We talked to Shipman about why so many successful women lack confidence, and how to make confidence a habit rather than a struggle.
What prompted you to write about female confidence?
When my co-author and I were writing Womenomics, we were struck by something we felt along the way as we were reporting it: women we were talking to kept saying things like, “Well, I’m about to get a promotion but I don’t think I’m ready.” We then began digging in to to see if this was anecdotal or if there was some data behind this confidence issue, and we found there was.
Would you say you uncovered something like a crisis of confidence among certain successful women?
I wouldn’t call it a crisis of confidence, but I would say it’s pervasive and it’s just a routine underestimation of ability. That struck us as something that builds up and has an impact. When we’re not accurately measuring what we’re capable of, it adds up over time because we’re not taking opportunities, taking risks.
Or even just enjoying our success?
Exactly. Or even just saying, “Who cares if I don’t know everything? I don’t need to feel bad about myself because I don’t know everything!”
The big reveal in the book may be that confidence isn’t really about self-esteem or feeling good about yourself; it’s linked to action.
Yes, I think we thought at the beginning that confidence was about a more generalized way of feeling good about yourself. We eventually realized that the confidence we were thinking about is a lot closer to self-efficacy, which is a lot about action. I think the action part of it was something of a revelation—that confidence involved doing—because then we started to understand the part about risk and how the ability to take risks and a willingness to do something risky is so important.
But it seems like a bit of a catch-22 that to build confidence you have to take action, which might be impossible if you’re not confident.
I know. You do have ultimately to find the mechanism to just start. Part of it for women is to recognize that it’s normal to feel afraid when you start a new job, for example, and once you do recognize that it’s a normal feeling to make yourself go ahead and act.
Research suggests that confidence, not competence, is the greater determiner of success. What are we to make of that? How is that instructive rather than depressing?
I think it’s important to remember that we’re not talking about bravado or false confidence. It’s not the bullshit skill because that doesn’t work. We have to view competence as part of a skill set at work. You want your competence and confidence to be closely in line.
That’s interesting—I hadn’t thought of it that way. When I read that in the book I just assumed it was some kind of cheeseball-phony-guy-at-work type…
Right. You assume it’s the guy who just won’t shut up. I think in fact nobody really likes that guy. That was our central question: Do you need to be a jerk to be confident? And we found that the answer is no.
What are the obstacles for women when it comes to developing confidence? For example, in the book you point out how our brain structures make us more prone to anxiety, etc. How do we work with these obstacles or navigate around them?
First, you have to figure out how you lack confidence. For me, I’m a perfectionist and I ruminate all the time. I overthink, so step one was getting a grip on my ruminating and overthinking because it just kills my ability to take any risk at all or try anything new. We talked to another woman who said decision-making was a real problem for her. She couldn’t make decisions because she wanted them all to be right. She’s a partner in a law firm and she decided, “OK, I’m going to make decisions and some percentage of them are going to be wrong and I’ll deal with that, but I just have to make the decision.”
Another useful thing we write about is called Me to We, which is about getting our brains off ourselves. In times when there’s a new risk or a new challenge and a new job, if you can stop focusing on yourself negatively (i.e., I’m a fraud, I’m not ready) and just start thinking literally, How can I help this team? you’re better off because it taps into something women will take risks for: helping other people. If you can trick your brain into getting on that terrain, then that’s a good way to jumpstart a confidence process.
That’s so funny. It’s the most obvious advice: Don’t think about yourself, think about your job! That sounds so easy and like such a relief!
Exactly. “You mean I don’t need to be analyzing myself at the same time I’m doing the job?”