“General confidence is an attitude, a way you approach the world,” suggested Caroline Miller, a best-selling author and positive psychology coach. “More specifically, self-confidence is a sense that you can master something.”
“One way to think about confidence,” said Brenda Major, the UC Santa Barbara social psychologist, “is how sure are you that you have the skills that you need to succeed in doing a particular thing.”
“It’s a belief that you can accomplish the task you want to accomplish,” Utah State University’s Christy Glass told us. “It’s specific to a domain. I could be a confident public speaker, but not a confident writer, for example.”
Glass’s observation helped us to understand why confidence can seem like such a fleeting quality. In some circumstances, we have it; in others, we don’t. It explains how Andre Agassi, for example, could be so incredibly confident about his tennis but so riddled with self-doubt in the rest of his life. It explains why so many women might feel confident in their personal lives but not at work, and it explains why Claire can be confident in her people skills but not as self-assured when it comes to making decisions. She doesn’t overthink when she’s helping other people solve problems, but has trouble solving her own.
Caroline Miller’s mention of mastery also got our attention. Initially, we were wary, and somewhat suspicious of the term. It sounded undeniable masculine and evoked images of paternalistic gentry lording over their subjects. It also seemed like something we might need power tools for, not to mention a high school shop course. Our real fear, thought, was that mastery would just turn out to be a recipe for the endless pursuit of perfection – something to which women are far too susceptible already.
But Miller explained that mastery is none of that. Mastery isn’t about being the best tennis player or the best mom. The resonance of mastery is in the process and progress. It is about work, and learning to develop an appetite for challenge. Mastery inevitable means encountering hurdles; you won’t always overcome them, but you won’t let them stop you from trying. You may never become a world-class swimmer, but you will learn to swim across the lake. And the unexpected by-product of all of that hard work you put in to mastering things? Confidence. Not only did you learn to do something well, but you got a freebie.
This next point is invaluable. The confidence you get from mastery is contagious. It spreads. It doesn’t even really matter what you master: For a child, it can be as simple as tying a shoe. What matters is that mastering one thing gives you the confidence to try something else.
When Katty turned forty, for example, in defiance (or perhaps denial) of middle age, she made the decision to learn to kiteboard. She needed a challenge, and had a naïve fantasy that if she could crack this, she’d soon be a cool (young) surfer chick doing acrobatic jumps high above the waves. She didn’t, however, anticipate how often she’d get dragged down a beach attached to a powerful thirty-foot kite, or fall from her board into the saltwater, or the tears and frustration and loud cursing. After the first couple of summers, she was prepared to give up; it was too humiliating and she was too sore. But she stuck with it and, while youth and coolness remain slightly …
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Being different is part of the story of every highly successful woman, just by virtue of the fact that there are so few women at the top. We can reset it, let it undermine us or limit us, or we can embrace our uniqueness and choose to wear it as a badge of honor. The earlier you learn to take the risk of standing out, the easier it will be to stand up for yourself in a tense negotiation, demand the high-profile assignment that your male colleague will otherwise grab, or do all the other things that don’t fit with the stereotype of a docile, good girl.
Caroline Miller, the author and psychologist* who specializes in confidence and optimism, says a willingness to be different is critical to confidence, “It’s more than just risk and failure, though those are essential,” she says. “Confidence comes from stepping out of your comfort zone and working toward goals that come from your own values and needs, goals that aren’t determined by society.” That realization changed the course of Miller’s life. As a young woman, she struggled with bulimia. A top student at Harvard, who then went on to a lucrative job on Wall Street*, she kept her secret well-hidden. Finally, in crisis, she got help, and later went public with her first book, My Name is Caroline, a hard, honest account of her illness. Soon thereafter, Miller got a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and started a new career.
It’s a sense of self, rather than just a sense of achievement, that we can teach early. If Linda Hudson’s parents wanted a traditional, girly girl, they didn’t get one, and, more critically, they didn’t try to create one. She describes herself as a street fighter who grew up preferring basketball with the boys to ballet with the girls. Her favorite subject was math. She says she never felt pressured by her parents to try to be anything other than what she wanted to be. Hudson says she’s never been interested in being liked. She wants to be respected.
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Caroline Miller and other psychologists* contend that the volitional contribution to a trait like confidence may be as high as 50 percent. That means we ourselves, as adults, can make a decision to be confident, do the work, and see a result.
This idea of confidence as a choice opens doors in every direction. The temptation to say “I’m not good enough; I can’t do it,” exists for everyone at some point, in some circumstance. We’ve all heard “My mother didn’t praise me enough,” or “No one in my family is very confident.” But when we write off confidence as purely a twist of genetic or environmental fate, we’re shutting off possibilities that could change our lives. We don’t need to be stuck in that pattern of self-doubt. It’s a matter of pushing yourself to action over inaction, even in a man’s world.
But here is where the path turns rigorous. You don’t get to “choose confidence” and then stop thinking about it as your life miraculously changes around you. It’s certainly not as simple as clicking a box to add self-confidence to your list of attributes. There’s no glossy or beguilingly easy confidence prescription. When we say confidence is a choice, we mean it’s a choice we can make to act, or to do, or to decide. If you’ve read only this chapter, you know that confidence is work, hard and deliberative, though we have no doubt that it is doable. And if you ease up? If you choose not to fully exert yourself to expand your confidence? That always-elusive image of yourselves in the mirror, the mirror that so easily shows men whatever they want to see, may never come into focus.
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But as we deconstructed confidence and picked painstakingly through the scientific and the social and the practical findings, we started to see some glimmers. Suddenly, our confidence rush was on, and we grabbed our pans with a prospector’s fervor, sifting away dirt and sand, swirling the remains until we found plenty of nuggets that had been overlooked, unexamined, or simply unearthed. We tested them and prodded them and ran them through our gauntlet of experts and researchers, until we were certain which rocks were pay dirt. Those became our path to creating confidence – our code – and we’ve boiled it down to the very basics:
Confidence is within reach. The experience of it can be addictive. And its greatest rewards aren’t fully characterized by workplace achievements or outward success. “I feel fully engaged and connected and a little high, like I’m accomplishing something great, and lost in the action,” Patti Solis Doyle says, eyes closed, summoning a memory. “I feel rewarded,” Caroline Miller tells us. “And accepted – that there’s a place for me in the world, that I can achieve, that I have a sense of purpose. The Japanese word for purpose literally translates as ‘that which I wake up for.” I think that’s it.”
• Correction: Caroline Adams Miller is a positive psychology expert, not a psychologist and she worked at the Wall Street Journal, not on Wall Street as depicted in the book.