Confidence is not something you either have or you don't.
Take me. Stick me on a bicycle at a local group ride and I'm confident. I'm self-assured. I feel like I belong (which, if you think about it, is a nice definition of confidence).
But stick me on a bicycle at a local gran fondo ride surrounded by the fast guys and suddenly everything changes. Instantly I turn shy and insecure. Now I feel like a very small fish way out of his watery element.
Confidence is unfortunately for me, and probably for you, way more situational than absolute. Maybe you're confident in front of your team, but in front of potential investors... not so much.
That's why most of the tips for how to feel confident often fall short. Most of that advice can be boiled down to, "You can be confident. All you have to do is decide to be confident." Evidently it's easy: Suppress negative thoughts, suppress negative perspectives, and repeat some really cool self-affirmational statements and... shazam: I'm like Donald Trump.
A Better Way to Think About Confidence
According to Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and author of the outstanding book "Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Doubt," there is another way to look at supposedly confidence-building self-talk:
For example, if you are feeling worthless and try to suppress those feelings, you will never be able to do what it takes to improve. If, on the other hand, you come to terms with your negative self-views and accept the fact that you are not as good as you would like to be and, especially, that you are unhappy with yourself, you will be able to focus on what you need to do to improve.
Dissatisfaction is the mother of change, and only change can drive improvement.
The choice between the two options is a no-brainer. Deliberate attempts to increase your confidence are bound to result in failure and demoralize you, whereas attempts to improve your performance can result in not just competence gains but also a genuine boost to your confidence. The answer to the question, "What should I do about my low confidence?" can hardly be simpler:
Think about it. A lack of confidence isn't a problem; lack of confidence is actually the means to a solution. When you accept your weak points, your flaws, and your imperfections then you can motivate yourself to make changes and improve.
Hide from your weaknesses and you'll always be weak. Accept your weaknesses and then work to improve them and you'll eventually be stronger--and more confident.
So what is the only recipe for feeling more confident?
Improvement breeds confidence. Competence breeds confidence. Success--in your field or sometimes in any field--breeds confidence.
Take me again. Some time ago I was invited to speak to an audience of around a thousand people. Awesome, right? Well, maybe not. I had never spoken to an audience larger than about 150 before. Plus I had to speak on a topic I wasn't that familiar with.
Even so, the opportunity was too good to pass up...
... and I bombed. Badly.
Oh, everyone told me I did fine. (To a speaker, being told you were "fine" is like a teenager being told he has a good personality.) I wanted to believe them. I wanted desperately to ignore my feelings of incompetence, disappointment, and failure.
And then I realized I would never get better if I didn't 1) accept the fact I had failed and 2) work hard to improve. So I went back to the drawing board. I wrangled invitations to local civic groups. I spoke to students at local colleges. I forced myself to speak on topics outside my wheelhouse so I could learn the mechanics of crafting a great hook and a great story. Sometimes I did well, sometimes I did badly--but over time I gained skill and competence.
Am I still nervous before I step out in front of big crowds? Oh hell yeah. I'm a hot mess of insecurity. But I can work through those feelings not because I engage in a lot of happy horse manure self-talk but because I know I've been there, done that, and can do it again.
I'm confident, because I have success in my pocket.
Yet I'm also insecure enough to always want to get better.
Even Unrelated Success Helps
Oddly enough, success in one pursuit yields greater confidence in other areas of life.
Back to my bicycle example: The first major gran fondo I rode was 100 miles long and featured over 11,000 feet of climbing over four mountains (two of those climbs on dirt/gravel roads.) It was long. It was endless. It was physically (and willpower-y) harder than anything I had ever done. But I finished it.
And even weeks after, I felt more confident. I worried less about what people thought of me. I had done something huge, at least for me--and it lifted me for a long time.
That's because while confidence may be situational, some degree of confidence can also spill over. When you feel good about yourself in one way--when you achieve some degree of success in one aspect of your life--you tend to feel better about other parts of your life as well. After all, if you can do one thing well, you can do lots of things well.
All you have to do is work at it.
How to Be More Competent--and Therefore More Confident
Forget the self-talk and psychoanalysis. It's all about action. Here's Tomas again:
Most people like the idea of being exceptional, but not enough to do what it takes to get there... everybody says they want to be slim, healthy, attractive, and rich, but few people are willing to do what it takes to attain those things, which suggests they don't really want those things as much as they say or think.
Paul Arden, former creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, sums this up nicely by explaining that typically when we say we "want" something, we actually just mean we want to have it, but with no implicit assumption that we're willing to do any work to get there. In reality, wanting something should equate with being prepared to take the necessary steps to achieve it. If you are serious about your goals, then you will do whatever it takes to attain them; your confidence is secondary.
What matters is the desire you have to attempt to achieve your goals.
So don't say you lack confidence. We all lack confidence. We all have insecurities, doubts, fears... all of us.
Just pick a goal, a goal you truly want to achieve, and take a clear-eyed look at your weaknesses--not so you'll feel less confident, but so you can determine exactly what you need to work on.
Then get to work. Celebrate small successes. Analyze your weaknesses. Keep going.
As you gain skill you'll also gain a feeling of genuine confidence, one that can never be taken away--because you've earned it.
Passages from "Confidence" reprinted by the kind permission of the author and through arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2013 Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013.