You stand up to speak in front of the audience. Your palms begin to sweat and your feet tremble. For some reason you forget what your opening line was. At this point your self-talk begins to shift. It begins to doubt your ability to perform. It makes up fantasies about the crowd booing you or getting up and leaving their seats. You wish you only had more confidence.
Unfortunately, self-confidence can also be incredibly limiting. Too much self-confidence and you may not try hard enough to excel in a situation. The entrepreneur who is overconfident in his ability to succeed may not work hard enough to keep the business alive. Even if the confidence doesn’t cause you to fail, it may be cutting off your potential ability. We tend to work hardest when we are close to victory, not when we feel it is a sure thing.
I used to believe in the magic and importance of self-confidence. I once thought that if I could only have complete and perfect self-confidence, I would have a much greater level of success in most situations, particularly social situations. Self-confidence, it seems must be the antidote to my problems as this was the most obvious distinction between the people getting results and myself.
It wasn’t until a few years later when I had an incident that gave my self-confidence theory a huge shakedown. Although there were many situations where I lacked confidence, I always did very well in school. I was very confident when it came to writing tests and exams. For most of my highschool career I went into exams with a great deal of confidence and often a lot less studying. For the most part, my strategy worked well. While others were scratching their heads and making frustrated noises, I sat back comfortably, focused in and got a great mark.
One day, however, I had a test where this strategy failed me miserably. Because of my lack of foresight I completely forgotten one of the major equations needed to write the fairly short test. As a result I got a big fat F. This incident, aside from shocking myself slightly, started settling doubt in my mind about my past theory of confidence, or what I now call the confidence myth.
The confidence myth is simply that self-confidence is an incredibly critical ingredient to success. That is, the belief in your own success, is necessary to harness and in some cases outweighs other attributes such as skill, experience or talent. So much self-help has been spun about the necessity of confidence, that I think it is finally time to put it to rest. You don’t want or need self-confidence.
The myth of self-confidence is so subtle and deceptive that you may at first have trouble believing what I just wrote. I mean, all those people who are really successful, they are all really confident. And what about those situations where confidence and charm makes up a huge portion of the outcome like delivering a speech, making a sale or asking someone on a date. You can’t honestly be saying confidence isn’t important, can you?
The problem isn’t that confidence is bad, it is that people assume it is the cause of success. This isn’t true. Confidence is correlated with success, that is true, but it isn’t the cause of success. What is really the cause of success in any situation, no matter how dependent it may seem to be on confidence is really three attributes: aptitude, beliefs and emotional control.
Having confidence can give you a temporary boost of control, but whenever you encounter a situation where you fail because you misjudged the ease of the encounter, your confidence crashes and you have to start rebuilding it again. By instead focusing on these three other aspects you can maintain a cool, calm and collected exterior, internally handling failure with ease and greatly increasing your ability.
The first factor that you need to cultivate if you want the benefits of confidence without the negative effects of arrogance is rather simple. Skill. In order to successfully handle any situation, the most important aspect is the level of skill or aptitude you possess. If you are incredibly skillful at making sales calls, then you don’t need confidence, you’re just good.
Building skill comes in three parts: experience, practice and talent.
The first factor that builds aptitude is simply experience. You are far more skillful when approaching situations that you have experience with. If you have started dozens of companies, then you are far better at starting a new one than a first time entrepreneur. If you have asked out lots of women on dates before, you will be better at asking out another one then you were your first time.
So in order to increase your aptitude in an area you simply have to start grabbing a lot more experience. Want to master your communication and public speaking? Join a Toastmasters club and start speaking. If you want to be better at sales calls, make more of them. Experience builds skill.
The next factor that builds aptitude is practice. Unlike experience which means random exposure to a situation, practice involves consciously trying to improve with each encounter. If you simply get experience making sales calls, but you don’t practice improving your technique, you won’t get any better. Practice means constantly trying to improve with each experience.
The final factor that builds aptitude is simply raw talent. There are some things that you were born good at and other things that you will have to work hard to get. This explains why some people can be great public speakers their first night at Toastmasters and others barely scrape by doing a one minute speech for their first six months. If being successful in this area is important to you, ignore talent and just resolve to make up for it with more practice and experience, otherwise you might want to consider other opportunities.
Unfortunately, aptitude isn’t the only thing that is important for success, which is why it is an incomplete ‘replacement’ for confidence. You can have all the skill in the world but without the next two factors, those skills will lie dormant. What aptitude does do is it helps creates confidence as a by-product. You won’t need to lie to yourself that you are good at something, you will know it internally.
Beyond your own level of aptitude, another factor controls your success and that is your personal beliefs about yourself. With poorly constructed belief systems about yourself and others you can’t use any skill you might have. You can be an incredibly talented comedian, but if you are too depressed about yourself to tell jokes effectively, it won’t matter.
Now at this point you might be thinking I am simply replacing the word confidence with beliefs. Isn’t confidence just your beliefs about yourself? Yes and no. Confidence is the belief that you are a skillful and successful person, but that is just one belief system. Although that belief system can allow you to operate effectively, it leaves you open to situations that are too difficult, and you didn’t prepare enough for.
A better belief system to follow than one that blindly promotes your ability (existent or not) and lulls you into a state of false security, is one that keeps you centered no matter what happens to you, but also takes an objective look at your current situation (good or bad). This belief system involves a few key beliefs:
Intrinsic Worth – Beyond your abilities and success, you must believe that you are intrinsically worthy. This doesn’t mean you think that you are better or worse than you actually are. It just means deep down, beyond your skills, possessions, physical body and even ego, at the level of consciousness itself, you are worthy.
Complete Responsibility – Along with intrinsic self worth you need to believe that you and you alone are responsible for your destiny. One of the benefits of confidence is that it makes you feel powerful and in control. You must ultimately believe that you are in control of your life. So no pity parties or complaining, you are responsible, so deal with it.
Adopting these two beliefs fully is very difficult to do and takes a lot of time. But once you have adopted these beliefs, you no longer need to feel confident about something to be successful. With this belief structure you can operate at your utmost effectiveness, regardless of what you think your odds of success are.
So far I have discussed how aptitude and beliefs are critical to your success in any endeavor, with or without confidence. You may understand how these two forces shape your actions but you know that sheer self-confidence adds something else as well. Even if you believe you are worth and in control and you have skill, occasionally your body seems to ignore this information and get fearful and nervous anyways. In other words, confident people have a high degree of emotional control.
Emotional control is just another form of skill. The ability to control your emotions is a critical component of confidence, but when combined with true aptitude and empowering beliefs you don’t need to deceive yourself to make it work. If you can control your fear and nervousness so that it doesn’t paralyze you, your aptitude and empowering beliefs can be utilized.
There are several ways you can start improving your emotional control in situations:
Your bodily movements and external actions have a powerful effect on your emotions. By controlling the external factors of your body, breathing rate, facial expressions and movements, you can substantially alter your emotional state. To feel more confident simply adopt a posture and physiology that a confident person would have. I wrote more about this technique in this article.
Unfortunately, sometimes the emotions of nervousness will still show through when you are trying to act cool, calm and collected. Instead, my favorite approach is to become really enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is an incredibly expressive emotional state, so it tends to wipe out just about any other emotion you might be experiencing from showing through. I wrote more about how to use enthusiasm here.
Time is a killer. The longer you have to let your mind create negative images, the more emotional you will become. Some sources on dating advise a three second rule when deciding whether to approach a member of the opposite sex. Any longer than that and your mind and self-talk have time to ruin you. If you act quickly and get it over with you will have less time to sabotage yourself. By locking yourself into a commitment of action as soon as possible, you reduce the chance that you will feel the need to back out due to poor self-talk.
Like all skills, though, emotional control is best done with practice. By practicing making changes to your emotional state regularly, you can achieve a much greater level of success with it. Although I have briefly listed three tips, there are hundreds of techniques for emotional control that are available.
Ultimately you don’t really want confidence, you want success. You don’t want to try and deceive your subconscious and conscious minds into believing that you are better than you actually are. Worse you don’t want to have to struggle using worthless confidence building techniques to make up for the true contributors to success.
With aptitude, an empowering belief structure and emotional control, you can be smooth and successful in all your interactions. Not only will you be able to operate with class, cool and charisma but you will be able to comfortable knowing that you aren’t trying to lie to yourself. Even better, this system is more stable because while a failure can shatter confidence, these qualities are sturdy and can allow you to handle such situations with an objective outlook.
Don’t aim for confidence. Aim for skills so you can be great. Aim for an empowering belief system so you can brush off failures and look objectively at successes. Aim for emotional control so you can control the self-talk and feelings that try to sabotage you. Because if you reach these three things, confidence will come by itself. But instead of an unnatural confidence begot from affirmations or elixirs you will be confident because you know you will be successful, not because of a myth.