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The path and paradox of confidence

KL tower base jump 2012

Before we begin: this is the latest article in a series on modern leadership mastery. The course overview and links to previous articles can be found here.

*** 

Five days before my first professional speech, Montreal: I’m at Hurley’s with a few friends. It’s a fairly normal evening. We’re not talking about anything in particular.  

Out of the blue, it hits me: soon I will be standing on stage, for an hour, in front of hundreds of people. It will be my job to hold their attention and provide value to their lives.

My heart starts racing, my breathing gets thin. I’m having a small panic attack. I step outside to steady myself.

The next few days leading up to my first professional speech are filled with dread, confidence, normalcy, excitement and doubt.

*** 

The first few steps in leadership mastery involved getting to the core of who you are (here) and removing the psychological blocks that might be holding you back (here and here).

The next step is to tap into your innate confidence. And yes, I assure you that you have a wellspring of confidence within you. In this article, you’ll learn how to access it.

The limits of your fear or the limits of your passion?

In life you have a fairly straightforward choice: you can be ruled by the limits of your fear, or by the limits of your passion.

The easy (but bad) choice is to be ruled by your fear. The vast majority of people are ruled by fear. If you are ruled by fear, you’ll never have to leave your comfort zone. And that’s, well, comfortable.

Each little moment will slip by smoothly, but mundanely. You’ll never have to step on stage and grab the mic. You’ll never have to proclaim your love to a beautiful man or woman. You’ll never have to take responsibility for a revolution.

Being ruled by your fear means you don’t have to risk coloring outside the lines, but it also means you have to settle for a life that will never be lived to it’s fullest potential.

The other option is to be ruled by your passions. This is the option you want. To be ruled by your passions means being open and vulnerable. It means grabbing the mic, exposing your heart, and striking the match.

You sacrifice the safety that comes with being ruled by your fear, but in exchange, you get the boundless potential of being a full and open human.

Let me make this really simple for you: you want to be ruled by your passions. This is much harder than being ruled by your fears, but I promise you it’s worth it.
The only real difference between someone who lives a life of fear and someone who lives a life of passion? Confidence.

What confidence is not…

Confidence is not the situation of being bullet proof. So often we look at a confident person and believe that she always knows what to do, never doubts herself, and doesn’t care what other people think of her.

If those are the preconditions for confidence, do you know many genuinely confident people there are on this planet? Zero (except perhaps, sociopaths).

We all periodically doubt ourselves, we are all sometimes at a loss for words, and we all care about what others think of us (even though we pretend like we don’t).

You don’t have to be born with confidence to become confident. I’ve known Conor for my entire life. He’s been a professional rock climber, a professional mountaineer, travelled the world, chased a million whims, married the woman of his dreams (who he pursued for years), and is flourishing professionally.

What’s interesting about Conor is that he was born confident. It’s not that he doesn’t doubt himself. He’s human. I’m sure he does. It’s just that there is a nearly 0% chance that the doubt will prevent Conor from taking action. That’s what we should all aim for even though it’s not natural for the majority of us, like me.

I’m the exact opposite of Conor. I didn’t start making real eye contact with people until I was 20. Despite six years of growth and a very stable client base, I get worried that my business will collapse. I’m pretty sure that I’m the least interesting person at any party. But here’s the important part: none of that stuff gets in my way.

Instead, I’ve learned to allow my passions to overwhelm my fear so that I can take action. Because I’ve had to learn it myself, I know without a doubt that confidence can be learned and that you yourself can learn it too.

What confidence actually is…

Confidence is a deceptive trait to observe in other people. What looks like confidence to an observer, often feels like a combination of chaos, fear, and courage to the subject.

The entire week leading up to my first professional speech I was a mess. And yet, when the time came to get on stage, I was able to do it. And looking back at the recording of the talk, I realized something: I don’t look nearly as nervous as I actually was. I appeared calm and collected. Maybe even confident. In reality, I felt terrified. This dual reality is normal.

So what gives? How can people look confident when actually they feel terror? It’s because we don’t fully understand what confidence is.

As we already mentioned, most people believe that confidence is the situation of being bullet proof. It’s not.

Confidence is the ability to let your passions overwhelm your fears so that you may take action. Again, confidence is the ability to let your passions overwhelm your fears.

When you’re being confident you don’t necessarily feel confident. All that you’re really doing is not letting fear get in the way of action. So don’t worry if you don’t feel confident… focus instead on taking action (more on that in a moment).

Your mind loves trail markers

To tap into your confidence you have to understand a little bit about how your mind likes to work. An analogy to help:

Which feels safer to you?

  • Taking a hike on a well marked trail
  • Trekking through unmarked parts of the jungle

Obviously, going down the marked path is the safer option. Because of that, you’re more likely to do it. Perfectly reasonable.
The markers allow your mind to relax so that you can enjoy the process of hiking. The same is true for developing confidence. If there are no trail markers in your life letting you know you’ll be ok, your mind freaks out. If there are trail markers, if you’ve had the experience numerous times and come out on the other side ok, your mind relaxes.

Here’s the problem: when you leave your comfort zone for the first time, there are no trail markers for your mind to use. Because of this, leaving your comfort zone feels absolutely terrifying.

In order to access your inner confidence you need to learn how to blaze a trail for your mind. Instead of wandering aimlessly into the unmarked jungle, you have to slowly blaze a trail, creating the markers of safety that your mind needs to feel comfortable.

Practitioners of Cognitive Behavioral Psychology call these trail blazers “reference experiences” because your mind uses them as references when assessing whether or not an experience is dangerous.

There are two approaches to creating these reference experiences for your mind, but only one works…

A room full of snakes

Several decades ago, if a psychologist wanted to help cure you of a fear of snakes she would hyper expose you to snakes.

You’d be locked in a room with snakes for hours on end. You would flip the f*** out. You’d scream, tear at your hair, foam at the mouth, claw at the walls.

Eventually, you’d calm down. You’d become emotionally exhausted (this can take a loooong time) and rationality would take over. You’d think to yourself, “Wow. I’ve been in this room with snakes for three hours and nothing bad has happened. I guess snakes aren’t that scary.”
What’s interesting is that this approach to fear extinction – often called “flooding” or “shock and awe” – works, but only temporarily. People exposed to flooding will feel confident for a bit, but then, their fear will return, often amplified.

This happens because they did not approach facing their fear in the way that their mind works. They rushed into the jungle, feeling terrified as they went, calmed down momentarily, but will soon panic again because they didn’t mark the trail and wont be able to get home safely. That’s ok. The goal isn’t to eliminate the fear (that’s basically impossible). The goal is to reduce it’s intensity so that you can take action.

The magic of baby steps… 

Today, psychologists approach eliminating fear very differently. Instead of hyper exposing their clients to the fear stimuli, they give them small doses.
For example, a patient may first be instructed to imagine a snake. Then, a week later, they handle a rubber snake. Then they go to a pet store and look at a snake. Then they touch the snake in the cage. Then they hold it. And so on and so forth.

The interesting part is that the fear never really goes away. Like love, happiness, jealousy, and anger it’s a component part of the human experience that we’ve evolved with over many centuries.

When you expose yourself to small doses of your fear, slowly ramping up the intensity, you create trailblazers for your mind. You start to realize, “Ok, looking at that snake made me nervous, but I’m still ok, maybe touching it quickly will be ok too…”
The trick is to always be taking small but consistent steps outside of your comfort zone over a sustained period of time. Personally, I aim for once a week for a month or two. If you do that, the progress will add up deceptively quickly.

It’s important to realize that you will periodically feel vulnerable as you leave your comfort zone. That’s a good thing. You cannot possibly access your true confidence without periodically making yourself vulnerable. Vulnerability is the threshold you have to cross in order to access your true confidence.

Again, confidence is not the situation of being totally fearless. That doesn’t exist. Confidence is the ability to reduce your levels of fear so that they may be overwhelmed by your passion and excitement. There’s a big difference between the two. Fearlessness, is impossible. Learning to manage fear is accessible to all of us and allows us to become truly confident.

The compounding effect of time and forward motion

Two miniature stories about the relationship between time and motion:

  • In my second meeting with my mentor many years ago he told me that if I wanted to go fast, I had to slow down. I thought he was lunatic.
  • I used to be a lifeguard at a summer camp in Maine. The head of lifeguards was training the waterfront staff to react to emergency situations and told us, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Again, I didn’t really get it.

Years later, I understand what these guys were trying to tell me. The fastest way forward is to move slowly but consistently.

Today, more so than ever, we have become victims of the instant gratification curse. We want everything, and we want it yesterday.

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way. Overnight success is a myth. There is no way to get rich quick sustainably. Your life doesn’t permanently change in the blink of an eye. No pill will ever melt away your body fat.

The way we get what we want is by consistently taking small steps forward. It’s to put in the hard work a little bit each day. This is not only the safest way forward, this is also the fastest and most sustainable.

When you work on developing your confidence, realize that your actions will add up and multiply over time. Give it three months or so and then look at the progress you’ve made. Realize that what you’re doing is re-programming yourself and doing that takes time.

Putting it all together: the process for accessing your confidence

When you put all of these ideas together a clear process for developing confidence emerges. At first, you’ll use this sequence to overcome individual fears and strengthen existing confidences. After you’ve done this several times, you’ll notice a new sense of comfort moving through the world that only comes from having successfully conquered a handful of fears that used to hold you back. The more you work with this process the more confident you’ll become.

Step 1: decide to be ruled by your passions and not your fears. It’s your choice. Choosing to be ruled by your fear means you’ll never have to leave your comfort zone, but it also means that your life will not be as full as it can be. Choosing to be ruled by your passions means you’ll have to leave your comfort zone, but will lead a rich, vivacious life.

Step 2: don’t be deceived the by the illusions of confidence. Confidence is not about being bullet proof. Confidence is not about never feeling fear. It’s about learning to let your passions overwhelm your fears. At first, when you leave your comfort zone, it will be scary. That’s ok. That’s the foundation of confidence. You can’t develop true confidence without making yourself vulnerable.

Step 3: once a week or so for the next 2-3 months, nudge yourself outside of your comfort zone. I suggest focusing on one area of confidence that you want to develop. You want to be more comfortable with change, or you want to be more comfortable talking to strangers, or you want to be ok flying in a plane. Regardless, choose one area to focus on for a few months.

Each week, nudge yourself outside of your comfort zone, just a bit. Week one’s task should be less challenging than week five’s. But here’s the good part: if you do this consistently, you wont feel significantly more fear on week five than you did on week one. The reason this happens is because you’re giving your mind a new trail marker indicating that it’s safe and there is nothing worth worrying about.

Say you want to overcome the fear of talking to strangers (a fear I had to face myself). A sample six weeks would be:

  • Make eye contact and smile at strangers on the street
  • Say, “Hi” to the strangers who smile back at you
  • Ask the person who checks you in at the gym and sells you your coffee, “How’s your day going?” and try to chat with them for 30 seconds or more
  • Give a compliment to 3 strangers on the street over the course of the week
  • Chat with a stranger in line at the coffee shop or bar for at least a minute (“Hows your day going?” or “What was the best part of your week?” should do the trick)
  • Talk to a stranger at a bar, coffee shop, party, restaurant, etc for at least 5 minutes

Step 4: rinse and repeat. The real magic happens when you’ve worked this process a few times. With each repetition (developing confidence speaking, then confidence cooking, then confidence talking to strangers, then confidence in business) you’re building your confidence muscle. Overtime, the process will become intuitive and instead of seeing limitations, you’ll begin seeing opportunities.

You’ll know you’re doing it right when…

As humans, we tend to experience two realities. The first reality is the internal reality. Our thoughts, feelings, desires, and opinions. The second reality is our external reality. Our behaviors, actions, the people we hang with, the words that come out of our mouth.

For most people, there is distance between our internal and external reality. We want to work in the non-profit sector, but instead we are management consultants. We want to tell people “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or “Thank you” but we keep quiet.

The truly confident people though have almost no gap between their two realities. When they feel a strong desire on the inside, they act on it and create congruence between their inner and outer realities.

My dream for you is a dream of congruence, a dream of pulling your two realities together and becoming who you truly are.

You’ll know you’ve developed true confidence when the gap between your internal reality and your external reality shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until it ceases to exist.

Further reading

No further reading this month. Many people with confidence problems spend way too much time reading and not nearly enough time taking action. I know because I’ve fallen into that trap plenty of times.

You have all the information you need, what’s lacking is action. Starting with baby steps is fine. Continuing to read article after article promising yourself that you’ll start tomorrow is not. It’s just a thinly guised defense mechanism.

Homework

Reread “Putting it all together.” Choose one area of your life where you’d like increased confidence. Go through the steps to begin creating that confidence within yourself. Leave your comfort zone at least 4 times in the next month, ideally once a week with each step being a bit bolder than the last.
Doing this will set you down the path of true confidence.

Photo credit: KL Tower Base Jump 2012 by enshahdi

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3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The path and paradox of confidence”

  1. Wendy May 14, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    Great article!

    • Jason May 14, 2015 at 7:14 pm

      Thanks, Wendy!

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