Where Does Confidence Come From?


As women, we’re often told that we should be more confident.” But how do you go about that? And what exactly is confidence anyway?

I spoke with Claire Shipman, co-author of the NYT bestseller The Confidence Code: The Science & Art of Self-Assurance and What Women Should Know, about how women’s brains work, how confidence is linked to action, and why we shouldn’t let perfectionism hold us back.

How do you define confidence?

The clearest definition we got came from a professor at Ohio State University, Dr. Richard Petty, who told us that confidence is essentially the stuff that turns our thoughts into action. Basically, it greases the wheels for action. Which I found interesting because that means it’s not just an ongoing state of being like, She’s confident. It’s more action-oriented and doing-oriented. It’s really in that cycle of taking action—which includes the willingness to take risks, the willingness to struggle, to fail, and to eventually master something—that you create confidence.  So it’s almost a virtuous circle. Confidence greases the wheels for action, and then the more you engage in that process, the more confidence you build.

But that’s sort of a catch-22, right? If you have to have confidence to build confidence, how do you get started?

Exactly, the hard part really is just getting started. But that’s also why you can’t just go up to a woman and say: You’re doing this, you’re running that, why can’t you just be confident? Because that’s not going to make them confident. What’s much more effective is giving them a nudge to take action so that they can get into that self-reinforcing cycle of confidence-through-doing.

Confidence is essentially the stuff that turns our thoughts into action.

Sometimes women just need a little reassurance and encouragement, and that goes back to the science behind how our brains actually work. Studies show that women use their prefrontal cortex more than men do. That’s the home of caution, rationality, and analytical thinking—basically it’s the area that’s most likely to slow the risk-taking process. Women also spend a lot of time using the “worry work center,” which is the area of our brains that traditionally looks out for problems and scans the horizon for issues. There are even some brainscans now that show that women have more neurons firing at any given moment than men do. Which sounds great, right? Our brains are more active! But those scans might also be a physical representation of what women often do much more than men, which is ruminate. Ruminating and over-thinking can be a real impediment to confident action or to risk-taking because the more you think, the less likely you are to act.

How can women cultivate a more action-oriented outlook that would lead to more confidence?

One of my favorites descriptions of confidence came from Sharon Salzberg, who’s a Buddhist expert. She said: Confidence is a kind of energy, and it has the ability to move toward things wholeheartedly without holding back. I think sometimes we, as women, spend too much time judging whether we’re ready for something or worrying about it. What if we just assumed that we were ready and started taking action?

Read more about cultivating confidence in Claire’s excellent article for the Atlantic, from which the above illustration was sourced.

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Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I have a new book out about how to tame your inbox and reclaim your focus. And starting this Fall, I’ll be hosting Hurry Slowly, a new podcast about how you can be more productive by slowing down.

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