top of page

We Need to Talk About Confidence

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

confidence, growth mindset, challenges, change

“The topic of confidence is too often neglected by serious people: we spend so much time acquiring technical skills, and so little time practicing the one virtue that will make those skills effective in the world.” The School of Life

When was the last time you felt really confident about something? You fully trusted your abilities, you felt present in the moment, immersed in the activity you were performing. You were in the zone. You could sense the environment around you, felt connected to others, but you were also focused on your goal. You felt strong, engaged and at your best. That feeling of confidence is so great, isn't it?

But as good as confidence feels, it is also a fragile thing. One moment you feel like you can move mountains and nothing can stop you from reaching your goal. The next moment, a veil of doubt blurs out your vision and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. How in the world am I going to pull this through?

Remember how confident you felt when you volunteered to lead that project? Or to give that presentation? Or to run a 10K? It didn’t seem too difficult from the comfortable place where you were sitting when you said yes. Maybe you said yes too fast, without thinking about what it takes to get it done or about the consequences of not getting it done. Maybe your ego jumped in, whispering in your ear, what a great opportunity to show them what you can.

Whatever happened when you accepted the challenge, there is a good chance you will feel differently when you step into the real thing. That project you were so eager to start, has an unrealistic deadline. But you didn't know that before actually starting to work on it. So what happens now it that your level of confidence starts to go down. When you imagine the outcome of the project and the final result, you suddenly get a boost of dopamine and feel uplifted, but when you get stuck right before completing the first milestone... you’re not so sure...

Our confidence is fragile because even if we like to think that we’re sophisticated human beings, our brain still plays the same tricks on us as it did 250.000 years ago. When we face a complex situation, our automatic brain jumps in and simplifies it, to make it easier for us to decide. After all, this helped our evolution. This is what helped us survive those tiger attacks. Our brain is fast at painting a quick picture of a complex situation, so we can make meaning and build a coherent story in our head. The only problem is that there is a gap between this simplified expectation and the complex reality. And this gap is hijacking our confidence.

My moment of truth

I wouldn’t write about confidence if I didn’t have my own complicated relationship with it. Or better, with the lack of it. Being an overachieving perfectionist, I’ve always struggled to feel content with whatever I was doing. It didn’t matter if it was a new product launch project, baking a tart or painting by numbers. I was not thinking too much about the process, but instead, I was looking for perfect results. I raised the bar higher and higher and put more pressure on myself than I put on anyone else. There was always something I could do better. I was never done, so how could I feel confident?

Unfortunately for me, that internalized negative belief (also known as impostor phenomenon), was visible on the outside. It was visible in the posture of my body, in the tone of my voice, in the way I was expressing myself in different contexts. Others perceived it as insecurity and doubt and it diminished the impact I was hoping to make. In my head, I was just "not good at speaking in front of an audience". In reality, what was blocking me was the fear of being judged by others as incompetent. I cared about what people thought but I was making my own stories and assumed I knew what those opinions were. It didn’t cross my mind that confidence and mindset went hand in hand. That the way we express ourselves and the image we project, has a direct influence on how the others perceive us.

It was during a leadership training when I had an aha moment. After an intense week of learning and working on a business case with a small group, we had to present our analysis and recommendations to a board of senior executives. During the preparation, I felt in my element and contributed actively to the project and final presentation. But then the real challenge came: we had to present our recommendations to the board, each of us covering one topic. The moment I started to walk towards the middle of the room, in front of the board, my palms began to sweat and my heart beat was going through the roof. All I wanted to do was run away and never come back. I kept on telling to myself that it’s just a presentation, not a brain surgery, but it didn’t help. That little annoying voice in my head was sabotaging me again with negative self talk. I felt that everyone could see and feel my insecurity. I didn’t deserve to be there. I wasn’t a leader. I was a fraud pretending to be a leader. And then, the worst part kicked in: I became more anxious about being anxious.

At the end of that day, we gave each other feedback and recommendations for improvement, as a team. On one post-it, someone wrote: When you speak, people listen. But you need to appear stronger and more confident. Good morning. That was my wake up call. Simple, direct, crystal clear. Roger that.

As I started to think about confidence and how I can build more of it, I realized that what was blocking me from feeling more confident, was my own misunderstanding of what confidence meant. I was focusing too much on the outside appearance, on how “I had to look confident”, instead of focusing on my message, my intention and what I found important to make my audience understand. In the business world, I often see people who project a sense of rehearsed confidence. They learned some tips during an executive MBA class or read an article about how to look confident in five easy steps. They think confidence means taking the entire space in the room. You probably also had bosses who thought they were experts in everything and always wanted to have the last word. They dominated the entire meeting, talked most of the time and didn’t listen to what others had to say. They didn’t ask questions out of curiosity, but rather to get confirmation for their own ideas. In my mind, that was confidence. And I didn’t like confidence. I saw it as arrogance. I didn't resonate with it.

Real confidence is quiet

Luckily, real confidence is never about appearance. It’s about substance. It’s building a strong foundation and doing the work, so you are ready when you're in the middle of the action. Real confidence comes from the inside, from experience, from the evidence that you’ve already done a few things and overcame some challenges. What I needed to learn was how to trust that experience, see reality for what it was and embrace my weaknesses as areas of opportunities for improvement.

In his book Do Hard Things, author and performance coach Steve Magness brings a new perspective on what it means to be tough and shows how confidence is one of the corner stones of toughness.

“For too long, our definition of toughness revolved around a belief that the toughest individuals are ones who have thick skin, fear nothing, constrain any emotional reaction, and hide all signs of vulnerability. In other words, they are callous.” Steve Magness

Real confidence is not about the appearance, but about how we negotiate expectations versus reality. Are we able to accurately judge the size of the challenge and decide if we have the skills and experience to face it? Have we already done the work and preparation required to successfully complete the assignment? Or we are fooling ourselves, like children do, thinking this is easy peasy, only to soon realize that we don’t have the competencies and the foundational skills to overcome the challenge.

I remember this one morning, my 9 year old comes to me and says: mama, let’s go snowboarding. I roll my eyes. First, it’s June and thirty degrees outside. And second, I’ve never done snowboarding before. I didn't even know how to strap the boots on the board. No problem, my son says, we go to this indoor ski slope where that friend of mine had his birthday party (first problem checked) and I can teach you (second problem also checked). To be clear, my son had snowboarded one time, for one hour, during a birthday party. But he felt confident enough to teach me. I wish I could tell you something about how it felt to snowboard. But I can't, because I was on all fours most of the time. And every time I fell, I could see that little confidence spark in my son’s eyes slowly dimming, until it completely disappeared as he finally asked me: shall we go home now?

Isn’t it amazing how kids think they can do anything? How they haven’t yet developed the ability to assess reality and know when a challenge is too big. They think everything is possible and they adjust as they go; as they start hitting walls. Sometimes they just give up. When it comes to building your confidence, you want to stay grounded in reality and judge a situation based on your ability to overcome it. It’s ok to take a challenge and push yourself. But push yourself too much without having the right abilities, and you might damage your sense of self-confidence next time you want to try something.

Real toughness doesn’t mean blindly pushing through discomfort and pretending everything is fine. It means acknowledging the distress, paying attention and adapting our actions.

Real confidence is not pretending we know all the answers, but rather feeling comfortable and accepting that we sometimes don’t know.

It’s having the right mindset that helps us accept a failure and decide what we need to do better next time. Maybe we need to change our tactics or maybe we need to rethink our goals and objectives. Real confidence is setting challenging goals while also leaving room to be flexible.

“The old model of confidence focuses on the outside. Crafting the appearance of someone who looks like a strong, self-assured individual. We tell our children to believe in themselves, without explaining how to develop that belief. We’ve fallen for the Instagram version of confidence, emphasizing the projection of belief, instead of working on the substance underneath. We need a new approach to building confidence, one focused on the inside.” Steve Magness

One interesting concept that Magness mentions is that of raising the floor. We often tend to set challenging goals and judge ourselves based on our personal best. But we cannot be at our best every time. Rather than raising the ceiling and setting more challenging goals, we can also push ourselves for a certain average result, every time. That’s what raising the floor means, getting better and better at what we’re doing, so we know that no matter the circumstances, we can deliver a certain minimum best. If my goal is to be better at engaging an audience and delivering effective presentations, I want to start by mastering the building blocks of presentation skills to such an extent that no matter the audience location or topic, I could deliver an engaging presentation every time.

The secret to real confidence is practicing and mastering the core skills, before we are actually faced with the real stressful situation.

Confidence is doing the work

Imagine you have to give a speech in front of one hundred people and you have never presented in front of an audience before. The day before your speech you read three books on public speaking, watch five TED talks and write and rehearse your own talk. How confident do you think you would feel the next day?

We are sometimes mesmerized by how easy it looks when someone else is performing a complex task. Our minds are quick at projecting an image of ourselves doing that same thing. But what is the gap between that projection and where we are now? It’s not enough to just believe or repeat to ourselves that we can do it, unless we also get exposed to the right set of experiences and we do the practice work to get there.

Like with learning, when we want to build more confidence in a certain area, we need to think about the nature of the gaps we have. Let’s take the example of giving an engaging presentation.

growth, change, learning
Personal drawing

1. Knowledge gaps. Sometimes we need more information and theoretical knowledge to learn how to perform a certain action in the future. To give an engaging presentation, we need to know a few things about how to structure our ideas in a presentation, understand what motivates an audience, know a few public speaking and body language techniques etc.

2. Skills gaps. Any skill implies some theoretical knowledge, but there is one element that differentiates skill from knowledge: practice. If we only know those public speaking tips in theory but we have not practiced them, they are pretty useless. There is one simple question you can ask, to determine if the gap is knowledge or skill: is it reasonable to believe that I can be proficient at this task without practicing?

3. Motivation gaps. Assessing our motivation is probably the most important element in our journey to build more confidence. Why is this important for me? How will it help me and do I really want this? Many people want to become better at something without thinking why that is important to them and they end up giving up halfway. Any growth process involves obstacles, difficulties and new challenges that make our brain uneasy and restless. If we lack intrinsic motivation, we will find it difficult to enjoy the process and do the necessary work, also when it’s hard.

4. Habit gaps. Feeling confident at doing something means cultivating the discipline to practice it again and again, until it becomes part of our day to day being. If I want to be a better writer, I need to develop a habit of writing daily. Unless we get disciplined and form a habit, we will always have difficulties in doing the work and not get distracted.

5. Environment gaps. The environment you live and work in, needs to support your growth and practice goals. If you want to feel more confident about speaking in front of an audience, you need to find opportunities in your environment to do so. Volunteer to present a project status update at work, give a short speech during a wedding party, record yourself in a two minutes video or give a presentation in front of the mirror. Scan your environment and constantly look for opportunities to take action.

6. Communication gaps. With whom do you need to communicate, what content, how often and via which channels, in order to get better at something? Maybe you have a trainer or a teacher or a mentor that gives you feedback and helps you improve. Or maybe you have a regular audience that you need to keep engaged. Whatever your goal is, you need to think about how you want to communicate with others in order to get feedback.

Feeling doubt is inevitable

If we wouldn’t feel a bit of doubt when we are in the middle of a challenge, it wouldn’t be a challenge after all. A challenge is defined as something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person's ability. It’s a situation that takes us out of our comfort zone. So it’s normal and human to feel doubt at some point in the process. But how we respond to that feeling is a skill.

Having confidence means knowing how to cope and how to respond to that feeling of doubt. It means assessing the situation realistically and embracing the right strategy that uses the best of our abilities.

Being tough doesn’t mean we need to hide our vulnerabilities. On the contrary. Real toughness resides in being humble and wise enough to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. Tough individuals are not afraid of exploring their weaknesses because they know that no human is perfect. No human has only strengths. Grounded confidence means having the courage to talk about one’s weaknesses without fear of being shamed. It’s simply seeing ourselves and the world around us with clarity, and not with delusion.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown writes that embracing vulnerability is inherent in building confidence. We cannot be authentic and have presence, unless we are ready to accept our weaknesses as well. One of the CEOs she interviewed explained that when leaders don’t have the skills to lean into vulnerability, they’re not able to successfully hold the tension of the paradoxes embedded in business and entrepreneurship: optimism and paranoia, big heart and tough decision making, humility and fierce resolve, left brain and right brain, simplicity and choice, thinking global and acting local, ambition and attention to detail, short-term and long-term, thinking big and acting small, marathons and sprints.

Showing confidence on the outside, doesn’t mean lack of self-doubt on the inside. When we’re in a new situation or we said yes to a scary challenge that takes us out of our comfort zone, we should allow ourselves to think “will I really be able to manage this?” Self-doubt puts us in a state of beginner’s mind and we are willing to put more effort into getting better and learn. Self-doubt is part of the learning and growing process. It would actually be reckless to think “I have no doubt or fear”. That attitude of overconfidence can be counterproductive as we believe we are better than we really are, we put less effort in preparation and we learn less. Whenever you feel self-doubt, just ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen? Will you be rejected by everyone and end up alone with fifty cats? Will you get fired? Will you go bankrupt? What helps me overcome self-doubt is to remind myself of Oliver Burkeman’s “cosmic insignificance therapy”. “The anxieties that clutter the average life – relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries – shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. […] To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.”

I found these coping mechanisms that Steve Magness talks about, really helpful:

1. Zoom in/out: Change your attention, zooming in to where you’re focused only on a narrow slice of the situation, or zooming way out so that your view is broad.

2. Label: Name what you’re feeling or experiencing. Labeling takes away the power of “the thing.” The more nuance and clarity you can give your mind, the better.

3. Reframe: Alter how you are viewing the situation. For example, are you seeing stress as negative or positive?

4. Adjust your goal: Break down your goal into something manageable. Get to the next mile marker on your run or to the next section of your presentation.

5. Remind: Go back to your purpose for performing the activity. Remember why you started and why it matters. Give yourself permission to fail: During any sort of challenge, we often go further into a self-protect

Act from self-awareness, not self protection

When we are in a place of vulnerability, our ego jumps in to protect us. It’s like the immune system that makes threats go away to reassure us. Our ego is not bad, we need it at times to protect us from those who want to take advantage of our weaknesses. But if our ego is overactive and pushes us in defense mode, it might do more harm than good on the long run because it damages relationships and causes trust issues. We need to find a way to keep our ego in balance and stay open to what others have to say.

Being self-aware helps us navigate the inevitable paradoxes of life, find more balance in how we do things and taking the right level of challenges. I also helps us re-calibrate ourselves so that our actions have the impact and contribution we want. We can build more self awareness by getting feedback and paying attention to how others react to our actions. If you say “I like myself the way I am, this is who I am, what I do and I cannot change”, but at the same time you don’t get the results you want, you might need to pay more attention. You don’t need to take the reactions of other people personally, it’s their reactions, but they are a good indication of the effectiveness of your actions or message. Let’s say you’re trying to close a sale and you give this presentation to a group of customers. If they start yawing and they fall asleep while you talk, you might want to take this feedback and change something in the way you present or the message you deliver. It doesn’t say “you’re a boring person”, but it does say “I am bored by what I am hearing”. Building more self-awareness will help you get better at adapting your tactics.

Just do it

Take a pen and a piece of paper and write down the area of your life or the activity where you feel most confident. Like the lion in the open savanna. In a few sentences, describe a situation where you were at your best, maybe it's the same thought you had when you read the first paragraph of this post.

Now think about another area that you want to improve, where you want to increase your level of confidence. Answer these five simple questions:

1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much confidence do you feel right now?

2. Can you think about someone you admire and who shows the kind of confidence you would like to feel?

3. Where do you see the gap between where you are now and this future version you want to become? Think about the nature of the gap (knowledge, skill, motivation, habit, environment, communication)

4. Do you have the foundational skills to get there? (i.e. is it a realistic goal?)

5. List three concrete actions you can take today towards that goal and set a deadline for each.

The best way to assess your progress is to measure it. If it’s an activity that you practice daily, and you are already very disciplined, feel free to measure progress daily. But a weekly review is usually enough to measure progress and it also helps you plan better for the following week. A weekly review gives you a good perspective. You can create a simple table in Excel, download a free weekly calendar and write down what progress you made each week. It’s important to establish a target or performance indicator for yourself. In time, you want to raise the floor and increase your minimum average. But you can only do that of you defined the measurement. Is it speaking for three minutes without saying “uhm”, or writing without interruption for thirty minutes a day, or running 3 km in 18 minutes?

And maybe the most important of all, get objective feedback. Get a mentor, a coach, a friend whose opinion you trust. We are who we are, in relation with others and others might see things from a different angle that we don't see. If we want to convert our actions into contributions, we need others to see value in what we do. So don’t be afraid to ask for feedback, reach out, engage with others and confidence will follow.

confidence, vision, growth

If you feel like you need more confidence but you're not sure where to start, schedule a Free Change Strategy discovery session, by writing me at or in the Contact form. We will assess together your objective and discuss different possible strategies to achieve your goals.

If you liked this article and it helped you in any way, share it with a friend and subscribe to my newsletter for a monthly dose of drive and inspiration.

You might also want to check out this blog post about overcoming adversity: Did You Think It Would Be Easy?

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page