The following is a guest piece by G5 Learning co-founder and author Steven Smith.
Everyone wonders where their true strengths lie. Each year millions devote themselves to discovering those strengths for the first time, and building those strengths into true potential. What most people don’t realize is the level of confidence it takes to get there.
And that limits them.
In spite of decades of clichés and motivational speeches about confidence, true confidence has a radically different set of rules than what tradition tells us. As perhaps the greatest catalyst of human achievement, one that has the capacity to impact everything we do to realize potential, confidence deserves a closer look and undivided attention.
A Choice, Not a Symptom
“Confidence is a choice,” wrote marketing savant Seth Godin, “not a symptom.” Godin’s statement resonates because it’s true. It’s powerful because that truth changes everything. But if confidence is a choice rather than a symptom, then how we make those choices is vital.
It’s not enough to claim confidence as a choice and expect it to appear. If confidence is to be independent of circumstances that cause it to be symptomatic based on the last brilliant or irrelevant thing we said, did or thought, then we need to know how true confidence works and is built.
The Confidence Continuum
Confidence is a choice that isn’t binary. It’s not an on-or-off switch. A more precise way of thinking about confidence is to place it on a wide continuum, with its strongest position anchored at center. Let’s call the center position pure confidence. Gravitationally pulling at the polar ends of the continuum are confidence extremes that drag us away from center.
When we surge right of center, pure confidence is contaminated in degrees by egotistical behaviours such as overconfidence, arrogance, conceit, and an exaggerated sense of genius. To the right, we don’t doubt ourselves even when we should. We believe confidence gained from a narrow set of strengths and a successful track record owes us a never-ending, universally transferable supply of relevance and self-assurance.
Drift left and pure confidence is diluted by varying amounts of low self-esteem, paralyzing self-doubt, insecurity, and an exaggerated sense of inability. Wandering left we wonder why we had confidence one moment and not the next, what outside factors allowed us to have it, why we lost it, and how we get full confidence back.
Confidence is a constant stream of psychological strength that either sustains you, or is short-circuited by degrees of invincibility or doubt. Because everyone is human – people, places, emotion, time, and culture can trip the wires of confidence and compromise your greatest strengths no matter how powerful those strengths are, how hard you worked to build them, or how driven you are to capitalize on each one.
Strengths and Counterfeits
For the Catalyst project, we meticulously examined how confidence swings from center affect human strengths. During that investigation an unexpected behavioural pattern emerged that caused us to rethink the way confidence and strengths mix.
Starting out, we expected swings of low confidence to hold people back from discovering their strengths or the tenacity to turn natural talent into strength, the equivalent of keeping both hands inside the car at all times. On the other end, we anticipated overconfidence to recklessly ignore weaknesses and overestimate strengths, leaving strengths trapped in an illusion of greatness.
These patterns occurred, but were too extreme to be common. People flirt with excessive arrogance or insecurity every so often, but rarely let either develop into full blown romance. Because the extremes were evident and rare, we grew more curious about exactly how strengths change when confidence shifts only slightly rather than substantially.
Subtle shifts in confidence convert strengths into counterfeits — traits that feel deceptively identical to strengths but get radically different reactions and results. That’s often why we don’t see the conversion in ourselves, but others do.
Some strengths come naturally, or you’ve worked hard to build them. Others might be traits that aren’t your strong points, but you rely on them in varying degrees at different times. Whether you have to dig deep for a particular trait or it comes naturally as a strength, the risks and rewards are there for each depending on where you stand on the confidence continuum.
Below are two, quick examples of primary strengths when confidence is pure, counterfeits when confidence shifts from center, and related behaviour:
Doesn’t let over-analysis hurt the momentum of a good idea. Isn’t afraid to move forward without everyone’s agreement. Takes responsibility for results. Action-oriented. Understands that nothing is perfect and is willing to take calculated risks.
Makes decisions too quickly in the name of getting things done. Doesn’t take the time to think thoroughly about ideas. May change directions frequently. Values speed over quality. Excludes important feedback to move ahead. Oversimplifies ideas and strategies; misses details that hurt the decision later.
Clear communicator. Excellent at confronting brutal realities and eliminating guesswork. Earns people’s trust due to respect for honesty and frankness. Others know where they stand. Liberating to work with because not afraid to say what’s really going on. As a result, reduces politics and endless workarounds
Uses little diplomacy; offends people. Shares opinions prematurely without thought of implications. Creates anxiety in others. May polarize groups. Generates gossip. Causes fear and is often the target of opposition. Seen as a pointless boat-rocker and so is excluded from meetings where sensitive issues are being discussed. Regards own opinions as the sole truth.
The metamorphosis from strength to counterfeit is so slight that it’s almost unfair. The less aware we are of being off center, the more conditioned we become to counterfeits. Once acclimated, it’s easy to mistake counterfeits for the original. History is replete with good lives and moderately successful careers blocked from greatness by well-disguised counterfeits.
In politics, what if Vice President Al Gore’s sharp intellect had been driven by on-center confidence and less by off-center arrogance, which made him come off as condescending in election debates with George Bush? What if Gore’s gift for composure had been less off-center lifeless and robotic and more on-center collected and cool?
Looking back on U.S. Presidents who could have been more, it’s easy to see how some of their greatest traits, when off-center, kept them from being great. What if Richard Nixon’s ambition and alert nature had not become overbearing and paranoid? What if Bill Clinton had kept his determination and charisma from converting momentarily to stubbornness and manipulation of the truth? In each instance, how much stronger could these leaders have been by not being over- or under-confident?
For those of us further down the totem pole of power, counterfeits are rarely stories of disaster. More often they’re stories of self-imposed restrictions on our greatest strengths that limited personal achievement. The more life’s variables knock us off center, the more likely we are to carve a groove at a specific distance from center. The deeper the off-center groove becomes, the more counterfeit behaviours become hardened habits.
In our 8,000-person survey that was part of this project, we asked people what percentage of time they see counterfeits overtake strengths. Fifty-eight percent said daily or weekly. It’s easy for people to quickly be pulled off-center into counterfeits, with lasting impacts on progress.
Early Warning Signs
To keep confidence pure and on center, raise your self-awareness of early warning signs when it’s not. Here are two common signs and quick advice to get confidence back:
Natural inclination when challenged in high-pressure moments is defensiveness. That propensity dilutes pure confidence. Whatever the cause and whether we have too much or too little confidence, defensiveness reduces rationality and elevates emotion.
One defensive signal: You avoid questioning your point of view.
Advice: If you’re right, does listening jeopardize the strength of your point of view? If your position is valid, won’t it hold up anyway? Separate who you are from your ideas. Your point of view doesn’t mean that it’s beyond question. Listening to feedback isn’t complicated. Listening is mostly a function of desire. Changing your mind and agreeing with someone else doesn’t mean you’ve caved in or become a pushover.
Comparison and competition are such natural, minute-by-minute parts of life that they’re nearly unconscious habits. Because we’re immersed in daily comparisons, and the competitive spirit pushes us to do better, we hardly notice when they contaminate confidence and make us worse.
One comparison signal: Organizationally, you’re hyper aware about what others are doing, often causing anxiety about what’s not being done. Individually, what others achieve makes you feel worse about where you are.
Advice: Paying close attention to competitors isn’t always worth the time. Envy is a strong motivator but a weak navigator. Not having more talents than, or the same talents as others, doesn’t make someone less valuable, or vice versa.
Building pure confidence is largely a self-pursuit, one that requires sweat equity, euphoric victories, and staggering defeats. Some private, some public. Notable achievement seems to demand it. Given what’s at stake, our potential, each is worth the price. How far our strengths take us depends on our choices about confidence along the way.
Steven Smith is the co-founder of G5 Learning, an online training company changing the way people learn about leadership. He is the author of two books published by Simon & Schuster and Wiley in 24 languages and over 50 countries. You can download a FREE copy of his latest book, “Catalyst”, at this link.