The Getting of Confidence

I was in my twenties and had just started a new job, when one of the girls in the office said, “No one is that confident, you have to be faking it”. I was quite taken back by her comment as I was just being me.

Over the intervening years I have sometimes wondered why I have been confident in most situations, with the exception of public speaking, whilst many others struggle, and I believe it’s because I learnt that it is  okay to fail at an early age.

Fail early – Fail often

Most people don’t wake up one day and suddenly feel confident, you become confident by trying, falling down then picking yourself up again, and being prepared to fail until you get it right.

I came from a family of perfectionists who lacked confidence so at one time when I was just a young kid, Dad asked me knock on the neighbour’s doors to see if they had a garage to rent, while he watched over me from the safety of the street. My mum would have me go into a shop and ask if they had something. My sister was so shy that she wouldn’t even buy a train or movie ticket, so if we wanted to go anywhere I learnt that I had to be the one to take charge. Psychologists now recommend that we learn to fail early and fail often, this way we learn to experience setbacks and develop resilience, so while it used to annoy me when I was young that I had to do everything for my family, I am now so grateful for the confidence I gained from those times.

Shawn Achor tells a very funny story of how he used to sell his body when he was a student at Harvard. As Shawn was always in need of money he often volunteered for paid experiments such as MRIs and various other tests as a way of supporting himself. At one time he volunteered for a study to prevent elderly people from falls, the study was three hours long and he was promised he would be paid $20. He was given a set of bike reflectors with Velcro straps and tight white biker shorts and he was shirtless. He had to attach the velcro straps to each of the joints in his body and he was asked to walk down a padded hallway in the dark with a video camera positioned to the reflectors on his joints. As he did this the floor would suddenly slide to the left and he would crash onto the lightly padded walkway, then the floor would slide to the right throwing him off balance. He had a cord attached to his leg which would be yanked from behind, pitching him flat on his face. After 120 falls the researchers told him that they had forgotten to put video in the recorder and asked him if he would do it again.

After three hours Shawn was met by a Professor who told him the study had nothing to do with helping the elderly, the researchers were studying motivation and resilience and Shawn was the only person who had lasted the full three hours. He was given $200 for his efforts.

The Getting of Confidence

In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn says, “More memorable than the generous prize were the lessons I learned about the nature of resilience—about picking ourselves up when we fall.” Years later Shawn was grateful for this opportunity when he had to address thousands of business leaders who had had their legs yanked out from under them due to the global financial crisis. He now encourages people, to look for the good in every situation.

Countless studies have shown that if we view failure as an opportunity for growth, our confidence grows. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”.

The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor is published by Virgin Books. It’s a great read.