Management Consultant Mike Eldon

The virtuous cycle of confidence

Most people are desperate to learn how they can build their confidence. For what I have found is that there are very few on this planet who feel genuinely self-confident. Even many who appear to ooze confidence actually live in a turmoil of inner self-doubt. What an unfortunate lot we humans are. Sure, a good proportion of us have every reason to lack confidence. (‘Don’t worry about that inferiority complex,’ the therapist comforts, ‘you’re just inferior.’) But even many who have amply earned the right to self-confidence – through their sizzling track record – have not managed to get there.

Over the years I have developed a way of helping people with their confidence. (Including me… eventually!) I first work on what enables confidence, and then tantalise with what it in turn enables. I have my tentative charges start by looking back on their achievements, and as they list them I invite them to explain these achievements in terms of the strengths that enabled them… achievement by achievement.

When I carry out this exercise with young people their first reaction is almost invariably to tell me it’s not possible, as they feel they haven’t yet achieved anything to speak of. But I soon show them this is far from true, and off we go. At all ages, I find it common that people understate their achievements, take them for granted, or simply forget key ones. And the same with strengths.

The reason for starting with achievements is that, unlike if one goes straight to strengths, achievements are tangible. And then as the exercise proceeds, it becomes obvious that without some underlying strengths (OK, and occasional luck) there could have been no successes. That way there’s no possibility of denying or avoiding coming to terms with them.

So, achievements, explained by strengths. Great – now it’s time for celebrating. But wait. Normal humble mortals – and certainly the British, definitely Kenyans – find this inordinately hard to do. Indeed they feel it’s most inappropriate, this blowing of one’s own trumpet… even to oneself. And the unfortunate consequence is that the shyness stands in the way of making the vital link to the self-esteem to which these unproud folk have earned the right. ‘Please go ahead,’ I beg, ‘I give you permission to enjoy looking back over the great things you have done, and at the strengths that enabled them.’

Unless you have linked achievements and strengths to self-esteem, you cannot take the next step to self-confidence. And I say again, many do not. Some of the most successful people, people bursting with endless talents, are among the most insecure and with the lowest self-esteem. The intelligent imagine themselves to be stupid; the beautiful are convinced of their ugliness; the creative insist on telling us how barren of imagination they are. Usually by comparison to – idealised – others.

Low self-esteem cannot but erode self-confidence. Just as high self-esteem is a must for healthy self-confidence. Note the ‘healthy’. For I’m not talking about hype. And I’m certainly not advocating cockiness. Indeed those who walk about with misplaced self-esteem and unjustified self-confidence are an absolute menace.

The next step is to explore what self-confidence enables. Easy: it enables boldness, the willingness to entertain risk and to go after big challenges. Oh, and the willingness to confront our weaknesses too, those that risk holding us back. Boldness in turn opens the door to more successes. OK, also to some failures. But for people with high self-esteem and high self-confidence, they find the strength to treat failures as opportunities for learning. Achievements by a different name.

Achievements – whether triumphs or mere opportunities for learning – are immediately available to feed self-esteem, and so the virtuous cycle of confidence is established.

If only more young people could be introduced to this cycle. Instead our parents, our teachers, our first bosses, far prefer merely to focus on where we need to do better, where we must ‘pull up our socks’. ‘Why is your maths still below par?’ stern parents enquire, for they want their little ones to be great performers, in all departments. But what such quest for comprehensive perfection can breed is precisely the kind of anxiety, the sense of inadequacy, that we must surely avoid as we pass through our formative years.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be good at maths. It’s just that performance appraisal is too often reduced to exception reporting. All the good stuff is taken for granted, and we hammer away at the weak points. For otherwise, it is said, the little person will lower their standards, become complacent. Will they? Or will they feel so discouraged by the shortfall in maths that it will affect their self-esteem and confidence in other areas too? How many people of great potential have failed to fulfil it thanks to the unintended consequence of going after failures and weaknesses at the expense of celebrating successes and strengths?

But even if we once were that child who was taught early in life that nothing we ever did was good enough, it’s not too late. That child may now be the CEO of a major corporation or a judge or be playing football for Kenya. They may wear elegant suits or horsehair wigs or drive a fancy SUV. But inside there may well be elements of that earlier little insecure person buried within them.

If that CEO or judge or footballer is reading this article I hope it helps him or her. It will require some quiet contemplative time in which to think back over their lives. When were and are they at their most successful? What factors were and are present? What strengths were and are on display?

Feel good about it, damnit. Relax. No complacency now. No smugness. Just feel the self-esteem flowing through. Not from puffed-up hype. Simply from evidence-based triumphs. A straightforward recollection of all those hard achievements… which would not have been possible without all those great strengths.