Author and journalist Claire Shipman always thought of confidence as a state of mind – an optimistic “can do” attitude. Some people, she thought, seemed to naturally bubble up with confidence, while others just didn’t. Men, she assumed, simply had more of it. Claire became fascinated with the concept of confidence when she and fellow journalist Katty Kay were working on their first book, Womenomics in 2009. They interviewed women at the top of their game professionally and yet kept finding something startling. Many of these high achieving, accomplished women expressed feelings of insecurity – that either they didn’t belong or that they didn’t deserve the success that they had.
This struck a nerve.
Both Claire and Katty also had nagging feelings of self-doubt. Despite their enviable professional success, they too believed that they didn’t measure up. Claire says she deferred to the male journalists with whom she worked – they were louder so she figured they must be smarter. And Katty – who is British – despite speaking multiple languages and having a degree from a top university – thought Americans just assumed she was bright because of her accent, not because of her intelligence.
Claire and Katty deeply identified with the successful women whom they met who were also plagued by self doubt. All of this inspired a second book – Claire and Katty’s bestseller, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know. In this book, Claire and Katty set out to explore female confidence. Are we born with it? Can you get more of it? Is there a secret sauce to making women more confident?
Après spoke to Claire Shipman about The Confidence Code, the surprising findings, the gender differences, and what women can do to become more confident.
Hardwired for Confidence
“When we did our research we really thought based on all the anecdotal evidence that confidence was something that you either had or you didn’t,” Claire says. “Especially looking at the gender divide, men just seem to have it more than women.”
Their research revealed something more shocking and as Claire says, depressing. They discovered that we apparently are either partly hard-wired for confidence or we’re not. Like blue eyes, this inheritable trait is something we are born with – imprinted onto our genetic code. Claire and Katty found that the correlation between genes and confidence may be as high as 50 percent and may be even more closely connected than the link between genes and IQ. Through their research they also discovered that when it comes to professional success, confidence can be more important than ability
“Initially, when we looked at the science and found that confidence was largely genetic, it was frightening and annoying and disturbing,” Claire says. “My heart sank because I knew which side of the coin I was on.”
But the good news, Claire discovered was that while confidence was partly genetic it could also be manipulated. She found that we can rewire our brains, even as adults. When we scrub those mental habits that hold us back and change our thinking, the science shows that there are physical changes in our brains as well. By taking action and moving forward, we can become more confident.
“That’s the malleable part of confidence that is really exciting to us because I think our book would have been really depressing otherwise,” Claire says with a laugh. “You may be born with a propensity for confidence but it’s something you build and the root of confidence and confidence creation is very active,” Claire says. “It’s about taking action.”
Rewire Your Brain and Become More Confident
Creating confidence is about taking risks. I ask Claire if there is a specific formula – a five-step plan to becoming more confident?
“I wish there was a very clear formula,” Claire says. “But because we each have different concepts of what’s risky it’s different for each of us.”
For some, risk taking may be speaking in public. For others, it’s negotiating a salary or applying for a job. And for other women, it’s going out on their own and launching a business. But the root to building confidence Claire says is to challenge yourself, taking on whatever may be risky for you.
“The key is that you want to be getting yourself into a mindset every day where you are examining what your brain is telling you,” Claire says. “Can I push that? Can I try that? And why don’t I just do that and move on.”
The Gender Divide is Real
Claire’s hunch that men in general have more confidence seems to stands up to science. A growing body of research in recent years points to a true gender divide when it comes to confidence. Studies find that men overestimate their abilities and performance while women underestimate both. This happens even when women perform equally well, if not better than the men. Yes, guys can also feel insecure, but interestingly it doesn’t stop them from moving ahead as frequently as it does women.
Claire and Katty dug deep into what it is that holds women back. Is a female brain wired differently from a male brain, therefore impacting confidence? It’s a radioactive subject to suggest that women’s brains somehow differ from men’s. But, in fact, men and women do have different ways of processing information. Scientists know that women’s brains are more active than male brains in almost all areas, particularly the regions that are responsible for empathy, intuition, collaboration, and, yes, even worry. But a byproduct of all of this emotional mojo is our inability to turn off thoughts. We ruminate. We obsess. We can jump to conclusions.
“We think too much,” Claire says. “Learning to control the ensuing rumination and obsessive thinking that goes along with that is essential.”
Claire gives an example of obsessing over an email she sent to Diane Sawyer when The Confidence Code came out. Claire didn’t hear back from Diane right away and immediately she assumed that Diane must be mad at her because she owed her an assignment. Then Claire imagined that all of ABC News must be hating her since she had been putting much more time into her book than her ABC work. The thoughts kept escalating. For the record, Diane did email back and ABC News didn’t fire Claire. But Claire recognized the unhealthy thoughts and the waste of energy. She now tries to actively take a step back and offers tips on how other women can “get off the high speed train to darkness” and onto a healthier track when the ruminating begins.
Stop Thinking, Start Reframing
“Research shows we have to recognize the debilitating thoughts we are having and then give them an explanation – and it doesn’t even have to be a reasonable one,” Claire says.
If you are agonizing over an email or call that hasn’t been returned, coming up with an explanation for why you haven’t heard back, suddenly reframes the situation.
“It allows you to step back again and become an observer of your thoughts and it’s easier to say, I’m moving on. I’ll email again in another two days, but I will stop putting all of this negative energy into it.”
Other techniques Claire suggests that are effective in rewiring the brain and generating thought patterns that encourage confidence include cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation. Both have been found to be incredibly beneficial in calming the brain and stimulating confidence. When you meditate, the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, shrinks, and you can think clearly, which is obviously important for achieving goals.
When in Doubt, Act – Even if You’re Afraid
If there is anything Claire wants you to remember after reading The Confidence Code is that the most effective way to push back against self doubt is to act. Small steps, baby steps even, are essential to becoming confident – and confidence begets confidence. There is a snowball effect; the more you put out there, the stronger you will feel.
“Having confidence propels us to take action and the more we take action the more confidence we build,” Shipman says. “It’s a virtuous cycle.”
But this may be easier said than done.
Taking a risk and a leap will always require something to get there. “I heard somebody say ‘do it afraid’ – just acknowledge I’m scared of this and I’m going to do it anyway and do it,” Claire says. “You’re owning it a little bit more. It’s more authentic.”
Similar to “doing it afraid” is what Harvard associate professor and author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Amy Cuddy discusses with “faking it until you become it.” The premise is you have the ability to do it – but you may need to fake it first before you believe it yourself.
Claire says that women should do whatever it takes to get over that first hump.
“In some ways we are all saying the same thing,” Claire says. “Sometimes we need a crutch in order to take the first step that starts the process of creating the ability to take more action.”
And as we now know, to be confident we must take action.
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