Something unexpected happened when broadcast journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman were researching their best-selling book Womenomics. They noticed that several of the extremely successful women they interviewed often hesitated expressing their accomplishments. “They might laughingly confess they didn’t know how they’d achieved what they had, or suggest they weren’t sure they were really qualified,” the authors explained.
Despite their own successes, Kay and Shipman related to these women and began to wonder why even the highest achieving among them downplayed—or even second-guessed—their abilities.
The authors decided to dig deeper. “We found out that what had always seemed to be harmless or ‘natural’ feelings were, in fact, a manifestation of a widespread lack of confidence,” they said. The revelation grew into its own research project, which grew into Kay and Shipman’s latest book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self Assurance—What Women Should Know.
We had a chance to ask the authors some of our own questions about confidence, and their answers were as fascinating as their book. Read on for their take on whether confidence is inherent or learned, how it can shape our careers, and why “fake it ‘till you make it” doesn’t work.
LINKEDIN: Is confidence something we’re born with or something we learn?
KAY & SHIPMAN: There was more than we imagined about the science and biology of confidence in some ways. We did not expect to find that confidence is genetic. But it is – to some extent. Most experts believe it’s a trait that is between 25 and 50 percent inherited. There isn’t one “confidence gene,” but there are a number of genes that play a key role in supporting confident behavior. Some of them are the genes that control serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin in our brains.
LINKEDIN: Can you talk about how confidence (or lack thereof) can shape our lives, particularly as it pertains to our careers?
KAY & SHIPMAN: Women have plenty of competence; what we lack is confidence, and it holds us back. As one psychologist put it, “confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” If you want to ask a question in a meeting, speak up in public, apply for a promotion, what you need is confidence. Women are super well-qualified – chances are you don’t need more skills. One study we came across while writing the book even suggests that confidence matters more to success than competence.
LINKEDIN: There can be a fine line between confidence and arrogance. How can we convey our abilities and accomplishments without coming across as having a huge ego?
KAY & SHIPMAN: We wrestled with this a lot while we were writing the book – basically the question, “Do you have to be a jerk to be confident?” For women, the swagger and bravura associated with confidence can be very off-putting, and when we try to imitate it, it doesn’t work so well for us. It was Christine Lagarde, the first female head of the International Monetary Fund, who helped us solve the puzzle. She said women need to be authentic. So when you go into that job interview, be yourself, don’t try to act like a cocky guy. You just have to recognize your abilities for what they are. Don’t undersell yourself — to yourself or anyone else.
LINKEDIN: Some people ascribe to the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach when it comes to confidence. Does it work?
KAY & SHIPMAN: No! It sure sounds good though, doesn’t it? Here’s why: First, humans are quite adept at reading non-verbal cues. It turns out we can sniff out frauds quite handily. Second, knowingly “faking it” actually contributes to a sense of underlying insecurity and unworthiness. Authenticity is critical to true confidence. It’s true that the ability to create real confidence can require a jump-start – sometimes you will experience fear, and you need to overcome it. But a façade doesn’t work.
LINKEDIN: Public speaking is one of the most dreaded parts of many jobs. Any tips?
KAY & SHIPMAN: Practice helps. But that’s obvious. What we found is that, first of all, it’s important to see making mistakes here and there in public speaking as natural. The audience actually likes that, because the speaker seems more human. Knowing your mistake might help you connect can ease some of your tension.
But we also found that for women, it can be hugely helpful to reframe your remarks. Women feel more confident and more at ease when they are speaking on behalf of others – whether it’s a cause, a company or friends. It shifts the mental spotlight off of us somehow, and allows us to display our passion and knowledge with more ease. So if you can find a way to recast your remarks, or even the way you think about your remarks – it can be a huge boost for speaking with confidence.
LINKEDIN: Do you have any advice for raising confident daughters?
KAY & SHIPMAN: Yes – let them fail! Let them be messy. Let them make mistakes. We found that our girls are being taught to be too perfect – not always consciously. Who doesn’t want a child who’s helpful and contentious and who does extremely well in school? Our girls today are academic superstars, but they aren’t learning the lessons that will help them in the real world – that failure is OK, and that risks are worthwhile. Sports help enormously, but despite Title lX, girls are dropping out of sports at a much higher rate than boys as they hit puberty.
LINKEDIN: What are some techniques for building confidence?
KAY & SHIPMAN: Everyone can choose confidence. It’s hard, deliberative work building self-assurance – but it is a choice. You can choose to walk across the room and introduce yourself to that interesting looking stranger – or choose not to. You can choose to raise your hand in that meeting – or choose not to. It’s not easy, but confidence is a decision. The two most inspiring things we uncovered are that – as you choose to take action here and there, as you choose to take risks, and learn, and master situations, you are not only building confidence, you are changing your brain. You are building a new way of thinking. The research on brain plasticity is extraordinary.
And a cornerstone of confidence is authenticity. Women don’t have to try to emulate a male style of confidence – that might look just too macho for us. It doesn’t always have to be about speaking up first, or being the loudest, most aggressive person at the table. True confidence comes from knowing and expressing our values.