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power points

A surprising number of people who should have confidence in their abilities find it lacking. Others may see them as fully capable – perhaps even super-capable – but they are plagued by self-doubt.

“Confidence is the trust in yourself that whatever the situation, whatever life throws at you, you will be okay,” leadership consultant Julie Smith writes in Coach Yourself Confident.

She stresses that the constraints of reality must still apply. You can’t kid yourself into believing you have superpowers. Confidence involves self-acceptance. You are imperfect and flawed. At the same time, you don’t need the positive evaluation and reassurance of others. You will be okay with whatever comes – and whatever the outcome.

Confidence, she acknowledges, can be fickle. It comes and goes, sometimes without any obvious reasons. The dips can be short and easy to climb back from but in some instances, they will be deep, your self-trust crashing, and it will take a lot of effort to pull your confidence back up.

You can grow your confidence, she insists. That requires reflection, even self-excavation. A good place to start is by considering moments when you are confident. What about the situation underpins your confidence? What’s present? What’s absent?

Usually in moments where we lack confidence, fear has risen within. She urges you to practise pushing beyond your fears. Trying something new and scary offers a better sense of what you’re capable of. You do it and survive – so maybe next time you try something new and scary you will survive again.

She asks you to think of self-doubt as a tax on yourself. We pay this tax in missed opportunities and unfilled potential, and overwork and exhaustion. And it is not a case of one or the other; they can intertwine. It’s a voluntary tax and you can choose not to pay by countering your self-doubt and its publicist, your inner critic.

This can be complicated. Your inner critic is a frenemy. It’s trying to help you, and keep you safe. It’s committed to helping and hardworking, a friend who always hovers around, looking for deficiencies and other dangers. But it also can harm you, keeping you from opportunities, making you overwork. It can insist on high standards nobody can meet – perfection. “We must watch what we tell ourselves silently in the privacy of our own minds,” she says.

She urges you to unmask your inner critic. What does it have to say? What are the messages you frequently hear? For her, it’s “You sound like an idiot!” and “I thought you were supposed to be good at this!” She encourages you to draw a picture of your inner critic – is it a person, a monster or an animal? “I know this sounds like a strange thing to do but it can be really powerful,” she writes.

Name your inner critic, which creates some distance and separation: “There goes Old Nigel again, telling me I’m not up to the job.”

If you listen carefully to what the inner critic is saying – every word – it can illuminate the harshness and exaggerations, which in turn helps loosen its hold on you. “When you notice your inner critic is active, acknowledge its good intentions. Thank it for trying to look after you and explain the choice that you are making,” she suggests.

She points to playwright August Wilson, who would try to fool his inner critic by writing on napkins at a favourite café. If he wrote on a napkin, it didn’t seem to count as much as if he pulled out his tablet and started composing. Are there similar low-stake ways you can fool your inner critic and surreptitiously tackle some difficult work?

Your inner critic is not you, she stresses. Your thoughts are separate from who you are. You don’t have to believe what your inner critic tells you.

Quick hits

  • Use AI for everything you can legally and ethically do, counsels Wharton School professor Ethan Mollick. There are now three GPT-4 class models available and one thing they share is that they don’t come with instructions. You need to use them to figure out how to take advantage of their power.
  • In theory, consistency is about being disciplined, determined and unwavering. But Atomic Habits author James Clear says in practice, consistency is about being adaptable. If you don’t have much time, scale it down; if you don’t have much energy, do the easy version. “Let your habits change shape to meet the demands of the day,” he advises.
  • Consultant Shari Harley argues there is likely at least one business relationship you wish was stronger. You should make three attempts to reach out to the other person to try to improve the connection through phone calls, video and in-person meetings (but not emails or texts, which are too weak). Sample opener: “We’re going to be working together a lot this quarter, so I thought it would be helpful to talk through how we both like to communicate and who will do what. When is a good time for us to connect via phone?”
  • Ottawa thought leader Shane Parrish asks these two questions: What’s working for you that you’d be crazy to change? What’s not working for you, and you’d be crazy not to change?”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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