It's not every day that you meet an amazing person who's story just blows you away. It's not every day that you meet an Olympic Gold medalist. And it's certainly not every day that you actually get to touch and feel what an Olympic Gold medal feels like.
Back in the summer of this year I got to experience all three.
I met April Holmes at the Coach Training Institute coaching program we were both taking in California. It was a 7 week program to learn the fundamental skills of coaching.
April came across as calm, smart, warm and exuded this enormous amount of self confidence that I've rarely even seen among highly successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
And when she shared her story with us, I finally understood why.
You see in 2001 she suffered a horrific train accident that would have left most people not only physically handicapped (her left leg was amputated from the knee down) but psychologically crippled. But not only did April bounce back from her injury, she embraced her disability and became a symbol of what can be achieved when you work hard, believe in yourself and set yourself nearly impossible goals.
She set out to become a paralympian and began to compete in track in field. In 2002 she won 1st place in the 100m dash at the DS/USA's International Challenge in Orlando, Florida.
Two years later at the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, she set two world records in the 100 and 200m dash. Finally, in 2008 she achieved a life-long dream and won a Gold Medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games in the 100m dash.
April's story is truly inspiring and speaks to her determination, hard work and faith in herself but it also speaks to the incredible amount of self confidence she's had to develop over the years to not only live with her disability but to thrive as an athlete.
So I began to think to myself: "What exactly is self-confidence? Where does it come from and what can we do to boost it?"
As Dr. Neel Burton discusses in his article Hide and Seek, self confidence comes from the Latin word “fidere” which literally means "to trust". So self-confidence is essentially our ability to trust in ourselves.
Self confidence comes partly from our ability to confidently do something that we’ve done before. Self confidence, in this respect, has to do with something that’s known to us.
For example, in my previous post I talked about how I moved 8,000 miles away from Silicon Valley to Chile. In my case, since I’ve moved countries 11 times and lived in Chile before, I had a fairly high degree of confidence that I would succeed since I knew, to some degree, what I was getting into.
Since I had moved a lot, moving yet again wasn’t as difficult for me as it would be for someone who’s never lived outside their own country. I felt confident of my ability to adjust to my new surroundings, make friends, find a place to live and build my career.
So the more familiar we are with something and more we’ve successfully done this thing before, the more confident we will be in our ability to do it again.
As Mia Hamm says: “success breeds success.”
But self-confidence isn’t just about our experience in actually doing the things we plan / need to do, it's also a function of our belief in our ability to do these things.
This helps explain why that friend of yours from grad school had such a meteoric rise in their career up until they became VP of their department but then hit a ceiling and never went any further.
It's not that they couldn't rise any further due to their abilities, it's that at some point they started to believe they couldn't go from department head to general manager (or head of another department).
Over time, that limiting belief, as Big Leap author Guy Hendricks calls it, became so hard coded that it simply became their reality.
How many of us know someone like that? We all do. Some of us may even struggle with these kind of limiting beliefs.
So our ability to shape, mold and change our beliefs can be just as important as our skills or abilities in determining whether we succeed at doing what we want to do.
Other factors that affect self-confidence include:
Education: Higher levels of education boost our knowledge, test us and potentially give us an edge. Some educational systems culturally have been even known to give kids more confidence than others.
Support / Peers: The feedback and support of those around us can be an important source of confidence. When our friends, family or boss give us praise, that boosts our confidence. The reverse is also true, so avoid toxic people who bring you down.
Family / upbringing: Our parents and siblings can be a huge source of confidence. The extent to which they provide love, support, and positive reinforcement when things don’t go our way, can be critical to providing us confidence (as well as courage).
Environment: The culture in which we live, either that of our country / society or even that of our workplace, can impact our self confidence.
For example, when I worked in marketing at Google, not only was there a constant reminder that engineering and product management drove the company, but in some cases people even openly joked about how marketing really wasn't needed to drive the business. (I chose to leave the company after only 2 years on the job rather than stay in that environment).
When your role or department isn’t seen as important in an organization, it can gradually erode your confidence over time.
When this becomes a semi-permanent fixture of how your role or department is seen, that’s when it’s time to look for a change.
Our DNA: In their book The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman looked at the science behind confidence and determined that three genes can have a significant impact on our confidence levels:
OXTR - controls delivery of oxytocin and a variant of this gene can produce low self confidence.
COMT - regulates dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps transmit impulses from one neuron to the next. It’s pathways are particularly associated to feelings and activities that result in pleasure (sports, video games, sex, drugs).
SLCA64 - This gene is associated with our serotonin levels. The more serotonin we have, the happier we feel.
As the authors state in the book: “When dopamine, which gets us moving, is commingled with serotonin, which induces calm thought, and oxytocin, which generates warm and positive attitudes toward others, confidence can much more easily take hold."
The neuroscience of self confidence
As I researched to write this post, I increasingly asked myself the question: “OK, all this makes logical sense to me but what actually happens in my brain as I develop self confidence?” and “Is it possible to actually train my brain to be more self confident?”
The answer seems to be “yes” to both questions. As this article in Forbes points out, it turns out that our brains are made up of neurons or specialized cells that transmit nerve impulses or information.
These neurons are connected and transmit impulses to each other via pathways in the brain called synapses. The more we actually do a certain thing, the more these impulses run across these pathways and can become “hardcoded.”
That’s why our teachers in school always told us that “learning is repetition” and that “practice makes perfect.” The more we practice, the more hardcoded those pathways become and the easier these tasks become for us.
The reason Steph Curry is the NBA’s best 3 point shooter is that not only does he have an insane amount of talent, but he equally spends an insane amount of time shooting 3-pointers during practice. Shooting 3 pointers is “hardcoded” into who he is.
The other interesting fact about self-confidence from a neuroscientific point of view, is that when we do something well and our confidence grows, we stimulate areas of the brain responsible for feeling good. So as we do more and more things that we excel at, we feel better and better.
More importantly, our self-confidence also spills over to those around us, which is why you’ll find that the more self confident you become, the more people are drawn to you. This explains why prolific players, soldiers and business people can sometimes inspire their teams to pull off things that simply shouldn’t happen (NBA finals 2016 anyone?)
What can I do to build my self-confidence?
The great news is that are LOTS of things that we can do to boost our self confidence. Here’s a list of different things that you can try, some are easier than others, that will have a proven impact on your self confidence.
Practice self awareness - The next time you don’t feel confident simply ask yourself the question “Why am I feeling this way?” By understanding yourself better and your own mood swings, you’ll find you can sometimes challenge the very things that are holding you back and overcome them.
Create a hero - In coaching I learned of the idea of creating a fictional hero that I can aspire to be like. This can be either a real or imaginary person but it usually helps to flesh this hero out on paper and really think about how he/she would react in a given situation.
When you try to model your own behavior on that of your hero you might be surprised to find yourself pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
Identify your anti-hero - Every great story has a hero and a villian right? In coaching we call this the saboteur. The saboteur is usually a story that we tell ourselves that justifies why we don’t take certain actions (I don’t talk to girls because I’m not funny etc.).
Once you identify this villian, it becomes easier bring in your hero to override that negative story and take action.
Keep an achievements list - Every one of us has a long list of things we’ve accomplished over our lives. Take time to jot as many of these things down as you can over the past year, 2 years or 5 years.
Then whenever you have a self-confidence hit, pull up your list and read through it a few times. You might be surprised how good it makes you feel.
For bonus points you can also keep old emails from friends or colleagues who have praised you for something. One practice I’ve used is Linkedin reviews. Whenever I need a little boost, I read through a few of them.
Form habits around self care - If you’ve kept up with my posts and podcasts you’ve heard me talk about this a million times (than again, learning IS repetition right?)
If you get into a routine where you eat right, sleep right, and exercise, it will make a world of difference in your confidence. If you take this a step further and track how often you do these things, you’ll also generate small wins that will drive your self confidence even higher.
Do something crazy - Back in June I wrote a post about doing a century ride (100 miles in a single day). I took on that challenge 2 years earlier and progressively trained day in, day out for that ride.
The boost in confidence from that achievement was huge and lasted for months. More importantly, when you share your intent to take on a challenge like that with others and then succeed, the support you get from those around you and the lasting impact are even higher.
Focus, focus, focus - Margie Warrell wrote a great piece on self-confidence in Forbes several years back that has excellent suggestions all around and one of things she mentions is the need to focus.
As celebrated speaker, self help guru and master coach Tony Robbins he says “Where focus goes, energy flows”.
In today’s society many of us often fall into the trap of never-ending to-do lists (see my post on why we end up getting Candy Crushed at work). We mistake checking off boxes for focusing on what really matters.
When you focus on what you want and then visualize yourself doing it, you can really drive your self confidence.
Start small and repeat often - Last but not least, don't’ try something insane right off the batt. When I decided to do my century ride I started with small rides each day and then ramped up the difficulty.
I got into a routine of cycling each day. Once the small stuff gets easy, you can easily build confidence and dial it up a notch. As your daily actions become hard-coded they get easier and your confidence grows.
Embrace failure as learning - Failure is one of the top killers of self-confidence but there is an easy way to beat it.
Try changing your perspective and see how much you learn every time something doesn’t go your way.
Once you see failure as a chance to learn and learning as necessary for success, you’ll see that failure is where you grow.
Self-confidence is something we all crave and we all need. It can have an enormous impact on our lives and help us achieve things that we didn’t think were possible in a way which can life changing.
So I challenge you right now to look at that list above and to start implementing one of those ideas today. You might be surprised at how you feel afterwards and how much you achieve.