The Paradox of Confidence

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Unsplash: Marcos Luiz Photograph

Over the past 10 years, one of the biggest challenges team members have brought to me has been about developing their own confidence to do certain things. When I gently challenge them to step outside their comfort zone just a bit, the common refrain is I hear is:

'It's OK for you, you're really confident....'

That may be so, but this statement misses the fact that it wasn't always this way for me and that I too have had to discover how to build my own reservoirs of self-assurance and what other people call 'confidence'.

If you read on, I'll share a short story in an effort to show you that anyone can build their confidence. Perhaps it will inspire you to take actions towards your own version of confidence.

If you knew me 10 years ago when I started building my first team in the Middle East, I was 33 years old but I looked a lot younger (proof below!) and at times it felt like I was perceived that way as well.

2010 in Dubai

I'd been given the job and so there was a certain amount of confidence from my employer that I knew how to help create the solutions and run the processes that would win more contracts - because I had been doing it for 10 years by then, but the truth is I was shit-scared of losing my job and being sent home to Australia.

You see, I had moved overseas before - twice in fact - and both times it didn't work out (but that's another story). I had never led a large team before this job, and had only recruited one other person - they at least lived in the same city.

When I look back at those early days in Dubai, I was pretty overwhelmed. I arrived to a new company, a whole new industry and on day one I was handed one of the biggest re-competes for this division. I was given a box and told that it was my project to run for the next 4 weeks before it was due.

The client had told everyone that they didn't want us to win - and you can imagine that my suggestion of no-bid was not appreciated! We decided to deliver a proposal that was better than anything the client had ever received.

During the proposal development phase, I reckon I worked harder than I'd ever worked in my life. There was a very small group of people working on this massive contract and we were given the impossible task to convince a client to choose us even though they had openly stated that they didn't want to.

In those weeks I had to learn a new organisation, a new industry and on day 4 I was sent to Kandahar in Afghanistan. Life couldn't have been more exciting and terrifying all at the same time.

At this stage, I was leading a project and all of the stakeholders had many more years experience in the military field than I had (and they knew it). What I didn't have in technical expertise, I leveraged with my process and proposal expertise. It was confronting and uncomfortable and I was worried about failure.

The biggest shift in those weeks was moving things from being optional to being necessary. I had to let go of being comfortable so that I could fearlessly do what needed to be done.

The final document was a completely new approach and we laid it out on the desk and everyone came over to have a look at it. The document was collated into custom-made binders with imagery reflecting the client and our services. It felt risky and uncomfortable being new to the company in a new country, doing something very new and being in a probationary period. The internal feedback was subdued and not re-assuring.

Eventually we received the decision and we were informed that although it was the best proposal they had ever seen, the decision was to buy from the competitor. It would be easy to feel crushed at this moment.

We dusted ourselves off and kept going for the next 3 years at least and we used that new way of working as a benchmark going forwards.

Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone helps to build confidence

For another short example, when I delivered my first workshop at the APMP Conference in 2017 it was for over 100 people in the tiniest room in the venue. I was so nervous that I was shaking and my voice cracked. Underneath my jacket, I was sweating and I was so worried that it wasn't going to work in such a tiny room.

I tried to crack a joke and I asked for permission to mess things up given the constraints. When I delivered the same workshop in London later that year I was still shaking at the knees before I was up on stage because I actually knew some of the people in the audience - which can be even worse than presenting to a room full of strangers.

So when people tell me that they see me as confident or others as confident, I believe what they really see are the results of having the courage to back yourself in that moment. I know a Coach who asks people 'did you die?' when something doesn't work out. If that's the absolute worst that could happen and it didn't, then it's all good.

No one can give you confidence - it's something that has to come from within you.

For me, confidence is the result of having the courage to do something that feels uncomfortable and be willing to see what happens. If it works, brilliant - you can try it again and see if it works again. If it doesn't AND the worst thing in the world didn't happen, then you can dust yourself off and try again. The trick is to let go of the self-criticism as well.

The paradox of gaining confidence is that you need to do the things that make you feel uncomfortable in order to get it.

There's a lot of different ways you can work with this, but the first step is to do those things that make you feel uncomfortable and keep in mind the worst thing that could happen (for most of us, dying really is the worst thing that could happen). If we're trying something new at work or getting up on stage to speak and we don't die, then the worst possible thing did NOT happen. The trick is to get up and do it again, and again, and again because each time you do it, it will get just a little bit easier.

What's one thing you could do that will help you build your confidence?

Perhaps it's leading a meeting that you don't normally lead and asking permission from your audience to mess up at your next meeting or presentation? Audiences are actually quite forgiving when you let them in on your secret - your vulnerability because it magically lets them relax too.

Or perhaps you need to be assigned to a project in a new area or with new people asking for additional support to help you through?

Whatever it is, the only thing that's holding you back is you... but that doesn't mean you have to do it alone.

Tim Snell is a speaker, consultant and trainer. His mission is to help leaders connect to their authenticity so that they can ignite the potential in their teams and make a bigger impact in their work and communities.

Tim is also the Deputy Chief Examiner of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals and a professionally certified Coach from the International Coach Federation.

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