A coaching client wanted to talk about confidence. A senior vice president, she wonders where the younger, tougher version of herself has gone.
“I used to be so badass,” she told me. “I need to regain my confidence.”
This is a common theme in my office: accomplished middle-aged professionals talking about an ebbing of confidence.
And in the funny way of things, I was driving home after meeting with this particular client and heard singer-songwriter Liz Phair interviewed on the radio. The host, Kurt Andersen on PRI’s “Studio 360,” asked her if she could connect with the 20-something version of herself when she released her 1993 album “Exile in Guyville.”
“I can’t connect with — and I do envy — that sense of freedom where you just had nothing to lose,” Phair said. “You could just throw anything against the wall. I miss that sort of confidence.”
You don’t know all the things that could go wrong, she said.
“Whereas, when you’re my age, now you do know how things work out,” said Phair, who is 52. “You’re like, ‘Well, I know how this story is going to turn out.’ You don’t have any of that when you’re young, and I miss that.”
I thought of my client as I listened to the radio. She’s comparing herself, her current state of mind, to an idealized memory of her past self. I often point out to clients that they are comparing their “insides” to other people’s carefully curated “outside.”
But what about when you’re comparing your “insides” to a memory of your brash and confident youth?
First, flex the muscle. Then, do the reps. Confidence isn’t some mountain to climb. It’s not like you get to the top of Confidence Mountain and there you are: You’re done, now you’re confident.
“Confidence is more like a muscle,” I tell my clients. “Like an athlete, you need to keep working out that muscle or it will atrophy.”
As you progress in your career, be intentional about “confidence maintenance”: seek out easy challenges amid the hard stuff, something low stakes that you can practice on, fail at, learn from, try again and feel good about.
Say, for example, you lack confidence presenting to your executive management. Rather than berating yourself (“At this stage of my career, I should be able to …”), practice giving lots of presentations to a more junior audience or try giving presentations one-on-one to those senior leaders. Lots of reps as you build and maintain your strength, er, confidence.
Prepare for stressors. We all have areas in our lives where we feel more or less confident. If you can identify those particular situations — an adversarial relationship? speaking up as an authority? — you can prepare beforehand.
“If it matters, you prepare,” I tell my clients. This means anticipating the situation, scripting your response and practicing.
Catch the feeling in the moment. Try to personify that feeling when your confidence ebbs. Give it a shape, a personality, a sound. If you can catch the feeling and name it, you can diminish much of its power. This is a self-awareness practice — and a lifelong practice!
Recognize your achievements. Keep a record of your successes, particularly the small ones. It’s so easy to forget the small building blocks — the decisions and conversations and warm smiles — that together, day after day, month after month, year after year, create a meaningful career.
“You are a badass,” I told my client. “You have a big job, and you’re working on problems that interest you. That is totally badass.”
First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.