The care and feeding of confidence

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

I received an email from a father asking me if I would be willing to meet with his two daughters, ages 14 and 21.

He was hoping I could share “general life lessons” on focus, hard work, grit or any other points to become successful in life, like self-confidence and coming out of the comfort zone.

I was touched by this father’s email. It was loving and proud, and he wants so much for his girls. Although 14- and 21-year-olds aren’t my typical client profile, I agreed to meet with them.

“I like to think of confidence as being comfortable in your own skin,” I told those lovely young people. “Comfortable in your opinions. Comfortable in your mastery of your field or craft.”

For most of us, a sense of confidence is not something that just happens. “You need to nurture that confidence, that comfortable-ness,” I told them.

And then I outlined for them the care and feeding of confidence, inspired in large part by the excellent book “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know,” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.

1. You have to try. Confidence is built on action. You have to talk in class, even if you’re afraid that what you’re going to say is stupid. The 21-year-old said she volunteers an answer or opinion about twice a class. I asked her how often the men talked, on average. She rolled her eyes. I dared her to claim her fair share of airtime — in school and later, when she is in the Wild West of the work world.

2. You have to quit perfectionism. Figure out what’s good enough, and be done with it. Trying for perfect is a waste of time and energy, and really bad for your confidence.

3. That said, you have to prepare. If it matters, you prepare. In most cases, good enough is, well, good enough. But occasionally you need to knock it out of the park. In those exceptional cases, you thoroughly prepare.

4. Manage the negative self-talk. Being mean to yourself — and complaining in general — is a bad habit, and does bad things in your brain and for your confidence. I told those two young women that I “ding” at my clients when I hear them putting themselves down.

The next day, I gave a talk on impostor syndrome and confidence for a women-in-leadership group at a large tech company. I asked that room of professional women what wisdom they would impart to a 14-year-old girl and 21-year-old woman if they had a chance.

I will leave you with my favorite examples of what those women said:

• “Everyone has an opinion. Yours is as important and valid as everyone else’s. So don’t be shy about it.”

• “You are worth more than your looks or what boys think of you. Trust your gut; trust yourself.”

• “Putting in hard work allows you to build your confidence.”

• “Your education is like a pizza base. Think of all the useful toppings as skills/ideas you can top it with to distinguish yourself.”

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.