Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 7.26.08 AMToo many of us miss out on opportunities because of a shaky self-confidence or relentless self-doubt. Whether pursuing a new interest, taking on a leadership role or making a presentation, there are situations where a gnawing fear can leave us feeling like a deer in headlights (knowing we are in danger but unable move).  Sound familiar?

Russ Harris’ book, The Confidence Gap, was a game-changer for me! He defines the “confidence gap” as the difference between what we want to achieve and what we believe we can do. His unique perspective on this age-old problem has shifted my thinking and started to change what I do and how I see the world.

Harris provides a collection of “confidence rules” that not only help us come to terms with the nature of fear and confidence, but also provide some surprising guidance about how to grow confidence. Below are the ones that resonated with me the most.

Confidence Rule: Confidence is not the absence of fear

Fear is a survival mechanism that’s hardwired into the human brain. It goes back to prehistoric times when our ancestors needed a shot of adrenaline to overcome the life-threatening situations of their daily lives. When you understand the “fight or flight” response, it’s reassuring to realize that EVERYONE feels fear when taking a risk or outside their comfort zone. Even those who seem outwardly calm, composed and confident. Would you be surprised to learn that I experience stage fright? (That’s why I wear pants on stage, so you can’t see my knees shake!) Harris explains that this is not a weakness, but “the natural state of affairs for normal human beings.”

So gaining confidence is not about eradicating that fight or flight response, or even trying to think positive thoughts until you believe them. Rather, it’s about taking positive action toward a goal in spite of the fear. The feeling of confidence comes later, after more action and more practice. Like just about every new skill we attempt to master, confidence has a learning curve.

Confidence Rule: Don’t fight negative thoughts, diffuse them

Harris reports that the human mind has evolved to think negatively. Our prehistoric ancestors had to be constantly on the alert for danger to survive. Our modern brains do the same, always trying to anticipate what can go wrong so we can be prepared to deal with it. It’s no wonder we are filled with self-doubt and fear of failure!

The good news is, those negative thoughts are normal, and they’re not inherently problematic. It’s only when we get caught up in them and allow them to prevent us from moving forward that those thoughts can become destructive.

Fighting the negative thoughts that are hard-wired into our thinking process can be like swimming upstream: exhausting and futile. Instead, Harris tells us to recognize and accept those thoughts, which serves to defuse them and rob them of their power to derail our goals. Whenever you catch yourself thinking “I’ll never get this right” or some other self-deprecating thought, simply smile to yourself as your recognize your prehistoric brain at work. With that unhelpful thought defused, you can be fully present as you take the next effective action toward your goal.

Confidence Rule: Get passionate about the process

Rather than obsessing about the potential outcome of a stressful situation, Harris recommends focusing on your values and what drives you to do what you do.

This rule hit home for me. It’s easy to get so caught up in what you want to accomplish that you forget why you’re doing it in the first place. Each goal becomes a check mark on the to-do list, but never very satisfying because there is always another goal to be met. This mindset creates undue stress and undermines confidence.

According to Harris, confidence comes with living a values-focused life rather than a goal-focused life. Your values should be the compass that directs your actions. They provide the inspiration and motivation to follow through even when things get tough. Knowing your values is the best way to achieve what you want and make life fulfilling.

I’ve seen this rule in action time and time again when coaching clients for high-stakes presentations. Many people become so focused on their fear and just getting through the presentation that they don’t get to appreciate the time they spend connecting with their listeners. In addition to improving skills through practice, an important part of building confidence for a presentation is managing your expectations and learning to be “in the moment” with the audience.

Positive Steps to Grow Your Confidence

Harris underscores his message with these words of wisdom:

“The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.” In other words, practice what you know you need to do, and the feelings of assurance will come as you grow your skills.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get mindful.”  If you want to achieve meaningful goals, you’d better make room for discomfort. You don’t have to believe without a doubt that you’ll get a standing ovation before you step up to speak. It’s enough to believe there is a possibility. Just make a space for uncomfortable feelings while unhooking from unhelpful thoughts, and then fully engage in the task you’re taking on so you can enjoy the journey!

Discussion Questions

  • What prompted you to read The Confidence Gap?
  • What surprised you most about the book?
  • Which of Harris’ confidence rules resonated with you the most? Why?
  • Do you have questions or observations to share about presentation skills that occurred to you as a result of reading The Confidence Gap?

Please share your thoughts, ideas, and questions in the Comments section below. I am excited to hear what all of you took away from this thought-provoking book!

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Stephanie Scotti says:

    Hi Faye and thank you for your comment / reflection. That was a huge takeaway. The challenge comes in taking the steps to channel your thoughts into positive, productive skills. Harris’s notes on unhooking from worry and going from Psychological smog to confidence brought this home for me. Easier read than done … I am giving it my best shot!

  • Faye says:

    I enjoyed reading The Confidence Gap. The book was very relatable and had many useful tips.
    I think the biggest take away for me with this book was how he teaches you to group thoughts, ideas and feelings.
    He gets you to think about different ways to channel your thoughts and fears in to positive productive skills.

  • Betsy Blakney says:

    I was encouraged to submit an abstract for the IGNITE talk. Five minutes with 20 slides advancing every 15 seconds looks challenging, especially for someone used to delivering 45-60 minute presentations/workshops. My application was submitted in June. I will know by August 1st if my topic was chosen. More later….At least I will have 10 months to prepare and practice.

  • Stephanie Scotti says:

    Thank you for you inspiring comments and insight. I also found the notion of dispensing FEAR and embracing DARE to be motivating and doable! Best wishes as you prepare for your IGNITE talk. If you’d like to share, I welcome the opportunity to learn how things progress both in your preparation as well as the actual event!

  • Betsy Blakney says:

    I decided to read The Confidence Gap to learn ways to overcome the anxiety I experience when speaking in a public forum to large groups of my peers. I was most surprised to learn about ACT – a term I was not familiar with even though I follow a number of individuals who coach mindfulness as a strategy to reduce stress. Rules 7 and 9 were the lightening rod for me. By fully engaging in the process, I can shift from more of a goal-focused outcome to a values-focused outcome. While reading this book, I always felt as if Harris was speaking directly to me. His examples were realistic and personal. His advice dispensed in easily formed and memorable acronyms. In preparation for my annual professional conference next year, I will dispense of FEAR and embrace DARE to experience a successful IGNITE talk.

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