Choose Courage Over Confidence

Have you ever shied away from taking on a role or opportunity because you didn’t feel confident enough? Perhaps your inner critic told you that you weren’t yet ready, weren’t capable enough or didn’t have enough experience. Perhaps the voice in your head asked, “Why me?”


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SUMMARY. Self-doubt is a pervasive and often paralyzing concern, and research has repeatedly shown that it can impact women more than men. So what makes high-achievers power through their self-doubt? According to the author’s research, they focus on building up their courage, not their confidence. She offers three strategies to help take bold actions in the face of self-doubt and fear:

  1. Don’t underestimate the impact of small, yet significant, acts of courage;
  2. Practice courageous acts in all areas of your life; and
  3. Try again tomorrow.

If you can relate, you’re among the majority of women with whom I’ve worked. I recently asked more than 120 women, from areas including the U.S., U.K., Australia, Georgia, Italy, India, Jamaica and Bermuda: If you’ve ever avoided risks, what factors and reasons contributed to this? More than 70% reported that self-doubt, or not having enough belief in themselves, their capabilities or their skills, was a driving factor.

As one high-profile executive told me: “Every day I doubt myself. I doubt that I am good enough to be where I am.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We know self-doubt is a pervasive and often paralyzing concern, particularly for women. A study by psychologists at Cornell and Washington State highlighted higher levels of self-doubt in women. Research has also shown that women will apply for a job only if they meet all of the qualifications, while men will apply when they fulfill only 60%. Another recent study identified a substantial gender gap when it comes to self-promotion, with women systematically providing less favorable assessments of their own past performance and potential future ability. Ultimately, men take more chances on themselves, and that pays dividends in the long run.

FOCUS ON COURAGE, NOT CONFIDENCE

While this pattern of self-doubt emerged again and again in studies, my interactions and my client work, I also noticed another commonality: These women’s self-doubts weren’t sabotaging their success. The vast majority of successful women leaders I’ve interviewed and coached have built vibrant and fulfilling careers even while facing self-doubt.

What these women also had in common is courage in the absence of confidence — a trait that is often weaponized against women and used to explain why they fail to achieve career goals. My work has found that successful women take decisive action to move forward even while grappling with fears and doubts and questioning their own “readiness.”

“As women, we often feel like we have to be 100% ready in order to move forward. But, if you are 50% or 75% there, jump. Just do it,” said Megan Costello, former executive director of the Boston Mayor’s Office for Women’s Advancement.

An added bonus? Confidence is the byproduct of courage. The executives I’ve spoken with shared that with each challenge accepted and conquered, they gained confidence.

By refocusing our internal narratives on courage instead of confidence, women can take bold actions in the face of self-doubt and fear. Here are three strategies to get you started.

1. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPACT OF SMALL, YET SIGNIFICANT, ACTS OF COURAGE.

Micro acts of courage — seemingly small-scale acts that have incremental impacts over time and long-term returns — are key to unlocking a courageous mindset.

Early in her career at Unilever, Leena Nair often found herself in rooms with few other women, where it felt intimidating to speak up. She came up with a method to encourage her own micro acts of courage. “I used to have a little book in which every time I spoke up, I would draw a star,” she told me during our discussion at the Global Unilever Headquarters in London. “If I opened my mouth five times, then I would draw five stars. If I made a point that really resonated, I gave myself double stars. By doing this, I kept myself accountable.” These micro acts led to long-term rewards — Nair rose to become the first female, first Asian and youngest-ever chief human resources officer of Unilever, and then went on to become CEO of Chanel.

Courage begets courage. It’s a muscle that gets stronger each time you use it, no matter how small the act.

2. PRACTICE COURAGEOUS ACTS IN ALL AREAS OF YOUR LIFE.

Nervous to start in your working environment? Start with courageous acts outside work. Courage is a transferable mindset that then permeates all aspects of your life.

One woman with whom I worked made a goal of going on a dinner or date or lunch with someone new every week so that she could expand her friendships and dating prospects in a new city, while becoming more connected. Others will go out of their comfort zone and join a gym or fitness class that they previously would have shied away from. Others started saying no more often and protecting time for themselves, rather than trying to please others.

Diversity, equity and inclusion executive Karen Brown shared that she pushes herself outside of her comfort zone in her personal life by “constantly stretching myself to learn, especially that which is unfamiliar to me. This could range from traveling to countries with cultures that are completely opposite of what I’m accustomed to, attending an event, listening to and/or reading content outside my area of expertise.”

3. TRY AGAIN TOMORROW.

A strategy used by Dr. Elizabeth O’Day, who founded Olaris, Inc., a precision diagnostics company working to change how diseases are treated, is to continue to make a daily commitment to going beyond her comfort zone, even when met with resistance. Now in her 30s, O’Day serves as the company’s CEO, co-chairs the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Biotechnology and is a member of Scientific American’s steering committee for the publication’s “Top 10 Emerging Technologies.” However, her impressive résumé doesn’t tell the full story of the challenges she has overcome.

“Every day as a young female scientist CEO in biotech, there are challenges, and it takes a lot of courage to face these challenges,” she said. When her company was in the startup phase, O’Day often faced investors who would ask “ridiculous or sometimes insulting” questions, and even challenge her expertise and achievements. “Every time that I was asked to derive mathematical equations or list a dozen metabolic pathways and their links to disease, I would do it without error. Yet, rarely did it translate into the investment that I was seeing male counterparts with far less data or degrees receive.” O’Day’s experience tracks with the numerous studies showing that women receive more scrutiny, including doubt-generating statements, than their male counterparts.

Does O’Day always feel confident? No. As she shares, “I often remember the quote by Mary Anne Radmacher, ‘Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow.’”

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As Anaïs Nin, a 20th century French-Cuban-American diarist and writer, said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Your career is no different. It’s time to refocus your efforts from seeking an elusive feeling of confidence to taking decisive action with courage.

c.2022 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

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