Unpacking the Confidence Code, Part 3 – Defining Confidence

Much of the research done by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the authors of The Confidence Code, had one unexpectedly complex goal: find a simple definition of confidence. The journey was much more involved than they originally envisioned, and they learned a lot about what confidence is–and isn’t–along the way.

Confidence, the authors say, is unlike many other traits. This idea is established in the first paragraph of the book’s introduction:

If you ask scientists and academics, as we did, how optimism is defined, you’ll get a fairly consistent answer. The same goes for happiness and many other basic psychological qualities; […] But the same doesn’t hold, we discovered, for confidence. It is altogether a more enigmatic quality, and what we learned about it is not at all what we expected when we set out to discover its nature.

The next eight chapters of the book dive into the different factors that make up or influence confidence. All of the research presented by Kay and Shipman drives the book towards its final conclusion: a simple definition of confidence. What they came up with is less like a formal definition and more like a set of guidelines:

Think Less. Take Action. Be Authentic.

The idea is that if you can “get out of your head” and not let your apprehensions hold you back from taking risks, you may see some very beneficial results. But it’s not enough to just start doing. The authors point out that remaining genuine to yourself is just as important. “Fake it ’til you make it” strategies have their place in some circumstances, but the authors are not encouraging forced or insincere tactics.

Personal Meaning of Confidence

Kay and Shipman spent a lot of time researching and explaining the many factors that contribute to confidence. But we were curious: What did confidence mean to each of us in the book club? Many of the responses we got alluded to the three main points of the book’s definition.

Confidence means knowing who I am as a person, what my values are, what I do and do not support, and unwaveringly remaining dedicated to those standards. It also means being comfortable with being uncomfortable—being willing to push myself out of my comfort zone to achieve my goals.
– Sarah Brockett

Confidence means having the courage to act, even if you don’t have all of the facts, or don’t feel 100% equipped to make the effort a success. Confidence is having faith in your ability to figure things out, learn on the fly, and make things work, even when circumstances aren’t quite ideal.
– Brittany Hunter

Confidence means being able to be comfortable with what I am capable of in a given situation. It doesn’t mean always knowing exactly what to say or do, but believing in myself to make the best decision for choices that pop up.
– Molly Alger

Some of these responses seemed to point to another sort of idea, which I interpret as the combination of both “Think Less” and “Take Action.” It’s “Trust Yourself.”

A Journey With Confidence

The fifth chapter of the book talks extensively about the role that nurturing, or the way you were raised, has in building confidence. While that specific topic will receive a more detailed post of its own later in this series, the theme of the chapter got us thinking: How has each of us experienced confidence throughout our lives?

We know what each participant thought about confidence; now it was time to learn more about their own confidence. Specifically, we wanted to know about their “confidence journeys.” Where did they begin, where are they now, and/or where are they going?

As a kid, sports introduced a big confidence lesson for me. I learned to trust that I could support my team, celebrate the wins, and move beyond the losses. What I took away from those trials changes with each phase and season of growth but the cycle is often the same.
– Taylor Vanden Hoek

I grew up doing many activities that put me in the spotlight: swimming, theater, and choir to name a few. I’ve never had a problem with public speaking and I love the thrill of competition. Despite this, I still struggle with confidence in myself and my abilities from time to time. There are times I get in my own head and tell myself that I lack the experience or I’m not doing enough to succeed. It can be difficult to overcome these feelings, but it’s something I consciously try to work on every day by improving my skill set, both technical skills and soft skills.
– Molly Alger

As a kid, I was incredibly shy and had very little confidence. I was afraid to order my own food at restaurants, and making phone calls terrified me. I slowly got more comfortable with facing my fears, though. I put myself out there by playing sports and competing in horse shows. Now, I go out of my way to do things that scare me. Because I am constantly challenging myself to get better at many things, I know will gain more confidence as I progress through life.
– Sarah Brockett

When I started at Atomic, I was very scared and had a sort of negative-confidence (e.g., “Of course, I can’t do this”). Slowly, with guidance from mentors and teammates, I found small success after small success and started to internalize those successes. Building that confidence helped me resolve some of the self-esteem and anxiety issues that I used to have. Now I’m exploring the idea of confidence as a tool. I’ve noticed that my performance and speed are improving quickly now that I’m thinking, “What do I need to do to solve this problem?” rather than wasting time on, “I can’t solve this problem.”
– Rachael McQuater

It’s clear that everyone’s story is unique, though there were some common elements. Sports and other extracurricular activities, for example, seemed to be a way for people to practice confidence early in life. Others may not have had those same experiences, but have found other ways in their adult lives to practice building confidence.

There was one thing that was in every single response, however: everyone is still working to improve their confidence. None of us claim to have found the magic spell to be 100% confident at all times. So it seems that, even for those who transitioned into adulthood with a lot of opportunity to build confidence, it is still a skill that can be learned and practiced.

Confidence & You

Now that you know what confidence means to us, we’d like to hear what it means to you. Is your interpretation of confidence similar to the “Think Less. Take Action. Be Authentic.” model presented by the authors? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or you can use the #confidencecode hashtag to join in the conversation via your own blog or social media platform. We look forward to continuing this conversation with you!

This series explores The Confidence Code through reflections and stories from women at Atomic Object.

  1. Developing Confidence Together
  2. Exploring the Confdence Gap
  3. Defining Confidence
  4. Instilling Confidence in Others
  5. Growing in Confidence

We hope you’ll join us for the whole series.