Imagine for a second having all the material success you've always dreamt of. You have a career full of accomplishments, you live in the house you've always pictured, and you have the respect and admiration of your peers, colleagues and friends.
In other words, you'd be wildly confident in yourself right?
Well, not exactly... While we all picture the time in the future where we will "arrive" at our most confident selves, the reality is that's not really how confidence works.
Success is not a guarantee of confidence. It's also not a prerequisite to having confidence. You know what is?
In my work with athletes, it's easy to look at the ones that have been successful and see confidence. What is less obvious is that unless that confidence has come from failure, it's not really sustainable. It's what I like to call surface confidence.
Let's look at two athletes I've worked with to show what I mean:
She is the best player on every team she has been on and usually heads and shoulders above the competition. On the playing field, things look easy for her. She's also good looking, with the body to match. From the outside, she may be the girl that everyone wants to be friends with despite their jealousy. She seems to have it all and each victory or success seems to make her more confident.
She is middle of the pack as far as talent and results but she has worked her way up to that through a lot of adversity, determination and failure. She's not particularly "special" in any obvious way except that she is a hard worker and always willing to step up and do what needs to be done.
On paper, it's pretty obvious that Athlete A is not set up to handle true adversity and thereby develop deep-seeded confidence, while Athlete B seems to be laying a foundation of true belief in herself. But that's not often what we choose to see in our lives. We all have an Athlete A in our life that we assume has this confidence thing figured out, while we feel sorry for ourselves because we think of ourselves as Athlete B -- working hard but, let's be honest, pretty average.
But often what is missing for the Athlete A's of the world is failure, the surprising but necessary building block to confidence. And there is no way around it folks, true confidence comes from taking risks and failing.
Now, obviously too much failure is a confidence killer. But an appropriate amount is an important aspect to developing to true confidence and one that we'd be smart to pay attention to and embrace.
When we haven't learned to fail, we try to avoid it by not taking risks. Avoiding risks means hesitation and thinking too much which then leads to less action. When we don't take action, confidence doesn't have the chance to develop.
In other words, we learn to live our lives scared. Which sounds really bad when you say it out loud but is in fact super easy to slip into without realizing it. Even easier to do is realizing you are living scared but justifying it. In fact, most of us have become masters at this. Here's how is starts:
I'll do__________ (start a business, have a real relationship, take that trip I've always wanted to take, write the book, etc.), when _________. Then we fill in the blank with things that sounds pretty logical at first glance. Things like...
1. I get older (and presumably have more money -- problem is you don't necessarily EVER get more money -- at least not if you plan on having kids or a house or a car!)
2. I have more freedom (on what planet does that happen as you get older?)
3. And I have more tolerance for risk because I'll have more of a safety net (oh the safety net! aka "having more to lose")
See how logical that sounds at first glance? So like I said, this playing it safe deal is easy to get into it. In fact, in my experience, It takes effort to avoid it. So here a my go-tos for kicking my own ass into taking risks and embracing failure in my life:
Go-to #1: Reframe it
Like most things regarding failure, it's easier said than done, but I really, really try to reframe failure into an opportunity for growth. After all, as the overused motivational quote from Michael Jordan says, "you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take." And more poignantly, if you aren't failing AT ALL, you cannot possibly be pushing yourself. Failure IS a part of growth and confidence. You cannot get to true confidence unscathed and without some battle wounds.
Go-to #2: Avoid avoidance:
I've noticed in my own life, the danger is not in failing, it's the anticipation of failure, and even more specifically the things we aren't even aware of that we are anticipating might be risky. It's the places in our life we don't even know that we are avoiding failure. Whether it's the networking event we aren't going to, the phone call we aren't making, the "ask" that we aren't asking when we have the opportunity, or the presentation we avoid giving (or secretly hope gets cancelled and not rescheduled).
Go-to #3: Get some support
About a month ago, I was stressed about my career and called my best friend for a cathartic bitching session about how hard things are. She listened and then promptly reminded me of how brave I've been in starting my own business and how proud I should be to have willingly embraced challenges (yes, she's awesome). We all need people around us to celebrate our risk taking when we cannot.
Go-to #4: Pay attention to your words
I'm a big believer in the power of self-talk. I think it's one of the most powerful and often underutilized tools we have at our disposal. The language you use in and around failure and risk is super important. Statements like "I'm not good enough to_____" are insidious and limiting while creating power statements that focus on growth can give you the strength and desire to seek out and embrace risk. Never underestimate the power of reminding yourself that you are in fact, pretty awesome. "You are courageous." "You take on challenges head first." These are not cheesy mantras; they are powerful statements that can keep you motivated when things get tough.
By the way, I'm a strong, powerful, courageous entrepreneur. (see how I did that?)
Go-to #5: Practice Self-Compassion
At the end of the day, celebrate that you are a good person, doing the best that you can, trying to grow and improve. Remind yourself that you are a constantly evolving being. The only real failure is giving up on yourself and the journey to becoming a better you. Failing should never touch the core of who you are. Ever. It can be painful, that's part of really trying for something. If it didn't hurt, you probably didn't really care enough. But you as a person, are not defined by your actions, but by your intentions.
Go-to #6: Perfectionism is the devil
In other words, great is the enemy of good. And I know because I'm a recovering perfectionist. While no one expects you to relax your high standards, the ideal of perfection is elusive, often impossible, and creates more fear than it's worth. If this is your goal, you are going to fail often and it will get old. While we want some failure, failing every time because nothing is ever good enough will never get you motivated to try much of anything at all.
There is nothing more limiting that expecting perfection.
So there you have it, embrace failure, celebrate risk and live a bold life. And when you fail at doing that, know that that's part of the journey as well. As a wise coach once told me as I cried after a loss: Play so hard to win, that it hurts so bad to lose. May all of us care so much about something that it hurts to fail. But then? Pick yourself up and get on with it.