Just Leap!

“With confidence, you have won before you have started.”
Marcus Garvey

I’ve been thinking a lot about confidence this week: what it is, whether I have enough of it, and to what extent it is a cause of inequality between men and women in the work place. Confidence will be a key theme in my #WomenEd Unconference talk on 3rd October. This morning I read three different articles on the subject of confidence. There was an editorial by Ann Mroz in today’s TES, urging women to speak out more about how brilliant they are. There was this piece from The Harvard Business Review, which was fascinating about the character traits associated with excessive confidence (although unnecessarily rude in its title). And there was this piece from The Atlantic, in which women’s lack of confidence was identified as a barrier to their success.

“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”
Mahatma Gandhi

My feeling is that there are two different kinds of confidence. First, there is the confidence that sits inside you – the confidence that says ‘yes, this is what I believe’ or ‘yes, I am good at this’ or ‘yes, I have the right to say what I think’. To build this kind of confidence, you must get very good at not caring what other people say to you, or about you. When people are rude about you (which they will be if you are in the public eye), this confidence is the voice in your head that says: “I think you are mistaking me for someone who gives a s**t.” It is not that you do not care what other people think about you or your ideas – of course you do. It is not that you think you are always right, or that you are better than everyone else – of course you don’t. It is simply that you refuse to let other people damage your confidence in yourself. You do not give them permission to bring you down.

“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
Muhammad Ali

And then there is the other kind of confidence – the confidence that shouts “look at me and how great I am!”. This is the confidence that (according to these articles) men are good at, and women need to do more of to have a fair chance of success. This kind of confidence can be an outward manifestation of self belief, although ironically it can also be a symptom of a lack of it. This confidence allows you to retweet compliments, or to share great reviews of your books, which is all good (although which can get distasteful if you do too much of it). This confidence is important in getting your work noticed, but beware of the danger of believing in your own publicity (see Michael Wilshaw as a handy example). There is a tricky balance to be found, I think, between telling people how great you are to sell your stuff, and accidentally getting “too up yourself” as you do it. Let positive word of mouth do most of the work for you, or you risk alienating as many people as you win over.

You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you
if you realised how seldom they do.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

Interestingly, both kinds of confidence are crucial when you are an author. Writing is a supreme act of confidence and self belief. You have to believe that people will want to read what you write. You must also be willing to talk about your own work, because otherwise your books will not get noticed in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Both types of confidence are also vital in teaching – you have to believe in your ability to make the right decisions about what is best for your children, and you have to look confident in what you are doing as well. If you get this right, your children will feel confident in your presence. One of the very first questions I ask when I am giving talks on behaviour management is: “Do I come across as confident?” My next question is “Why?” (Remember that confidence is always at least partly a bluff – very few people truly believe they are brilliant.)

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”
Mark Twain

When women see men constantly referred to as ‘experts’, and when male names dominate the discourse (as they do in both writing and education), this may put women off from entering the arena. If women always see a majority of men picked as ‘the right person for the job‘ then it is going to take courage and self belief to put themselves forwards. Perhaps the route to equitable representation doesn’t actually lie in asking women to behave more like men, and insisting that they develop the kind of brash, shouty confidence Ann Mroz describes in her editorial. Maybe it lies more in thinking about how we can boost women’s confidence, and help them deal with those things that might dent it.

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself.
There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative

and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.
So what the hell, leap.”
Cynthia Heimel

The title of my #WomenEd keynote comes from something that my best friend once said to me, after she went on a course about leadership. (My friend runs a multi million pound Clinical Research Unit, so it seems like she’s doing okay to me.) Anyway, the course leader had said to her: “What would you do today if you were ten per cent braver?”. And that, for me, has always been the secret of success. Not to shout about how great I am. Nor to spend my life in a state of self doubt. But to stop caring what other people say about me. And (what the hell) to just leap!

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5 Responses to Just Leap!

  1. nancy says:

    I think you have put your finger on much of the problem I have in this area – I don’t want to be just another one just the same. In my view, the way to a more successful life for women, in society generally, not just teaching, although schools illustrate the concept nicely, is for the public world, the world of work, to do a lot more admitting that the private world exists. Working, and career success as it stands, only really works in terms of families, if one partner takes on the majority of running the household. If it is shared – and employers need to do that sharing – then there is more room for both male and female to make changes.
    Part time working – that’s the theme of my workshop. How do we manage that best? How?

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  2. jillberry102 says:

    Only just catching up with this, Sue. As ever, you’ve made me think.

    I have to say it can be hard to adopt the ‘I don’t care what people think of me/say about me’ approach. I don’t think it’s something I’ve ever mastered, though I’ve got better at bouncing back and not hugging the pain to myself if others are critical and I feel the criticism is unfair. I see sensitivity as a strength, but also think we need to build our resilience, and I think assertiveness is important.

    BUT I would describe myself as confident, and part of that, to me, is feeling comfortable within my own skin. What do you think about that as an aspect of confidence?

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    • suecowley says:

      Hi Jill, yes I think sensitivity is a strength, but I think if you are high profile in the online world, it is inevitable that you will end up with some people being rude to you. (Or maybe I just attract them for some reason!) For me I think it is more about not allowing rudeness to derail my confidence, rather than about ‘not caring’ in the sense that I don’t reflect on criticism. It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with myself the way I am, and I think you’re right, that is one of the keys to being confident. Thank you for your comment, as always. 🙂

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  3. jillberry102 says:

    It also depends how courageous you are about speaking your mind, Sue, and I think you are particularly brave. I am less so!

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