The confidence code

The confidence code

The confidence code by Kitty Kay and Claire Shipman is a fantastic book, which examines both confidence in general and nature and nurture differences in confidence between men and women.

The problem they set out is that there is strong evidence that confidence is more important than ability in getting ahead. This is clearly not great news if you’ve spent your whole life striving towards competence. It turns out, as one chapter is called, ‘it’s not enough to be good’.

They define confidence as the purity of action produced by a mind free of doubt, where there is no holding back, being fragmented or divided – you are simply going towards what’s happening. The overarching messages of the book is ‘think less, take action, be authentic’. Confidence is linked to doing and it’s all about taking action, being bold and taking decisions, whilst being comfortable and honest. ‘Do more, think less’ is another great chapter title.

They also explore what stops people taking action and argue that a fear of failure leads to inaction, in turn guaranteeing failure. But confidence keeps accumulating as you take action, even through failure, whilst mastering one thing gives you the confidence to try something else. What’s empowering about reading this is that the authors point out that confidence is a choice we can all make to act and decide. So, when in doubt, act. Even wrong decisions are usually better than inaction. Taking a big risk and surviving can be life changing, whilst in contrast thinking harder and harder about something freezes decision making and action, and means you become unable to trust your instincts.

I was also fascinated by the chapter on the importance of three neurotransmitters in confidence generation: serotonin, oxytocin ad dopamine. Serotonin inhibits anxiety and sets the stage for confidence, oxytocin is heavily tied to confidence and optimism (you get it from hugs and exercise amongst other things), whilst dopamine inspires doing and exploring. There were also some great general tips about how to increase confidence, with sleep and meditation being up there as usual.

The part of the book that explores gender differences in confidence is also fascinating. They point out that as children, girls are rewarded for being good – and then begin to crave the approval they get. But after leaving the classroom the rules change, and women are not rewarded for the same things in the world of work as they were at school. Confidence dependent on other people’s praise is also a lot more vulnerable than confidence built on your own achievements. It’s interesting that girls who play team sports do better. Learning to own victory and defeat in sport is a useful lesson for owning triumphs and setbacks at work.

There are some incredibly interesting interviews with women in positions of power (Christine Lagarde admits to over-preparing for everything for instance). These highlight how the propensity to dwell on failure and mistakes, overthinking, obsessing about performance in different roles, people pleasing and self-doubt are all confidence blacklist traits, and a waste of time and energy. They are the opposite of taking action. They also point out the importance of women practicing physical power positions (sitting up straight and owning your space for a start), and not making comments sound like questions. These women also show that you can be natural and authentic and confident. Expressing some vulnerability connects you to others. And confidence plus collaboration is a powerful force.

Anyone who is interested in how to instil confidence in themselves or others should read this book.