I’m not fierce: Confessions of a confidence coach

I like to own the stage. I channel my inner showman and turn on the razzle-dazzle. I’m often really just one jazz-hand number away from selling tickets. And, inevitably, whether in a public arena where I’m keynoting about leadership and confidence or in a quiet coffee meeting doling out some mentoring advice, that stage persona always leads to the same question.

“When did you become so fierce?”

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To be fair, I’m not always called fierce. Sometimes, it’s “bold.” Other times, it’s “strong.” Most often, it’s variations on “daring” or “brave” or “confident.”

But, here’s my dirty little secret: I’m none of these things, and I’m especially not fierce. But, I know how to play fierce on TV.

So, what’s the difference? You see, fierce is not my fundamental state. Don’t get me wrong; I am THE friend you want in the foxhole. As a team member of mine, I will fight for and with you as if you were my own flesh and blood. But, fierce connotes a level of confidence that the flesh-covered bag of insecurities I call my psyche does not even remotely recognize. I was never that girl growing up, and vestiges of that social awkwardness and self-doubt still feel relatively close to the surface to me. And therein lies the difference between perception and reality.

Confidence: Perception Versus Reality

There is a funny thing about confidence: sometimes the people who look like they have the most actually have the least. And, none of it matters.

It is an unrepentant truism that everyone around you rates your level of organized fierceness not through the lens of your reality, but through the lens of their own. We perceive others to be better than us simply because our lives are not all they can be. We judge our bloopers by everyone else’s highlight reels

For me, it’s not confidence that has fueled my success, but optimism, romanticism, idealism. What most people see as confidence is just those things disguised as forward motion, action, and determination.

Competence Leads to Confidence

You see, I’m a hopeless optimist, a romancer of dreams, and an idealist extraordinaire. It’s not that I do big things because I am certain that I am someone who can. I do big things because I desperately want to imagine that I am someone who has. I can visualize the finish line, taste the victory, savor the success, feel the crown atop my head, but I truly have no idea whether or not I’m going to fail miserably at the start. If I waited until I believed I could do anything for certain, the only thing I would do for certain is nothing at all.

It goes against every central tenet of every confidence coach you’ve ever heard, I know. They all say, “Believe that you can, and then you will!” I think that’s bunk. Sure, there is a role for visualization — see: my romantic visions of, well, everything in life — but I’d rather have you just do the thing whether you believe it or not.

It’s not “Dream then do!” but “Do then dream!” It is through doing it, that you start believing it. Sometimes it just takes one foot in front of the other, over and over, lather, rinse, repeat, to strip away your self-doubts and remind you of what’s inside. It is through the doing – the demonstration of competence – that you will find your confidence.

Embracing Failure

Be forewarned: along this path lies certain failure. But, failure isn’t the finale, it’s a fulcrum. Unless you “fake it ’til ya make it,” in which case, it only leads nowhere.

The fear of failure limits our ability to get ourselves right, to determine who we are when we are at our very best—to groove the pattern as a leader when we are that best self. But, if we try to prevent failure by acting like we know what we’re doing, we will groove that pattern instead of acting like we know what we are doing.

You may think that if you keep faking it, you can never fail. But this setup builds a house on a false foundation of confidence that isn’t based on competence. It forces you to speak using other people’s voices and to act using other people’s mannerisms. You try to control for everything and end up controlling nothing. Rather than holding more tightly to the reins, you need to allow space for trying out new things, for failure and feedback.

A Magic Shortcut

Of course, that all takes time. And how to do we get bold, get fierce, get confident while we are working hard to develop that competence? Turn the lens onto others.

If I’ve learned one thing along the way, it’s this: making others great makes you great. When people approach you with certainty that you are more amazing than you might believe, rather than deflect, demur, deconstruct, tell them something about them that makes them special. Simply put: if someone thinks you are great, and you tell them they are great, they will become great. Greatness compounds.

So, you want to become more bold, fierce, more confident as you develop your own competence? Go make people great.

Laura Gassner Otting is the author of Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life. Want to live a limitless life? Take her quick quiz at http://www.LimitlessAssessment.com to see what’s holding you back, and what you can do about it.

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