What are you good at? Singing? Cooking? Leading a team? Empathy? Maths? Design? Running?
How about confidence? You good at confidence?
See, the real truth about confidence is that it’s a skill, and just like any other skill you can learn it.
By the time you turn three years old and you’re feeding your toys into household appliances, your brain has around 100 billion neurons – these are the doing cells in the brain. Each of these neurons is connected to around 15 thousand other neurons, and it’s this network that allows you to think.
These synapses connect together to form circuits of wiring, patterns of thought that your brain uses to “do stuff” (that’s the technical term for it). This is your grey matter, and new connections are formed in your grey matter whenever you learn something new, see something in a new way or acknowledge or understand something.
This is all learning is – building new connections that allow your brain to process things in new ways.
Just like any other skill, self-confidence is a pattern of thought wired into your brain; a circuit that gets triggered when it’s needed. If your self-confidence pattern isn’t used much or isn’t efficient at getting a result, learning is what enables a new, more effective self-confidence circuit to be built.
And like any learning process it feels awkward and deliberate at first, simply because your brain doesn’t have an efficient circuit yet. It’s like learning to juggle – tough at first, but you get better.
Which brings us onto what gets you to Carnegie Hall…
It’s been shown that through practice the density of grey matter in the brain increases. Taxi drivers in London, for example, are required to learn and pass a test called “The Knowledge”, a notoriously difficult test that demands learning every street in London (although somehow my cab driver always seems to be the one who skipped lessons). The posterior hippocampus (I’m pointing to the lower central bit of my head now, see?) in London cabbies is bigger and denser than in you or me, simply because their brain has adapted and grown in response to the need.
So practice builds grey matter in the parts of the brain where it’s needed, but new research shows that white matter increases with practice too. A fat called myelin is produced in your brain when you practice something deeply, as author and thoroughly nice guy Daniel Coyle describes in detail in the brilliant “The Talent Code”.
Myelin insulates these circuits from signal loss, supporting the ability of these circuits to fire at maximum speed and ensuring that whatever skills you’re practicing work as efficiently and effectively as they possibly can
Your circuits, self-confidence included, are just like muscles – the more you use them in the right ways the bigger and more effective they get. The less you use them, the smaller and less effective they get. Practice is what makes the difference.
Confidence Gets in the Way
Okay, so that’s the science bit. The reason I’m telling you all this is because I’ve seen that even though someone can be really bloody good at something, their lack of confidence stops them from using a skill or from practicing. An insufficiently developed self-confidence circuit means 3 things:
- It’s harder to practice the skill of confidence because you’re not confident enough to practice.
- A poorly developed or inefficient self-confidence circuit makes it harder to practice other skills that require self-confidence to pursue.
- Circuits that aren’t fired due to a lack of self-confidence will not get used as frequently and will fall into disrepair.
So I began to see confidence as something that gets in the way of firing other circuits – it can stop the circuit of another skill firing, and it can even default to a different, tried and trusted circuit to fire in its place.
If you lack confidence that you can build a business, for example, then you might not entertain the idea of becoming self-employed. You might fire a pattern of thinking that says it’s best for you to stay in a job you don’t like because there’s more security and it doesn’t require you to have a more developed confidence circuit.
If you’re not feeling confident enough to go on that date you might turn someone down unnecessarily or you won’t ask out that guy or girl you’ve met. Even though you’re normally sociable, you might even “choose” to avoid certain social situations or to retreat into yourself.
This is all your brain selecting circuits based on what it knows to work, and I think that that self-confidence acts like a meta-circuit – if it isn’t fired then it short-circuits any subsequent firing mechanism.
You end up not feeling confident and not following through.
I wanted to bounce this off someone, so I emailed Daniel Coyle and asked him.
What Daniel Coyle said
“I think you’re right to think of it as a meta-circuit — and also one that gets built from the earliest ages — and thus would be immune to quick fixes. So while it grows exactly like a skill, it’s also pretty well wired in so that it’s easy to fall into old patterns. One neurologist I spoke with compared existing behavioral patterns like sled tracks on a snowy hill — the more you behave in a certain way, the more likely your sled is to fall into those tracks. So that “backsliding” moment you’re speaking of — when someone seems to have it, but still falls into old patterns of non-confidence — would be expected. Even if they’ve worked with you for a year, they’ve still got decades of “non-confidence” circuitry that’s fast, fluent, and ready to fire.
So the question becomes, how do you stop that from happening? How do you demarcate old and new?
The places that seem to have the most success in these areas (that I visited) are good at demarcating the old and the new (places like KIPP and the Shyness Clinic), they use a cohesive suite of cues and signals to help create a new persona — and by your website, you’re doing some of the same things. Also, it seems that playing up the difficulty and arduousness of this can have a good effect — it cures people of thinking there’s a quick fix and allows them to see the truth — this does take time. It’s exactly like a gym workout — and you’re training people to run a marathon, not giving them a one-minute makeover.”
I don’t believe that it’s necessary to create a “new persona” – it’s a case of creating a new way of thinking – and so the separation of old and new is something that’s very central to how I work. (This pleases me, because I hadn’t thought about it before Daniel mentioned it.)
Daniel’s also right in saying that it’s hard. It’s hard to leave behind years of efficient (if ill-serving) wiring and risk going into the unknown, just like it’s harder to run a marathon than it is to stroll down the street.
The real truth about confidence is that it requires you to make a choice based on your potential to learn and practice rather than your existing boundaries.