by Mina Simhai

You know her when you see her. The woman who walks with authority. She talks, people listen. She listens, people talk. She cares more about being respected than being liked, and isn’t afraid to take an unpopular stance. No, she’s not Wonder Woman (although she’s no stranger to everyday heroics). She is simply confident.

Confidence, like happiness, has a genetic component. Researchers find a 25 to 50 percent correlation between genes and confidence, according to Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, in their book The Confidence Code. That means that 50 to 75 percent of our confidence results from our environment and behaviors. How do we maximize that? Turns out that looking in the mirror and saying “I am awesome!” won’t get you there (that strategy could actually backfire). Like the pursuit of happiness, there are no shortcuts. We build confidence through hard work, mastery, and failing fast.

Hard work. There’s no substitute for action. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches the five-minute take-off: If you’re facing a difficult task, start by doing it for five minutes. Just getting started can be daunting and, when we clear this initial hurdle, we often find flow in our work. Overthinking and ruminating erode confidence. Take it from Nike: “Just do it.”

Mastery. Mastery combines process and progress. In the words of Shipman and Kay, “It is about work, and learning to develop an appetite for challenge.” I might never be a world-class pastry chef, but I can figure out how to make my son a monster truck birthday cake. And that success can be contagious; at work, I might volunteer for a new project I’m interested in that’s outside my comfort zone. My kids might see the cake and be inspired to try something new and challenging. In these ways, mastery builds our confidence and inspires us and those who observe us to take more risks.

Failing fast. Tal teaches the maxim, “Learn to fail or fail to learn.” When we take risks, we inevitably fail sometimes. If we don’t make mistakes, we’re not stretching ourselves. Failure builds resilience. Through failure, we learn to pick ourselves up and try again. In America, we call this “grit”; in Japanese, it’s “gaman.” If we don’t give ourselves and our children a chance to fail at the little things, we will be unprepared when we fail at the big things: like getting an F on a college exam, getting laid off, losing a big client, getting divorced. Adopting a growth mindset helps us fail more gracefully, because we realize it’s not a question of being born with talent; success hinges on our efforts.

What about the “fast” part? Failing fast means failing early in the process, before we’ve invested too much. When we fail fast, we free up time for our best ideas, for mastery. By failing fast, we accumulate lots of little failures rather than one big debacle. We stop ruminating and start acting.

And one more thing: Ladies, we don’t need to pretend to be men to become more confident. I remember a conversation with a female friend who heads up global sales for a huge international company. She said she “feels like a man in a dress” at work. I often felt the same way as a lawyer at Skadden Arps. I even developed a “don’t mess with me” voice to use when answering my phone. To my ears, I sounded competent and confident, commanding respect and discouraging rude behavior from opposing counsel. I also didn’t sound like Mina. I’ve learned from The Confidence Code that we don’t need to pretend to be men in order to succeed. We need to be ourselves, our female selves. Shipman and Kay cite studies showing companies that employ large numbers of women are more profitable than their competitors. According to recent research from Stanford University, female members of Congress pass more legislation than their male counterparts, and reach across the aisle more often.

Finally, remember this: Perfectionism erodes confidence. If we hide things in our bottom drawer until they’re perfect, so many great projects never see the light of day. Building confidence means putting ourselves out there, even when we don’t have all the answers. If we wait until we’re perfect, we’ve missed so many opportunities—opportunities men are more likely to snag, not because they’re more competent, but because they’re more confident. Shipman and Kay’s review of HP personnel files showed women applied for promotions only when they met 100 percent of the criteria, while men applied when they met only 50 percent.

So, ladies, say it like you mean it! Let go of perfectionism and throw your hat in the ring. Join us for a lively discussion of The Confidence Code on Tuesday, September 8, at 7:30 pm EST, or join our online discussion here.

Conference call dial-in: 323-476-3997
Conference ID: 218555#
For International dial-in numbers click here.

Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and currently serves as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is a recovering lawyer turned yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.