If you’re working hard and taking chances in life, here’s an uncomfortable truth: You will fail from time to time, and certainly more than the average person. The cost of confronting your limitations, of course, is your sense of confidence, the one quality we need to succeed and risk losing when we fail. Understanding how to restore confidence when it dips is an essential skill, and it depends on three core components: attitude, knowledge and experience.
By working within those three domains, we can learn to rebuild and sustain confidence through its natural ebbs and flow. Adopting the powerful principle of “as if” and tending to our wounds helps us develop the attitude necessary for authentic confidence. Reframing our failures as growth opportunities allows us to expand the knowledge that underpins confidence. And refusing to quit while celebrating small wins feeds the life experience that underlies true and lasting confidence.
This constellation of capabilities — attitude, knowledge, and experience, which together make up AOC’s CAKE formula — is the formula for true and sustainable confidence. That’s what this article is about: How to restore your confidence when it takes a hit — in an authentic, meaningful, and lasting way.
Act “As If”
As with most cliches, “Fake it till you make it” has an inkling of truth to it. Sometimes, “faking” your way through an activity — which means going through the motions of life as a stepping stone to reengaging — turns an obstacle into a reality.
Author AJ Jacobs is a great example of that principle. In an old piece, he writes openly about working amidst his despair over a particularly heavy book project:
My solution? Deception. I tricked my brain. I’d force myself to act in an optimistic way…
And after a couple of hours, it worked. My mind would catch up with my actions. I would start to feel optimistic. It’s astounding how much the outer can affect the inner, how much behavior can affect your thoughts.
Research confirms Jacobs’ experience. A study from Harvard, published in Psychological Science, shows that body language can influence how confident you feel, as Amy Cuddy highlights in this TED talk. (Here’s a working copy of that paper.) As we teach here at AOC, the body follows the mind, and the mind follows the body.
In that view, confidence isn’t something we have, it’s something we do. Acting “as if” should never be a permanent solution to dips in confidence, but done right, it won’t need to be. Once we trick ourselves into going through the motions, our true selves — that is, our confident selves — take over. And that’s what restoring confidence looks like in action.
Tend to Your Wounds
True confidence isn’t about suppressing pain or pretending that failure doesn’t hurt. On the contrary: true confidence comes from accepting blows to our ego, allowing ourselves to acknowledge the associated feelings, and finding ways to stay in the game.
So an important component of restoring confidence is allowing ourselves the time and energy to tend to our wounds. We don’t need to dwell on them or give them more importance than they deserve (tending to your wounds can become a full-time job — and another seductive way to avoid action!), but we do need to acknowledge them in order to move forward. Remember, vulnerability is the most profound form of strength.
If your confidence has taken a hit, don’t expect the recovery to be instantaneous. A professional, personal, or creative setback will take time to properly process. Your wounds might not fully heal for some time (or ever, in some cases), but they will eventually become more bearable. More importantly, if you stay in the game, those wounds will morph into something more profound: a reminder that confidence, like a muscle, only grows through challenges. As Andrew Solomon helped us realize, the worst moments in our lives can make us who we are.
So how can you tend to your wounds and use them to restore confidence?
Spending time with loved ones is important. The people you care about can lend an ear and empathize when you need it most. Discussing your challenges and processing your feelings is a highly therapeutic process in the right company. Friends, accountability partners, family and significant others are excellent partners for that conversation.
Travel is also a powerful way to heal. Sometimes, getting out of your immediate surroundings (even for a day trip) will give you the space and clarity to reflect. It can also remind you how vast and exciting and significant the world is, which is easy to forget when your confidence dips.
Journaling is another important process. Self-reflection (in whatever form) gives us the time and perspective to process events as they unfold. Writing them down gives them a degree of objectivity and safety, and helps us realize that our wounds are not always as deep as they seem. Journaling also creates a record of your growth for you to revisit, so you can track your wins along the way. The entire process is both therapeutic and motivational.
But more important than how you heal is that you heal — that you allow yourself to authentically process your feelings, accept them, and forge ahead.
Remember: Tending to your wounds is a crucial step in restoring confidence, but it’s not an end in and of itself. Ignoring a blow to your confidence is just as dangerous as overindulging in self pity. Recognize the urge to either repress or sulk, which are really two different ways of avoiding action. (In fact, you can think of those two extremes as desirable forms of quitting!)
Like all good therapy, the goal here is to get back to the business of being you — to the process of building your confidence by checking in with yourself, staying in the game, reframing your setbacks, and remembering that beautiful paradox: that by risking your confidence out there in the world, you ultimately contribute to its growth.
Reframe Your Failure
There’s a famous story from IBM. An executive there once thought he was going to get fired after losing $10 million of the company’s money, only to have the CEO surprise him.
“Fired? Hell, I spent $10 million educating you. I just want to be sure you learned the right lessons.”
The price of failure is a lesson learned with pain. Perhaps you’ve been embarrassed, dumped, or fired. Maybe you’ve spoken out of turn or blown a deal. These setbacks can keep you on the sidelines, make you feel defeated, and brand you as a failure.
Or you can choose to see these moments as an opportunity to learn, become better, and rebuild for the future. That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. It just means that your “failure” isn’t the full story. The rest of the story is what you choose to learn and do by seeing the situation differently.
This technique is called reframing touched on previously), and this perceptual shift allows you transform the beliefs that don’t help you achieve your goals (called “unresourceful beliefs”) into ones that do, and create actionable steps to make change. Failure, as we’ve said, is inevitable. How you process those failures is up to you.
As interviewer Zane Lowe once said to Kanye West, “You win or you learn.” Through that lens, total failure — in which you gain nothing at all — is actually an illusion.
Make It Difficult to Quit
There are few things as immediately gratifying as quitting. When you quit a difficult project or avoid taking a risk, a sense of relief replaces a sense of dread. You don’t have to fight any longer. You don’t have to challenge your beliefs. You can rest. You can remain the same. You get to enjoy a temporary refuge from the stress, anxiety, and frustration of confronting your limitations. And let’s be honest: When you’re feeling unconfident, quitting often feels like the only viable option.
But quitting has long-term consequences that can far outweigh the immediate rewards. Sidestepping or shying away from an opportunity doesn’t remove your desire to grow; it only paints over it by postponing your discomfort. It also keeps you stationary and stagnant, and denies you the satisfaction of progress, which is the currency of confidence. True gratification doesn’t come from avoiding blows to your confidence, but from stick with the opportunities that challenge it. The key is to stay in the game.
That idea has kept some of the greatest artists and entrepreneurs alive and engaged with their work. As Woody Allen once told Marshall Brickman, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Simply being there is often the difference between unstoppable confidence and abject fear.
So how do you make it difficult to quit, when quitting seems like the only attractive option?
One solution is to use a simple accountability system that discourages you from dropping out. As Greek poet and soldier Archilochus once wrote, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” Making commitments to partners (on deadlines, deliverables or achievements) can create the accountability we need to stick with our projects.
Another accountability technique is to add stakes, like financial punishment, to your goals (by using services like Stickk.com). On the positive side, you can have friends keep you accountable, so that anytime you quit your social network will know. You’ll be surprised how far you’ll go to avoid social embarrassment or to honor a commitment to a friend. Many find the combination of negative and positive reinforcement insurmountable. They don’t quit because they can’t — which makes them realize that they ultimately don’t want to.
Which isn’t to say that quitting is always bad, or that shifts in strategy aren’t sometimes necessary. In fact, it takes intelligence and honesty to know when to move on from a project or change your goals. But it’s often our level of confidence that tells us when to quit and when to stick around. And making it difficult to drop out can create the conditions to remain connected to our confidence, even when it seems like we’re failing.
Build Momentum with Small Wins
Most of us think of confidence as an all-or-nothing proposition. We even talk about it that way: We say that someone has confidence or lost confidence. We rarely say that someone is nurturing or piecing together confidence. Even the phrase “building confidence” seems to suggest that there’s a lack of it to begin with. Like attractiveness, health and success, we tend to believe that people either have confidence or they don’t, which is an unfortunate myth.
The truth is that confidence is less like a switch you turn on and off, and more like something you build one brick at a time. As author and journalist Charles DuHigg quotes in his book, The Power of Habit:
“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
My first year in college was also the first year I’d lived away from home. My self control deteriorated quickly as I settled into my newfound freedom. I was having a great time, except for one thing: I had barely scraped by my midterms. At this rate I was going to flunk out of my program and return home devastated. I was screwed. My confidence was shot. If I couldn’t even meet my program’s scores, how was I supposed to land my dream job?
Things only got worse as final exams loomed. My procrastination was increasing, since I saw no point in studying. I could barely get up in time to go to class. Realizing I needed help, my parents drove up to school and helped me created a schedule to guide my studying. It wasn’t rigorous — just six hours of studying at the library every day in two three-hour sessions. I remember being skeptical. If it was that simple, I’d have done it already. But I agreed to give it a try.
After the first day, an inkling of hope. By the end of the second day, a breakthrough: I had gotten more studying done than I had the entire previous week. Even better, I actually remembered course material, which had been eluding me. After one week, I felt powerful, like I had regained control of my marks and my sense of self. It was a pebble of a foundation I could slowly build on. I was rediscovering my confidence using the power of small wins.
Those small wins are available in every situation. If you’ve just gotten fired, start your intimidating job hunt by sending out five resumes. If you’re bouncing back from an old relationship, try talking to three new people. If you’ve just stumbled on a creative project, pick a section you can focus on over a weekend, and temporarily put the bigger picture aside.
Every failure can be broken down into components. Those components are the seeds of small wins. And small wins are the stuff of confidence. If you work just an extra bit harder and smarter every day, your minor improvements will accumulate. Life really is a game of inches.
And a dynamic process of strengthening confidence by enhancing our attitude, knowledge and experience, one piece at a time.