Book type: Psychology/Self-Help/Business
Summary: Kay and Shipman’s book is all about confidence–what it is, how we get it, what we do with it, and what we can do to improve it. And while the byline is The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know, it’s not a book solely about or for women. For our purposes here, we’ll cover the following four topics: What is confidence? What about the correlation between competence and confidence? What are useful tips for us adults? What are some good ideas for raising girls to be confident women?
What Is Confidence?
Confidence is specific in its scope. It is not about being extroverted or always feeling sure of yourself in all circumstances; it’s tied closely to particular tasks. Here are a couple quick summaries of confidence according to the authors or the experts they consulted for the book:
- “Confidence is the purity of action produced by a mind free of doubt” (16)
- It is “‘how sure you are that you have the skills that you need to succeed in doing a particular thing'” (44, Brenda Major of UC Santa Barbara)
- “‘It’s a belief that you can accomplish the task you want to accomplish…It’s specific to a domain. I could be a confident public speaker, but not a confident writer, for example'” (44, Christy Glass of Utah State University)
- “It’s a willingness to go out of your comfort zone and do hard things” (52)
It’s also partly genetic, though the estimates of how much confidence is pre-determined vary depending on the source. Some estimates are as high as fifty percent, like general personality traits that we learned about so long ago in A First-Rate Madness , including openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (Optimism and confidence, specifically, could be around twenty-five percent genetic.) Somewhat surprisingly, the connection between genes and confidence could actually be higher than that between genes and IQ (61). The good news, as we’ll discuss below, is that confidence is also malleable. We can make ourselves more confident with practice.
Competence vs. Confidence
Now this is where the book gets juicy. (As much as a book of this kind can.) The ultimate lesson from the book on this topic can be reduced to one statement: “It’s confidence that sways people” (32). The authors reference various studies, including one that found that women only apply for positions when they feel they are 100% qualified, whereas men apply when they feel they meet 60% of the requirements (30).
In one study, a university professor named Cameron Anderson from UC Berkeley gave hundreds of students a list of historical names and events and instructed them to mark which ones they were familiar with. (Several of the people or events listed were also fakes–non-existent.) “Anderson found a link between the number of fakes a student picked and how excessively confident the student was” (131). This was partly evidenced by the fact that the student chose to check a fake event, rather than leave it blank and admit–if it were real–that they didn’t know anything about it (31). At the end of the semester he did a survey of the students and found that the most incompetent, over-confident students “ended up being the most respected and had the most influence with their peers” (32).
But another study was even more sobering. In a study by Yale School of Management, chaired by Victoria Brescoll, “…[B]oth male and female participants rated a hypothetical woman CEO who talked more than other people” (wouldn’t that make sense for a CEO?) and the result was that, “Both sexes viewed this made-up woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the fictitious female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up” Essentially what they’ve found is that men are assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise, whereas the opposite is true in the case of women; people tend to question their competency until they prove they’re there for a reason.
Moral of the story: confidence beats competence much of the time.
Tips for Adults
The Confidence Code has tons of useful suggestions for boosting confidence and being successful. The authors argue that some of them tend to apply more to women than others, but of course anyone can use the advice.
- Have self-compassion. One way of summarizing self-compassion according to the authors is to treat yourself the way you’d treat a good friend (48). You aren’t critical of every thing your closest friends do; you appreciate them, and when you face challenges, your goal is to reconcile and be happy with one another. Why not try giving yourself a little slack, the way you would for a friend?
- Meditate. Just do it. It seems like every other study I’ve seen lately is about the benefits of meditation. Kay and Shipman discuss studies of stress hormones after periods of meditation. It’s pretty much amazing for you.
- Don’t overthink and don’t pursue perfection (94 & 96). These traits are very common to women. Women often ruminate on [perceived] failures and struggle to let go of personal setbacks, whereas many men can encounter adversity like criticism and move along without having it bother them long-term. The authors even note that while there are several characteristics that can hold women back, “…[O]f all the warped things that women do to themselves to undermine their confidence, we found the pursuit of perfection to be the most crippling” (96). One example they give is of technology; if you refuse to share an idea until you have it completely perfected, someone else may have presented dozens of ideas and gotten to your version first. This ties into the next point.
- “Fail fast” (124). The authors found that failure is one of the greatest confidence builders–especially if you start young–which may seem counterintuitive. “By failing a lot, and when we’re young, we inoculate ourselves against it [failure] and are better equipped to think about the big bold risks later” (110-111). The authors also point out that “We would do well to remember that it’s not the strongest species that survives in the long run–it’s the one that is the most adaptable” (124). But how much can we really adapt?
- It turns out we can adapt quite a bit, especially since confidence is only, at max, fifty percent in our DNA. “We don’t need to be stuck in that pattern of self-doubt. It’s a matter of pushing yourself to action over inaction…” (122). Sometimes this comes in the form of small steps, which “prepare you for taking more meaningful risks. It’s called the exposure technique” (125). Another good way to rewire your brain for confidence is thought exercises: “You must start by becoming a keen observer of the relationship between your thoughts, your emotions, and your behaviors, and how one can affect the others” and this is because “What we think directly affects how we feel” (129).
- “When in doubt, act” (125). Too many of us hesitate. We don’t want to be wrong, we don’t want to have to admit mistakes later so we do all that we can to avoid making any in the first place. But inaction ends up being our enemy. “Action separates the timid from the bold” (125) and confidence depends on boldness. “The ability to make decisions big and small, in a timely fashion, and take responsibility for them, is a critical expression of confidence and also leadership, according to all of our most confident women” (126). So get on with it, already.
- Accept compliments. This one is often specific to women. We fear being criticized as haughty or “full of ourselves” if we too readily accept a compliment, so we’re often self-deprecating instead. “We have to find ways to take in compliments and own our accomplishments rather than relying on dismissals and assertions of self-deprecation. Keep it simple if you must. When praised, reply ‘Thank you. I appreciate that.’ Use it. It’s surprising how odd, and how powerful, saying those five words will feel” (136).
- Say ‘thank you’ for criticism. You don’t have to agree with the criticism, necessarily, but if you have a planned response for criticism you can distance yourself from negative feelings that might otherwise bubble up at that moment, and you save yourself from having to find an “appropriate” response. Try just saying “Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate that thought” (135). The next time a coworker or boss criticizes something you’ve done or suggests a different way of doing a task, say that simple sentence. No one likes it when people make excuses, so don’t. Just say thanks, then move on and do even better.
Here’s a quick summary from Kay and Shipman: “Think Less. Take Action. Be Authentic” (171).
Tips for Raising Girls
Again some of the following advice can apply equally to young boys, however many of these suggestions mirror what many boys are already encouraged–or at least allowed–to do. One of the major themes of this portion of the book is how girls are conditioned to be well-behaved and keep their heads down, then all of a sudden (when they enter the workforce) they find that the behaviors they’ve learned help them, now hurt them. The authors point out that “It’s actually easier for young girls than young boys to behave well, because our brains pick up on emotional cues from an earlier age,” the result of which is that “…[M]aking mistakes, and taking risks, behavior critical for confidence building, is also behavior girls try to avoid, to their detriment” (81).
Lesson 1: Let Girls Take Risks
One thing that young boys are typically allowed to do much more than their young female counterparts is to engage in risky behavior, something that, according to psychologist Nainsook Park from the University of Michigan, is critical for healthy development. Park says that “…[I]n general, the proper way to build confidence in children is to offer them graduated exposure to risk. Trauma is not the goal” (110). That means pushing children, within their limits, to take action themselves without the constant intervention of an adult. For myself, having a parent with a physical disability meant that at a young age I was expected to do many things that adults might otherwise do for their children. My brother and I got our own breakfast ready, we went into stores and made purchases, and we were also responsible for calling stores ourselves if we wanted to see if a particular toy was in stock, for example. There were definitely some adults that were frustrated by having to deal with a 7-year-old picking up dry-cleaning or buying groceries–and I was always mortified I wouldn’t have enough money to pay for everything–but I got through it and the world didn’t end. “Teaching a child to accept and even embrace struggle, rather than shy away from it, is a critical step along the path toward instilling confidence. You are showing the child that it’s possible to make progress without being perfect” (145).
Lesson 2: Help Girls Be Assertive
If there’s one trait aside from perfectionism that many women struggle with, it’s assertiveness. Sometimes we’re able to be assertive in one realm (at home, perhaps) but not in another, all because we’re nervous about how we’ll be perceived. Women, much more than men, are concerned about being well-liked more than being respected. And, not wanting to ruffle feathers, rock the boat, or be considered ungrateful, we often remain silent when we really want to speak up. A study from Rutgers University found that the average pay gap between young men and young women in the first five years after graduating college is $5,000 and the gap “increases over the years because women don’t ask for more money” (93-94). This is why assertiveness is crucial. The young female graduate thinks it’s rude to ask for more money: she should just be grateful she has a job at all, whereas the young male graduate thinks ‘it can’t hurt to ask’ because the worst that can happen is that his request will be denied. “When it comes to instilling confidence, raising girls to be more assertive and more independent takes conscious effort, and it goes hand in hand with encouraging them to be less good” (149).
Lesson 3: Let Girls Be Bad
Girls very quickly learn that good behavior is the “fast track” to praise: “Soon, it’s a reward cycle that’s hard to break, and the result is that we subconsciously train our daughters not to speak up and demand to be heard, or demand almost anything. By the time our focus shifts to that, habits are hard to break” (149). Of course this sounds pretty crazy. ‘Let my daughter misbehave? That sounds terrible.’ But boys are often allowed to be independent and rebellious–it’s almost expected–but not so for girls. It’s important, however, because “The impulse that lets many boys shrug off nagging parents, break curfews, and refuse to take showers is the same impulse in adulthood that inures them to the fear of annoying their bosses by asking for pay increases and promotions. They worry less about upsetting their superiors because, unlike their sisters they haven’t been trained to fall into line, and their brains aren’t wired to be as sensitive to criticism” (149). Even boys’ roughhousing and teasing helps build resilience, allowing them to be unfazed by criticism, where girls are crushed by others’ disappointment in them, no matter how temporary (84).
The authors outline a two-step process for promoting assertiveness, notably by tolerating imperfect behavior.
First, don’t overly criticize the bad behavior. When your precious girl does interrupt, shriek, throw a tantrum, or tear her new dress, check your instinct to reprimand her. And especially check your instinct to tell her she’s acting out of character, as if somehow being the golden girl was what she’s supposed to be. Phrases such as “Mary, I’m so disappointed, it’s not like you to cause a fuss/not to help/be naughty” need to go (149).
Step 1: don’t attach undesired behavior to personal character. Check.
Second, don’t overpraise the good behavior. This seems counterintuitive, almost wrong, but it’s just the flip side of trying to get our girls out of the habit of feeling they always have to be ideal. Because if you constantly reward your daughter for helping out, keeping quiet, or being tidy, you’re instilling a psychological addiction to goodness and to the praise that follows it (150).
While my mother did not allow bad behavior without consequences, often my consequences were things that might seem like no fun, but I actually didn’t mind. She would send me to my room for an hour, but then I would color or read or play by myself, which helped me build patience and independence in keeping myself occupied.
Lesson 4: Praise Effort Over Ability
This one goes for boys and girls alike. In the United States there is a strong tendency to favor intelligence or natural ability over effort. We praise children for getting the correct answer, not necessarily for explaining how many times it took them to figure it out. Remember how we need to teach children to embrace struggle? A big part of that is encouraging what’s called a “growth mind-set.” And in order to do this, the key is to “…start small. Think about what you praise in yourself or your kids. If you praise ability by saying ‘You’re so smart,’ or ‘You’re so good at tennis; you’re a natural athlete,’ you are instilling a fixed mind-set. If, however, you say ‘You’ve worked so hard at tennis, especially your backhand,’ you are encouraging a growth mind-set” (115).
You may wonder why it makes much of a difference if you praise intelligence. Kay and Shipman argue that by focusing on intelligence or talents, we cultivate the understanding that our worth is tied to something we just have or we don’t.
If we believe that somehow we’re given talents at birth that we can’t control, then we’re unlikely to believe we can really improve on areas in which we’re weak. But when success is measured by effort and improvement, then it becomes something we can control, something we can choose to improve upon. It encourages mastery (115).
And encouraging continuous effort is crucial. Even naturally talented musicians or artists may pale in comparison to the abilities of individuals who constantly practice.
A final review/recommendation:
I know this entry has been much longer than my usual posts (it took more time to prepare as well). There’s so much information in the book that everyone should know that it was hard to leave major topics out of discussion. And there’s still more in the book worth reading. I hope that even if you’re not able to get around to reading the book, you’ll be able to take something away from this summary. Maybe you’ll put yourself out there when you normally wouldn’t; maybe you’ll let your daughter mess up, or tell your son that he’s been working really hard on a subject in school.
As for a review of the book, I obviously enjoyed it enough to take several pieces of advice from it for myself and for you. It is repetitive, especially in its emphasis on action over inaction; however, it’s not a lengthy book and it does contain a lot of valuable information for all of us, especially in understanding the difficulties many women face in the workplace. And it’s a great starting point for making some personal behavior changes, no matter your gender.
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