By: Minda Zetlin
Are you as confident as you’d like to be? Few people would answer “yes” to that question. But, according to Becky Blalock, author and former Fortune 500 executive, anyone can learn to be more confident. And it’s a skill we can teach ourselves.
Begin by forgetting the notion that confidence, leadership, and public speaking are abilities people are born with. In fact, research shows that being shy and cautious is the natural human state. “That’s how people in early times lived to pass on their genes, so it’s in our gene pool,” she says. “You had to be cautious to survive. But the things they needed to worry about then are not the things we need to worry about today.”
How do you teach yourself to be more confident? Here’s Blalock’s advice:
Put your thoughts in their place.
The average human has 65,000 thoughts every day, Blalock says, and 85 to 90 percent of them are negative–things to worry about or fear. “They’re warnings to yourself,” Blalock says, and left over from our cave-dwelling past. It makes sense–if we stick our hand in a flame our brain wants to make sure we don’t ever do that again. But this survival mechanism works against us because it causes us to focus on fears rather than hopes or dreams.
The point is to be aware that your brain works this way, and keep that negativity in proportion. “What you have to realize is your thoughts are just thoughts,” Blalock says. They don’t necessarily represent objective reality.
Begin at the end.
“There are so many people that I’ve asked, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to be?’ and they would say, ‘I don’t know,'” Blalock says. “Knowing what you want is the key. Everything else you do should be leading you where you want to go.”
Start with gratitude.
Begin the day by thinking about some of the things you have to be grateful for, Blalock advises. “Most of the 7 billion people in the world won’t have the opportunities you do,” she says. “If you start out with that perspective, you’ll be in the right frame of mind for the rest of the day.”
Take a daily step outside your comfort zone.
There’s a funny thing about comfort zones. If we step outside them on a regular basis, they expand. If we stay within them, they shrink. Avoid getting trapped inside a shrinking comfort zone by pushing yourself to do things that are outside it.
We’ve all had experiences where we’ve done something that terrified us, and then discovered it wasn’t so bad. In Blalock’s case, she was visiting a military base and had gotten to the top of the parachute-training tower for a practice jump. “They had me all hooked up, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this, I have a small child at home,'” she recalls. “The guy took his foot and pushed me off the tower. When I got out there I realized it wasn’t that bad.”
We won’t always have someone standing by to kick us out of our comfort zones, so we have to do it for ourselves. “Just act!” Blalock says.
Remember: Dogs don’t chase parked cars.
If you’re running into opposition, questions, and doubts, there’s probably a good reason–you’re going somewhere. That doesn’t mean you should ignore warning signs, but it does mean you should put those negatives in perspective. If you don’t make changes, and challenge the status quo, no one will ever object to anything you do.
Get ready to bounce back.
“It’s not failure that destroys our confidence, it’s not getting back up,” Blalock says. “Once we get back up, we’ve learned what doesn’t work and we can give it another try.” Blalock points out that the baseball players with the biggest home run records also have the biggest strikeout records. Taking more swings gets you where you want to go.
Find a mentor.
Whatever you’ve set out to do, there are likely others who’ve done it first and can offer you useful advice or at least serve as role models. Find those people and learn as much from them as you can.
Choose your companions wisely.
“Your outlook–negative or positive–will be the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” Blalock says. “So be careful who you hang out with. Make sure you’re hanging out with people who encourage you and lift you up.”
When she quit her C-suite job to write books, she adds, some people were aghast and predicted that no one would read them while others were quite encouraging. It didn’t take her long to figure out that the encouraging friends were the ones she should gravitate toward.
Do your homework.
In almost any situation, preparation can help boost your confidence. Have to give a speech? Practice it several times, record yourself, and listen. Meeting people for the first time? Check them and their organizations out on the Web, and check their social media profiles as well. “If you’re prepared you will be more confident,” Blalock says. “The Internet makes it so easy.”
Get plenty of rest and exercise.
There’s ample evidence by now that getting enough sleep, exercise, and good nutrition profoundly affects both your mood and your effectiveness. “Just moderate exercise three times a week for 20 minutes does so much for the hippocampus and is more effective than anything else for warding off Alzheimer’s and depression,” Blalock says. “Yet it always falls of the list when we’re prioritizing. While there are many things we can delegate, exercise isn’t one of them. If there were a way to do that, I would have figured it out by now.”
“This one is so simple,” Blalock says. “If you breathe heavily, it saturates your brain with oxygen and makes you more awake and aware. It’s very important in a tense situation because it will make you realize that you control your body, and not your unconscious mind. If you’re not practicing breathing, you should be.”
Be willing to fake it.
No, you shouldn’t pretend to have qualifications or experience that you don’t. But if you have most of the skills you need and can likely figure out the rest, don’t hang back. One company did a study to discover why fewer of its female employees were getting promotions than men. It turned out not to be so much a matter of bias as of confidence: If a man had about half the qualifications for a posted job he’d be likely to apply for it, while a woman would be likelier to wait till she had most or all of them.
Don’t hold yourself back by assuming you need to have vast experience for a job or a piece of business before you go after it.
Don’t forget to ask for help.
“Don’t assume people know what you want,” Blalock says. “You have to figure out what that is, and then educate them.”
Once people know what you want, and that you want their help, you may be surprised at how forthcoming they are. “People are really flattered when you ask for advice and support,” she says. “If someone says no you can always ask someone else. But in my experience, they rarely say no.”