“How to Build Confidence and Overcome Fear” is a rare GRS re-run; it originally appeared on 17 February 2009. I’m dealing with a family crisis, and haven’t had time to write. Things should be back to normal tomorrow.
Last week I did something that scared the hell out of me. I stood in front of nearly 200 financial planners and I talked to them about why financial blogs are a good thing.
I’m a confident writer; I’ve been doing this long enough that I know my strengths and my limitations. I’ve had enough feedback to understand that I’m an effective communicator — when I use the written word. I’m less confident as a speaker. I don’t have time to pause to formulate my thoughts. I’m not able to edit. I’m afraid of being trapped in a corner without being able to talk my way out. Basically, I’m scared to speak.
It would be easy to simply refuse the opportunities that come my way. When somebody asks me to speak in front of a group, I could say “no”. When radio and television stations call for an interview, I could say “no”. But for the past two years, I’ve been following my own policy to say “yes” to new opportunities (so long as they don’t violate my personal code of conduct).
To say “no” is to live in fear. My goal is to continually improve myself, to become better than I am today. One way to do that is to do the things that scare me, to take them on as challenges, and to learn from them — even if I fail.
The magic of thinking big
In mid-November, a local station asked me to appear on live television. “I realize it’s short notice,” the producer wrote, “but we’d love to have you on the show if you’re available tonight.”
It’s one thing to say that you want to overcome your fears, but it’s another thing to actually do it. Fear is real. When I was asked to appear on live television, I was frightened. I remembered my disastrous interview with a Seattle radio station in early 2007. I thought about recent taped television interviews that I had hated. I was afraid of what might happen.
But I also thought about the things that had gone right. I thought of how my speaking skills had improved over the past year. I thought about my enthusiasm for frugality and personal finance. And then I thought of the book I was a reading, a book that I had bought for $1.29 at the local thrift store.
The Magic of Thinking Big was a huge bestseller during the 1960s. Written by Dr. David Schwartz, a professor at Georgia State University, the book contains dozens of practical hints and tips (and many anecdotes) to illustrate the power of taking risks to achieve big goals. Schwartz argues that nobody will believe in you until you believe in yourself.
So when the television producer asked if I wanted to appear on his show, I thought big. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll do it.” I acted confident, but on the inside I was frightened. What I needed were techniques to boost my confidence and to overcome my fear.
How to build confidence and overcome fear
Without self-confidence, we have a tendency to make poor decisions. We make choices based on fear instead of what is best for us. If you lack confidence, you might fill your life with self-destructive behavior. You might work at a job you hate. You may allow yourself to get deep in debt. You may find yourself moving from one bad relationship to another. Without confidence, you don’t allow yourself to pursue your dreams.
In The Magic of Thinking Big, David Schwartz argues that all confidence is developed. “No one is born with confidence,” he writes. “Those people you know who radiate confidence, who have conquered worry, who are at ease everywhere and all the time, acquired their confidence, every bit of it.”
Confidence is built slowly, one success at a time. I’ve learned that in order to overcome fear, I need to employ a variety of techniques. Here are a few that I’ve picked over the years, and which I’ve used to help myself get out of debt, and to develop the courage to speak before groups or to appear on live television:
- Don’t dwell on failures. Draw from the things you’ve done right. My talk last week was far from perfect. But if I dwell on the things I did wrong, I’ll psych myself out of future opportunities. I’ll be scared to say “yes” when somebody asks me to speak. Instead, I’m trying to focus on the things I did right so that I can emphasize them in future presentations.
- Rehearse a positive outcome. Before my live television appearance, I watched clips of similar interviews on the same show. (I’m not a regular television watcher, so this was new.) I arrived at the station early, so I sat in the car, closed my eyes, and imagined the interviewer asking me questions about the subject. I imagined joking with her. I imagined it as a positive experience.
- Don’t procrastinate. Procrastination promotes fear. When you’re afraid, thinking is your enemy. Act. Do what you think is best, and do it quickly. The longer you take to act, the more time you have to talk yourself out of it, the longer you have to imagine the things that might go wrong. It’s not enough to hope. Take action.
- To think confidently, act confidently. You’ve heard the phrase “fake it ’til you make it”. Research has shown that faking confidence actually leads to the real thing. If you’re in a situation where you’re not sure what to do, act like you know what to do. Act confident and you will become confident. (Note that this isn’t license to be a jerk. It’s not a license to lie.) Schwartz says that we can change our attitudes by changing our physical actions. He recommends five specific behaviors: sit in front, make eye contact, walk faster, speak up (offer your opinion), smile.
- Think like the other person. Remember that people are all the same. We each have the same fears and the same desires. Underneath, most folks are pretty nice. When you’re in an uncomfortable situation, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. While prepping for my talk last week, I used this technique to plan what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I talked with a dozen financial planners to find out their concerns, and tried to address them in my talk. By doing this, I removed the fear that I wasn’t addressing their interests.
- Maintain a positive mental attitude. In Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, the authors write: “When [a person] is wrapped in the warm, secure belief that he will do well, he is actually able to do better than he knows. His defenses are relaxed; his guard down; he is able to stop spending emotional energy protecting himself from the possible hurts of failure; instead he spends his energy reaching for the probably rewards of success…Confidence has had a measurable effect on him — it has brought out the best in him.”
- Get off your “but”. In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David D. Burns offers a variety of suggestions for building confidence and overcoming fear. One of these is to learn to defeat a case of the “buts”. Schwartz calls this excusitis, the “disease of failures”. Burns says that the best way to deal with excuses is to argue with yourself. Every time you say, “I’d like to save money, but…”, come up with a rebuttal to counter the argument. Keep going, fighting every excuse you make.
- Visualize success. In Feeling Good, David Burns also encourages readers to visualize success: “A powerful self-motivation method involves making a list of the advantages of a productive action you’ve been avoiding because it requires more self-discipline than you’ve been able to muster. Such a list will train you to look at the positive consequences of doing it.” For example, if you’ve been holding back asking for a raise, make a list of only the positive possible outcomes. Once you’ve made the list, fantasize about your life after receiving the raise. Focus on the positive outcome that success will bring you.
- Look sharp. A lot of us experience poor self-esteem because we don’t like the way we look. But we exacerbate the problem when we dress sloppily or are not well-groomed. I’m not pointing any fingers. My friends and family can readily attest that I’m one of the worst culprits. I’m often unshaven, dressed in sweats, slouched at my desk. Why? I lack self-confidence. But when I have an important meeting, the simple act of putting on nice slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie can change my mindset entirely. Take care of yourself.
- Do the right thing. if you do the right thing, and you do it well, what do you care what other people think? Successful people will always have critics. Learn from the critics or to ignore them, but don’t let them bring you down. Do the right thing, and confidently own the consequences.
- Keep things in perspective. I know a woman who is paralyzed by what other people might think of her. She’s always on pins and needles, waiting for some cutting remark. Even small things in innocuous conversations become huge things in her mind, rebukes for imagined transgressions. This sort of thing saps any chance at self-confidence.
- Don’t seek perfection. Remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is a huge problem in my own life. Somewhere along the way, I’ve become a perfectionist. I only want others to see me at my very best, whether it’s on the blog, on television, or even on Twitter. But this perfectionism takes work, and it saps my confidence. Do you know anyone who has ever been perfect? Me neither. Do your best and let go.
- Read the success literature. Research others who have succeeded. Self-help manuals get a bum rap, and many of them deserve it. But not all of them. There are many fantastic books out there that offer advice on how to improve your life. Read them. Learn from the experience of others. (I’ve found 50 Success Classics to be a powerful motivator [my review].)
- Don’t compare yourself to others. Be yourself. I’ll tell you a secret. There are a lot of personal finance blogs out there. I don’t get to read them as often as I used to, but I do try to make the rounds once every week. Sometimes when I do this, I feel like giving up. I feel like quitting. I lose confidence. “I can’t write that well,” I think. “I can’t cover retirement investing as well as Jim did.” Comparing myself to others is counter-productive. It only makes me feel inadequate. Who cares what other people write, or how well? What’s important is simply producing the best work I can. All I can be is myself.
The techniques I’ve listed are effective, but here’s the thing: No list you find on the internet is going to magically make you more confident. No list is going to take action and grant you instant CSS skills, or give you extra money, or grow your savings account, or make you a better writer. In order for these techniques to be effective, you have to act on them. You have to pick one or two and practice them. Then move on to another pair and practice those.
It’s important to put these tips into action. Do something, if only for ten minutes a day. Tell yourself that you’ll move toward your goals for ten minutes a day. If you don’t succeed, do it again. Keep going until you do succeed. Never give up.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it takes to develop self-confidence. If you, too, have struggled with this, I encourage you to borrow one of the following books from your public library. (These are the books mentioned in this article.)
- The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, M.D.
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie
- Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone
If you simply want to find more web reading related to this topic, check out the following:
- Zen Habits: Conquer the fears lurking in the dark corners of your mind
- Get Rich Slowly: The power of “yes”: A simple way to get more out of life
- The Simple Dollar: Investing in yourself: Self-confidence
- Soul Shelter: The magic of thinking big
The Magic of Thinking Big — the book that inspired this post — is outstanding. It’s sold millions of copies in the fifty years since it was published, and no wonder. On the surface it may seem like touchy-feely feelgood stuff, but deep down, it’s built on strong psychological principles. Here’s Tom Butler-Bowdon’s summary of the book.
Tonight I will speak to a group of graduating seniors at Western Oregon University. I’ll talk to them about debt and money management, and about pursuing their dreams.
When I gave this same talk last year, I was nervous. I was afraid. I was worried that I’d do poorly. Even after I’d finished, I thought it hadn’t gone well, so I was surprised to learn that the group had given me high marks.
There’s no guarantee that tonight’s talk will be a success, of course, but I know one thing: I’m much more confident going into it than I was last year. I know that I’ve done this before. I know that last week I spoke before 200 financial planners. I have positive experience to draw from.
By facing my fears head-on, by taking action, I really have been able to build confidence and to overcome fear.
2010 note: Eighteen months later, I still live by these guidelines I shared in early 2009. I challenge myself, and I do my best to meet these challenges. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. In either case, I try to learn from the experience so that I can do better in the future. If you’d like to read more on this subject, check out The power of “yes”: A simple way to get more out of life. That article summarizes the one change that has made more difference in my life than any other.