Ask Rahul : How to build Self Confidence

Three young female kids, girls sharing one stand-up paddle board (SUP)photo © 2010 Mike Baird | more info (via: Wylio)
A reader recently requested an article on how to build self confidence. Before I write on building it, let me expound a bit on what I make of it.

To me, it has two levels : At the first level, it is the confidence to do a certain thing well. You might want to feel confident with maths, you might want to feel confident with girls, or you might want to feel confident with long distance running. At this level, you will note that confidence may be present in ample amounts in one area of life while totally absent in others. When I was in my teens, I had lots of confidence in the Boxing ring but had none in front of girls. Some of my friends had the exact opposite levels. We would envy each other!

At the next level, I see it as a general faith in one’s self. At this level, you have complete faith that you can do and learn anything you set your eyes upon. It is not a matter of ‘whether you can’ but ‘what is worth doing’. You may not be the master of something you have to do but you don’t feel uncomfortable or insecure doing it, even in the company of masters.

Usually, it is the first level you start with. When you have repeatedly gained success at this level, in different areas of life, you automatically and gradually start shifting to the next one.

I will try to address what you can do for repeated success at the first level.

Confidence builds with 2 things : Clear goals and progressive training. Here is what you can try :

First and foremost, you have to find clarity about what you want. Your goal may already be very clear to you. If it is not, one thing that might help you is to look at the things you fear.

Tim Ferriss, in his book, ‘The Four Hour Work Week’ says that, ‘What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.’

Look at your worst fears and you will see some things you might want to work on. You can also start with smaller fears to feel more comfortable. But if you can, take the worst ones first, it makes the continuation of your efforts easier. This is so because once you are past the worst, everything else seems easier in comparison. If you are not sure, find a secluded place, close your eyes and think about a good challenging fear, one that you feel sufficiently good about overcoming.

If you have multiple goals, prioritize and take things up in decreasing priority, one at a time. You might feel like doing things simultaneously but usually focused effort yields better result. There are no hard and fast rules though. If you feel like doing things simultaneously go ahead and try both methods and then compare. Pick whichever is best for you.

I’ll suggest don’t spend too much time in your priority list. A lot of people get stuck in ‘paralysis of analysis’. If you have too many things you want to be good at and you are not sure which one to start with, just pick one that seems important.

Start working on this thing. As you progress, you might find that it is not as important and might want to do something else. Switch to whatever seems important now. This process might repeats a few times in the beginning. Slowly you start getting clarity about what you really want. The important thing here is to get into deliberate action. Lack of confidence breeds and multiplies in the absence of action and access of thinking.

Once you have decided on what to work upon, use progressive training. This is where the bulk of the action happens. Break the process of tackling the problem into small, tangible and clear steps. This will require you to look at your problem properly. A lot of times, this alone brings about a lot of change. So many times, we so deny our fears and so run away from them that we don’t understand them properly. A problem well understood is a problem half solved.

Once you have created small action steps, get down to doing them. As you progress, so will your confidence. That’s it! That is the whole process.

It might look very easy and straight-forward once you have broken down the problem into small action steps for yourself. I am afraid it is not. In fact, the real test of your resolve will start after this.

Most plans don’t survive contact with the actual world – Steve Pavlina.

Most of the time, you will find things not going as anticipated. A step that seemed small at first, might turn out to take a lot of time. Improvise is the word here. Remember what I said about deliberate action. You can’t just form a plan and follow it blindly. Your eyes, ears and mind have to be open all the time. When you see unforeseen hurdles, modify your plan to take in the new input. With each iteration, it will become better and more helpful. With each iteration, you will learn and grow as a human being. This is a normal process and happens with almost every plan.

I hope I have not made it sound too hard. Fact is, these problems can actually make the process fun. I say what is an achievement if it doesn’t push you to your limits? These hurdles make the journey uncertain and, hence, fun! Try to enjoy this journey rather than just fretting over getting results.

The second level

When you repeatedly do the above to become better at different things, your level of faith in yourself rises over time. Your subconscious, that was hitherto getting negative feedback, now gets positive feedback often. Subconscious is very powerful in determining our general outlook. Subconscious and emotions build up in very different ways. While emotions would rise and subside very quickly depending on the current situation, sub conscious attitudes develop and wane slowly with repeated thoughts and actions. Your emotions can only help you in accomplishing something small and quick, in the heat of the moment. They can be dangerous too, since they have a force that can over power good judgment. You cannot accomplish big feats with momentary high of emotions. If you try to do that, you will most probably, do different things in different directions and feel confused and undirected.

But subconscious is so different. People don’t notice it because it is so subtle. It is the tortoise in the proverbial rabbit-tortoise race. It builds slowly, steadily and grows into such strong a force that mountains and oceans bow before it’s might.

Once you have repeatedly solved problems, overcome hurdles, your subconscious, after repeated confirmations of your ability, gets it etched into itself that you can accomplish anything that you set your eyes to. Solving big problems will become a habit. When this happens, the problems you take on will change in size and magnitude. As I said before, when faced with a task, the question you will ask yourself is not whether you can accomplish it but whether it is worth accomplishing. You will fear no goal, you will have no doubt you can achieve the biggest of them. Things that right now seem impossible, will seem very possible and doable.

If you liked this article, you might also like to read :

Progressive Training

Goals that make you happy

Finding purpose


  • prateek
    June 22, 2011 - 10:32 am | Permalink

    “Subconscious is so different. People don’t notice it because it is so subtle. It is the tortoise in the proverbial rabbit-tortoise race. It builds slowly, steadily and grows into such strong a force that mountains and oceans bow before it’s might.”

    good analogy!

    “What is an achievement if it doesn’t push you to your limits?”

    and sometimes beyond it :)

    good read Rahul.

    Also I find the process very similar to software development with the iteration and divide and conquer methods that you’ve suggested.

    • Rahul
      June 22, 2011 - 10:52 am | Permalink

      You are right. Achievements should be something that pushes us not just to our limits but past them, into areas we have not yet explored. Sometimes, they show us those hidden possibilities in us we never knew existed.
      I suppose basic principles of life remain the same across fields, whether it is software development or writing or anything else.
      I found software development to be fascinating. So often, it gave me real good lessons I could use in Life. Again, I think if we take up anything with passion(software development or writing or anything else), it can repay us with unique nuggets of wisdom we could not have expected or imagined.

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