The Confidence Code Book Review

 In Books

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Fake it till you make it.

We’ve all been told that at some point in our lives, whether it was at your third grade choir performance or before stepping in to a job interview. Everyone feels insecure or overwhelmed, but some people appear to grow out of this potentially debilitating trait better than others. “Appear” is the heavy word here because it turns out that even the most successful people grapple with true confidence.


Who struggles with confidence?

These are just a few of the interviews cited with stories shared of insecurity and over-compensation. In The Confidence Code, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman do a deep dive into confidence – the biological aspects, the cultural aspects, and the plain old bullshit that we have all likely grown up with. Most relatable by the female audience, The Confidence Code peppers interviews and quotes from these high-profile females to help illustrate proofs of how confidence develops (or doesn’t) across age, career, and gender.


Imposter Syndrome

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend where they’ve shared that they don’t feel competent/capable despite being successful, smart, and generally awesome? It’s come up for me countless times with my girlfriends over a glass of Shiraz, and it makes me want to choke slam them in to a wall. In a Joe Pesci-style tone I feel like shrieking:

“Are you f**king kidding me? You’re f**king brilliant! You’re so f**king good at your job; you are insanely talented and capable. You add value!”

Except, that friend doesn’t see their value. And at times, neither have I. And neither have Clara Shih or Sheryl Sandberg, who are quoted talking about imposter syndrome (despite education, ambition, and a track record of successes).

It’s not just you.


The Difference Between Confidence and Bravado

One of the things I like about The Confidence Code is its investigation in to the science and sociology behind confidence and what it ultimately breeds – success. Kay and Shipman pull from studies that find success correlates more closely with confidence than competence, that it is partly genetic but significantly “volitional.”

“When a man, imagining his future career, looks in the mirror, he sees a senator staring back. A woman would never be so presumptuous,” is a kick-off quote from Marie Wilson. This is very much in line with the behaviour I have demonstrated and also observed among my female colleagues. We shy away from asking for promotions “prematurely,” we tend to feel the need to prove we can do it before throwing our hat in the ring. And when we do step up, we have over-prepared because we are driven by insecurities to prove crazy worth. Whereas male counterparts tend to be more open-minded or daring about reaching for promotions they can grow in to. I know female colleagues (and me) who worked tirelessly to reach a certain bar, but never got recognized for it or had it moved to keep striving.

One professor I had at the Rotman School of Management drove this aspect home for me many a time (whether I was in her Management Consulting course as a student or a TA). Among the many accomplishments of Dr. Beatrix Dart, she heads up the initiative for Women in Business at my alma mater. Professor Dart is not one to shy away from calling a spade a spade.

Our behaviour in a meeting is telling. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes about taking a seat at the table (not behind it). Professor Dart brings that practice in to the classroom, and for that lesson I am forever grateful. Kay and Shipman also point out that our choice of language is just as important. How many times have you as a woman (or even a man) stepped up to receive an award or start a speech and inadvertently use diminishing language like… a “humorous” apology or a nod to being “lucky.”

It’s hard to brag without being called a bitch (or a dickhead, I guess). But according to studies cited by Kay and Shipman, men have a higher tendency to exhibit “humble overconfidence” by overstating their performance by 30% of what it actually is. (That cute term “humble overconfidence” comes from Columbia’s Business School, unlike #humblebrag that comes from God knows where).


Dude, Get Over It

Even when we are successful, and particularly if we fail, we let feelings of insignificance linger. Kay and Shipman interview star WBNA players for the Washington Mystics, and then take the opportunity to chat with their male coach, too.

“There’s probably a distinction between being tough on themselves and too judgemental,” says Mike Thibault. As a former NBA recruiter and Assistant Coach, he has the perspective of dealing with both male and female high-performance athletes (he even helped recruit Michael Jordan). “The best male players I’ve coached, whether it’s Jordan or people like that, they are tough on themselves. But they also have an ability to get restarted quickly. They don’t let setbacks linger as long. And women can.”

Another anecdote about Christine Lagarde goes like this: She and Angela Merkel had a chat. Turns out they both have the habit of feeling confident by preparing for cases/meetings/whatever by knowing their materials inside out, front and back, 150%. Not 100% or even 110%, but 150%. To think that these two icons of female success and power had a chit chat about struggling with confidence just blows my mind.

But to Thibault’s point, what this book taught me was to spend less time thinking about failure (actual or fictionalized) and try to just get over it. We often question whether people will or won’t like you as a result of something, or if people will “notice” that we aren’t 100% perfect. But this over preparation can be crippling. I’ve tried to memorize obscure data and facts for meetings, know things that were unknowable, and try that over-achieving Lagarde/Merkel 150% thing. But, to be honest, I recognize that it’s tiring and really just not at all worth it in the end.


Pick up a copy of The Confidence Code  for your bedside table.


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