Why Confidence is Contagious

By Grace Ueng, Savvy Growth

On a flight a couple of years ago, I sat behind a young woman donned in UNC apparel. I immediately struck up a conversation as my son had just started freshman year at UNC, and I have served on faculty at their Kenan-Flagler business school. I soon found out she was a member of the famed Tar Heel soccer team. Months earlier, I had been asked to meet one of her teammates, a goalie, prior to her Nike interviews to provide coaching. Extremely impressive, vibrant women. What made them so?

The UNC women’s soccer team has won 20 of the 27 ACC championships and 22 of 36 NCAA national championships. After hearing about my book and the research I was doing, she immediately told me that their coach had all the women read the book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know. A research rich book, I highly suggest it not just for women, but for men too.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman poignantly share research that women, who achieve what they set out to do, share confidence – “potent, essential even, and for women, it’s in alarmingly short supply.” Confidence, is partly genetic, a big chunk, likely over 25%. Therefore, Kay and Shipman even sent off for genetic testing to see where they stacked up. There is another portion that psychologists call “volitional – our choice.”

Several years ago, when I undertook a year long positive psychology journey, upon becoming an empty nester, in order to not fall into despondency, I started writing and speaking about happiness. I now share with you my takeaways and thoughts on confidence. You can expand your confidence, just as you can your happiness. For many of us, it is not easy and takes diligent effort. It is worth it; when you exude confidence, it is attractive, powerful, and contagious.

My Top Takeaways:

  1. A central theme of confidence is self-efficacy – a belief in your ability to succeed at something. And you also have a bias for action, to just “do it!”
  2. Success correlates more closely with confidence that it does with competence. Evidence shows that confidence is more important than ability, when it comes to getting ahead. Confidence trumps IQ in predicting success. So for those of us not in the genius range, we have hope. Researchers found the power of habitual thinking creates physical changes and new neural pathways in our brains, which reinforce and even override genetics. So we can overcome our genes by our thoughts.
  3. In my positive psychology work, my teacher Tal Ben-Shahar, the creator of Harvard’s most popular course in history, on happiness, would say that perfection is not a good thing. My coaching practices focuses on channeling fear to your advantage and to remember that failure is a good thing. This enables hope. What my Son and Tom Brady taught me about Hope.
  4. Women can learn from men but not be men. I am careful to give praise to my son, only when truly due. I learned years ago not to promote more of the trophy generation. When I tell my son that he has done something well, he provides the succinct reply, “obviously.” I am told this isn’t a cocky response, it’s a term young people use today in exuding confidence. My son may not study as many hours as I toiled in college, but his father and I believe that he will go farther in life than both of us combined. He has experienced failure earlier and has learned to carry on. He is more confident than I was at his age. Early in my career, in one of my first executive roles where I was the only female on the leadership team, I tried to be like the men. Now, I am simply Grace. It comes more naturally, it’s easier to just be me.
  5. Don’t worry so much about pleasing people. One client told me in the first week of her engaging my advisory services, “I seek truth, not comfort.” This CEO grew to international acclaim. Top leaders don’t pay me to say niceties to them. They have enough people brown-nosing them. They need feedback that can make them better, stronger and in turn, their companies.
  6. Women often ruminate and over prepare. For my first Fortune 50 board interview a decade ago, I reached out to a couple of male friends for their advice. They simply said, “Be yourself.” Women who lack the confidence of many of their male counterparts compensate by being thoroughly prepared. It can be exhausting. I prepared a great deal to understand the company and its key issues. I found it fascinating, akin to prepping like I did for every class at Harvard Business School, to open a case, in the chance I was the chosen 1 in 80 students, cold-called to open. Then, often I was frozen in class, to inaction to say even one word, after preparing for hours armed with pages of notes. I tell my coaching clients when giving key stakes presentations, to throw away their notes. I learned the hard way, as I did my first TED talk with note cards in hand. I realized I would have been better off just being natural, instead of recounting every word exactly. Perfectionism keeps us from action. Men don’t tend to overthink it. Instead, for them issues are quite simple and hence they often communicate more clearly and succinctly from the boardroom to the bedroom.
  7. Confidence is an essential, elemental energy. Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work, says it best, “I think confidence is the way we meet our circumstances, whether they are wondrous and wonderful or really hard and difficult. It’s almost like a wholeheartedness, where we’re not holding back. We’re not fragmented. We’re not divided. We’re just going towards what’s happening. There’s an energy to it. I think that’s confidence. And it’s absolutely part of human fulfillment.” Her quote brings to mind one of the audience members who came up to speak in the sharing portion of one of my recent workshops. He said that once he was a noted introvert, often cloistering himself to work on his technical projects. He later learned to go “toward” people. And that made all the difference.

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Grace’s recent Speaking:

Elon CommencementClimbing Mountains of Life: Business and Beyond

KeynoteHappiness Post-Harvard: Project PeakAudience Reaction

TED TalkClimbing Mountain of Entrepreneurship – 10 Steps to Top