When I was hired as assistant editor at a magazine at the age of 23, I was grateful and astonished. I then dutifully spent my first year waiting to be unmasked as an imposter: how long before they would realise I was inadequate before they'd give me the sack? I strategically slipped in late to weekly story meetings with the other editors - who seemed infinitely more competent - so that I could score a coveted seat hidden neatly behind somebody else. While my colleagues would hold forth authoritatively about which writers "delivered" and why zucchini blossoms were zeitgeisty, I sat, carefully concealed, lips zipped. Not that I didn't have any thoughts on whether the aforementioned courgette deserved acclaim or not, but I was worried my opinion wouldn't "deliver". Silence seemed a safer tactic than speaking up and outing myself as an imposter.
Ultimately, it wasn't my fear of being discovered as a fraud that proved to be my undoing, but the realisation I was on the wrong end of things: I didn't want to be an editor, I wanted to be a writer whose remit went further (I hoped) than covering which vegetable was most au courant. Therefore, what I really wanted was to quit my job and go freelance. But once again, a chronic lack of confidence held me back. A nasty soundtrack whirred on high rotation in my head, busy listing all the things I was worried might happen - like abject failure, embarrassment and general destitution, along with the fear that this all might be an exercise in sheer, idiotic hubris. But I quit my job and went freelance. Now, if this last sentence took me about 10 seconds to write, in reality the decision - accompanied by insomnia, depression, chronic self-doubt, and repetitive pro-and-con discussions with friends, family and a therapist - took me more than two years. It wasn't until my fear of the half-lived life out-muscled my fear of rejection and poverty that I finally took the leap.
In this, my fear-of-failure-fuelled penchant towards over-thinking and hesitation, I am hardly alone. According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code, women are currently in the midst of an acute crisis in confidence. It's a situation, they argue, which goes a long way to explaining, among other things, the woeful obstinacy of the gender pay gap, and why women are still under-represented in the highest professional echelons.
On paper, Kay (a TV anchor for BBC World News America) and Shipman (a correspondent for ABC News's Good Morning America) are hardly the types you'd imagine would suffer from low self-confidence. Yet Shipman recalls that in her 20s and 30s, whenever she was congratulated upon her successes, she found herself brushing off her achievements as the result of "good luck". Kay was similarly self-effacing - and for years secretly believed that her successes were at least partly related to her British accent, which she assumed made her sound smart on American TV.
The duo began considering this female confidence crisis while researching their first book, Womenomics (HarperCollins, $39.99). "During our interviews with successful women, we kept hearing what seemed like a cliche: 'I feel like a fraud,' [or] 'I got a promotion, but I'm not sure I should accept it.' We wondered is it just that as women we like to complain? Or is there something to this idea of a confidence gap?" ask the authors.
It is somehow comforting - if puzzling - to learn that a faltering self-confidence is something that Christine Lagarde - managing director of the International Monetary Fund and undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in the world - and I share. In the book, Kay and Shipman recount how, over grilled fish at a Washington DC restaurant, Lagarde revealed to them that she over-prepares for every meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel does the same thing, she says. "We assume, somehow, that we don't have the expertise to be able to grasp the whole thing," Lagarde has said.
That women of such status harbour this level of self-doubt speaks volumes about the confidence crisis among women. At the heart of the problem, say the authors, is women's tendency to "over-think" partnered with a desire to be liked and to please. Women are also more vulnerable to all of doubt's confidence-quashing step- sisters: perfectionism, rumination, depression, inertia, and fear of failure. Complicating matters is an aggressive double standard ensuring that when women do present as supremely self-assured, they tend to be viewed as bossy, brazen and unlikeable; confident men, meanwhile, inspire respect and are perceived as leaders. It is not, the authors make clear, that men are perpetually brimming with confidence: "Do men doubt themselves sometimes? Of course. But not with such repetitive and exacting zeal, and they don't let their doubts stop them as much as women do." But men do, if anything, tilt more towards overconfidence, are more tolerant of risk and more likely to think they'll succeed. For these differences, some experts say that we have - at least in part - biology and genetics to blame. MRI scans suggest that women tend to activate their primitive fear centres more than men, while the anterior cingulate cortex - nicknamed the "worrywart" centre - is larger in women, say the authors. There is also evidence to suggest that confidence is hereditary.
But it's not just nature's fault - nurture also has a lot to answer for. "Girls are encouraged and rewarded for getting everything right all the time," says Shipman, but boys learn "to take risks and to fail". While boys tend to blame failure on the external (a hard test, an unfair boss), girls blame failure on themselves, seeing it as a punishing barometer of some innate deficit. They will, conversely, attribute success to luck - hence my faithful adversary: imposter syndrome.
The consequences of our lack of self-assuredness may be thrown into sharpest relief in the work-place - where confidence is more often valued and rewarded than competence, and is also more critical to professional success.
However, confidence is critical in all spheres of life, not just at work. It's the key to feeling generally calmer and less hobbled by a chronic do-I-dare paralysis. It's also, perhaps most importantly, about joy. "Confidence is not just about, 'Are you going to be president or vice- president'," says Shipman, "I think it's about enjoying and harnessing a kind of wholeheartedness - an energy, and to move towards something without doubt. That's just a great feeling."
I've always chosen to think about doubt as a function of curiosity - and (to make myself feel better) the sign of an active (albeit neurotic) mind. A mind devoid of uncertainty sounds lovely and relaxing, but it's a place I've never been. I cannot purchase a pastry (scone or croissant?) without stepping into a time-gulping cyclone of questions and hesitations. "There are moments when, yes, you may want to work in self-doubt, and you may want to go over something again and again and again, but you can't do it all the time," offers Shipman. "That's the problem with what most women do." The trick is to know when to mute the soundtrack; the treatment for poor self-confidence is to do more and think less. "When in doubt, act" is the authors' prescriptive exhortation. And the good news, says Shipman, cheerfully, is that with training and persistence, we can change our behaviour: "The brain remains plastic. We can learn an awful lot as adults."
I like joy. And action. I can learn. I want to believe that I can learn to be more confident, to act more and think less, to take more risks, to be more confident and more successful. But I have my doubts.
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