More than anything else when it comes to improving our confidence, research suggests that taking action is the most important step. And yet, the idea of truly stepping outside our comfort zone — getting comfortably uncomfortable — each and every day is enough to slow most women down.
It’s the kind of feeling you might experience as you stand on the edge of a trapeze platform waiting to leap. Harnessed up and with a net waiting to catch you, you realize that you’re meters above the ground with people watching your every move. And while the trapeze bar feels solid and reassuring in your hands, now that the moment is finally here to leap, all you want to do is climb back down that ladder, scurry back to the safety of your home and never, ever talk about this again.
No matter how prepared we feel, sometimes actually taking the leap into action is still completely terrifying.
Which is why Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University, has found that for many of us the key to confidently taking action and ensuring we achieve what we’re capable of professionally and personally, is to actually let go of holding the outcomes too tightly. I appreciate that at first glance that probably feels completely counter-intuitive. How could focusing less on the outcomes you want to achieve, possibly make you more successful? It might even feel like you’re being asked to swing from that trapeze with no net at all.
Because if you’re not striving, driving, and achieving great results at work, just who would you be? And why would you be valued?
Take a moment and really be honest with yourself as you sit with this question: “Who would you be and why would you be valued if you weren’t achieving great results?”
If trying to answer this makes you feel slightly anxious, unsettled, or even a little annoyed that I clearly don’t appreciate that delivering outcomes is what a successful corporate career is built upon, then I’d like to introduce you to what researchers describe as a fixed mindset. Underpinned by the belief that we each come into this world with a certain amount of intelligence, talent or ability and there’s not a lot we can do to improve it, this mindset causes us to judge ourselves — and others, by the outcomes we achieve.
But when we believe outcomes are the true measure of what we’re worth, it has some interesting consequences in the way we go about our jobs. Studies have found that generally:
- We’re less willing to take on new challenges for fear it might expose our weaknesses.
- Negative feedback and criticism is painful to hear because we don’t really think we can do any better.
- Failure feels fatal so when we have the misfortune to make a mistake we to try to rush past it, sweep it under the rug or blame something or someone else.
- In order to do all we can to ensure the desired results, we prefer to keep as much as possible within our control. So if you’ve ever heard yourself saying, “It’s quicker to do it myself,” you can say hello to your fixed mindset.
The problem with fixed mindsets is they are grounded in fear. They feed the mean girl stories that we’re not really good enough. They leave us constantly afraid that if we don’t constantly strive and drive, and over-prepare that we’ll be discovered as the impostors we secretly know ourselves to be. They can also create unhealthy levels of stress that may impair our brains ability to learn and develop, causing us to plateau and achieve less than we’re really capable of.
So what’s the alternative?
Dweck has also found that some of us have what she refers to as a growth mindset. Underpinned by the belief that we each come into this world with a certain amount of intelligence, talent or ability but that with learning and practice we can always improve, this mindset results in us judging ourselves — and others — by the effort we make and the growth we achieve. And neurologically we now know that this belief is completely accurate.
When we believe that effort and growth are the true measure of what we’re worth, it also has some interesting consequences in the way we go about our jobs. Studies have found that generally:
- We’re more willing to take on new challenges in the hope they’ll provide opportunities for growth.
- While perhaps not loving negative feedback and criticism we see it as valuable for our development.
- That failure is simply a teachable moment (Edison has to be the poster child for this mindset with his famous quote: “I didn’t fail I just found 10,000 ways the light bulb didn’t work.”)
- Focuses us on putting in the best effort we can and being open and willing to learn as we go.
You can imagine that not only does this mindset leave us feeling more confident, it makes it easier to set ourselves stretch goals, to ask for help as we go and to feel motivated to achieve the things that matter to us most. It sparks hope by helping us feel like we have nothing to lose and everything to gain — if we step outside our comfort zone. It appears to help us move beyond our present limitations and to achieve our true potential.
So next time you find your fixed mindset holding you back, try gently challenging it by:
- Imagining you’re talking with someone who really cared for you and with whom you felt safe. How could they help you recognize that any fear you’re feeling right now about this opportunity is completely natural? If they asked you to put the risk of delivering the outcome to one side just for the moment, what possibilities might you spot for learning and growth from this experience? What might it give you the chance to practice and improve? Why might this be a valuable experience, regardless of the result? Write down your responses in a stream of consciousness. Don’t over think them. Don’t judge them. Don’t feel embarrassed by them. Just write them down.
- Now assuming, just for a moment, that you were to go ahead, see if you can outline a plan to share with this good friend of the small concrete steps you might take to really maximize this learning opportunity. Based on your plan tell her when, where and how you’re going to focus your efforts. Share with her who you think you could ask for support and feedback. Let her know what you’ll do to maintain your motivation and commitment for growth and how you’ll celebrate what you’re learning. Again write this all down in a stream of consciousness.
- When you read back both pieces of writing, how does this leave you feeling about the opportunity in front of you? Although it may still feel a little nerve-wracking is it worth turning your thoughts into action and giving it your best shot for the learning and growth that you’ll gain regardless of the result? Is it possible to just take the first step on your plan and see what happens? And then regardless of the result, learn from what worked and what didn’t (remember it might be that you’re “not there, yet”), and take the next step? And then the next one after that. And so on.
With your growth mindset in place, try leaping and see what happens. Sometimes you’ll soar and discover that you’re capable of far more than you expected. Sometimes you’ll fall and realize that as uncomfortable as it might be, failure is a great teacher. And most of the time you’ll land somewhere in between and it’s the willingness to try and the openness to learn that really makes an experience successful or wasted.
This article first appeared in Womens Agenda in their Lead Like A Woman series where they’re sharing edited extracts from the new book Lead Like A Woman – your essential guide to true confidence, career clarity, vibrant wellbeing and leadership success by Megan Dalla-Camina and Dr. Michelle McQuaid. Megan and Michelle are taking a fresh, evidence based approach to what it really takes for women to show up authentically and lead with confidence.
You can download the first two chapters of the book for free from the Lead Like a Woman website.