“You’re not confident, are you?” He said it with a smirk. A policeman. Gruff. Smug. And perfectly comfortable dressing me down at my place of work.
He wrote the police report for my client’s accident. A car hit her while she was in a crosswalk. I was taking his testimony, one of my first depositions as a newly-minted lawyer. It wasn’t a contentious deposition— I was just getting the facts. Even so, he had to put me in my place.
“You’re not confident, are you?” I vividly remember everything about that moment. Where he was sitting. Where I was sitting. The tan, 80s-era conference room walls. The dark wood table we sat at. The court reporter to my left. The light brown carpet. Most of all, his need to control me.
It didn’t derail me, his comment. Didn’t detract me from doing my job. But it burned an impression in my brain. And I’m certainly not alone in experiencing something like this. Ask any woman ascending in her field and you are likely to hear some version of the “you aren’t confident, are you” story. Or as the Me Too movement has revealed, something far worse.
Comments like these symbolize an invisible societal forcefield erected to keep women from becoming too powerful. They probably also reflect fear that a woman’s success might shrink the pie and make a man’s slice smaller.
But that fear is completely unfounded: studies show that if there were gender equity, the pie would become twice as big for everyone. For example, the U.S. could increase its GDP by $2T to $4T by closing the gender gap. That’s not speculation, either: GDP increased by $2T since 1970 due to the increased labor force and hours participation by women.
Whatever their source, what do thousands of comments like this over the course of a lifetime add up to? Do they effectively brainwash us to believe less in ourselves?
It’s difficult to say. Nor would one want to generalize and pile on yet another limiting stereotype.
However, at least one study of 400 children conducted by researchers from Princeton University, New York University, and the University of Illinois found that girls lose faith in their own talents by the age of six.
The study found that at age 5, children seemed not to differentiate between boys and girls in expectations of “really, really smart.”
But by age 6, girls were prepared to lump more boys into the “really, really smart” category and to steer themselves away from games intended for the “really, really smart.”
As NYU’s Dr. Andrei Cimpian, one of the study’s researchers, told BBC News: “The message that comes out of these data is that young kids are exposed to the cultural notion that genius is more likely a male than a female quality.” That may translate into girls self-selecting out of careers perceived to require genius, like physics. Which is a loss to us all.
However, other research shows that as women’s experience increases over time, so does their confidence. That has certainly been the case for me. I had no comeback for the policeman in my early career. But if he made that comment today, I would be ready to take advantage of that “teaching moment.”
I don’t think there was any one watershed moment where I realized I had achieved self-confidence. Instead, it developed over a long period time.
But if I had to pick three actions that made the most impact in developing my confidence, they are the ones below. These are by no means new or revolutionary concepts. But they have helped me create my own forcefield against the sexist messaging that bombards us daily.
Each morning I journal. I first write down 3 things I am grateful for. On bad days, they’ve been things like: (1) being alive; (2) having a roof over my head; (3) having a job. I also note any coincidences or other meaningful experiences from the day before. And I write down a big goal I want to achieve, and action steps to achieve it. If I’m feeling strong, I’ll write about something I messed up on the day before, and how I might improve. Stuff like: stop eating big bowls of cereal before bed. Or: no more tequila and soda at night.
Aside from keeping me on track to achieve my goals, this journaling practice has helped me grow and become the strongest version of myself I have ever known. Writing to myself taught me who I really am.
Knowing ourselves means we are less impacted by what other people perceive about us. And that helps us tune out negative or sexist societal messaging. As Kyle Cease says:
“We forget society’s kinda crazy. There’s a lot of unhappy people there. A lot of addictions. A lot of stuckness. A lot of murders. Why are we using them as the bellwether that we should get our advice from?”
2. Do something scary
We’ve all heard that we should step outside our comfort zone. That this is where growth takes place. It’s true.
“Always do what you are afraid to do.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
At the end of a long trial in Texas, I did something scary: I got up on stage with a band I didn’t know and sang to a room full of (mostly male) lawyers. That scenario is probably someone’s worst nightmare. Lawyers can be very judgmental.
At least that was my fear. But as Zig Ziglar said, FEAR is false evidence appearing real.
What ended up happening was that everyone cheered me on. They even asked for an encore. So much for my preconceived notions.
Try something scary today. Volunteer to give a presentation to your leadership. Call that prospect you’ve been wanting to land. Ask for a raise. Give it all a go. Even if you fail, you will feel stronger for trying. No belittling messaging can touch you then.
3. Become an expert
You’ve probably heard that competence leads to confidence. It’s true. At least for me.
Over the past five years, I became an expert in a particular area of patent law. That expertise allowed me to argue hearings in federal courts across the country. And those arguments, in turn, greatly strengthened my ability to persuade, both inside and outside the courtroom.
One of those hearings was in a really big case, in front of a very smart appellate judge. I was pretty stressed out about it. But I knew the subject matter cold and was very well-prepared. And then … I lost. In front of a group of some of the best lawyers in the country.
But you know what? That loss did not kill me. Because when I ruminated about the hearing (and believe me, I ruminated a lot), there was nothing I could have done differently that would have led to a different result. Surprisingly, instead of crushing my self-confidence, that loss made me believe in myself even more.
Losses are a big part of the growth required to develop into an expert. But expertise and the development of it also take a lot of time. Yet, it may not take as long as you think. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours. But Les Brown suggests it takes simply reading one book a month for five years. The five year number aligns a little more closely with my own experience.
However long it takes you to get there, becoming an expert will boost your self-confidence enormously. And when you are self-confident, you could care less about what some knuckle-dragging sexist has to say.