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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

5 Ways to Be More Ballsy (Even if You Don't Have Balls)

It seems like everyone wants to talk about women and confidence lately. From “The Confidence Gap,” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman:

...there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

The article and Kay and Shipman’s book are not without their critics. And in my opinion, their solution is even worse. As reported by Jessica Valenti: “telling women to meditate, ‘be grateful,’ sit up straight, and get good sleep.”

I know gratitude is really trendy, but I’m not on board—feeling grateful is a nice strategy when you can’t change your situation. If you live in a totalitarian society or have a terminal illness, being grateful for what you have is the best you can do. If you have the ability to change your life, instead try cultivating a flame of righteous fury.

I’m very confident and have been since some magical day when I was about 27 and realized I had been feeling calm, unshakeable, dignified, and bemused by most problems for some time. I wasn’t born this way. When I was a child, my parents were frequently called in to school for parent-teacher conferences on the topic, “Jennifer is too sensitive.” But at some point, that changed, and it’s been balls-out ever since. Not a lot really shakes me.

(I like the expression “balls-out,” because doing anything with your balls out, if you have balls, makes you look ridiculous and also makes you extremely vulnerable to basically everything, including not just tigers and bears but also table corners.)

How did I get so confident? And how can you do it, too?

I think a lot of people have the causality backwards. I didn’t force myself to be confident and then become successful as a result; I worked on quantifiable hard skills until I was making good money, and then I discovered I felt very confident. I hadn’t realized until then that a huge component of how I interacted with the world was colored by my lack of money and the vulnerability this comes with that.

Here are some ideas for improving your confidence. The overarching principles, though? Detoxify yourself from the patriarchy, and build undeniable, quantifiable hard skills.

1. Quantify Everything

There is an enormous difference between saying you increase your clients’ sales by an average of 18% or have a perfect 170/170 on the GRE or type 325 words per minute and saying you’re “an expert on personal branding” or “good with people.” The former are quantifiable; the latter are things that people with no valuable skills whatsoever put on their resumes to pad them out. Sure, you might be way better than those people—but can you prove it?

Quantify everything. You write the company’s email newsletters? Great, how many did you write in 2014, what was the open rate, what was the click-through rate, what percent converted to sales, and how do those numbers compare with your predecessor’s performance in 2013? You’re an artist? How many people viewed your work in that gallery? By what percent has the sale price of your paintings increased? You really are an expert in personal branding? How many people attended your seminars, and what percent of them gave you a positive rating?

Do you work in an environment where people are likely to be biased against you? (Are you not a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis man?) Numbers are your friend. Develop skills you can quantify, and then work to improve those numbers. Become undeniable.

(See also: 6 Ways to Quantify Your Code, Tech Skills Are Not Optional for Your Career, and How to Quantify Your Resume Bullets (When You Don’t Work With Numbers).)

2. Put Money First

Women hear a lot more “do what you love” rhetoric than men do. A lot of men didn’t do what they love because they knew they wanted a family someday, and they needed to make money. Even though most women will be breadwinners at some point in their lives, few women make the same calculations.

And while there are some men out there who are engineers when they wish they could’ve been artists, I have personally met more than one woman artist who struggled during a STEM degree and—instead of getting motivation and help—was told, “Oh, it’s okay, science is hard. Don’t you like art?”

Besides, most people don’t know exactly what they love. Job descriptions change constantly, and new jobs come into being with new technologies. Sometimes you don’t love something until you’re good at it. Sometimes you love something because other people worship you for it. That’s legit, and it’s a good way to get paid—and feel great about what you do.

On the same note, save up an emergency fund—anywhere from three to 24 months of living expenses. When I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, I didn’t realize how vulnerable I felt all the time. If I got sick, I could bankrupt myself on healthcare. Even if I just twisted my ankle and decided to forgo medical care, a $27 cab ride home hurt more than the ankle. Ever stay in a bad relationship because you couldn’t afford to move out or worry that one social event somewhere fancy will leave you without money to pay rent? A fat emergency fund will do loads for your confidence.

3. Take Focus Off Your Appearance

Or rather, take the focus off looking pretty, sexy, beautiful, and the like. (And don’t try to look thinner, either, if that’s something you normally do.) Take at least a temporary detox from often-oppressive beauty standards.

What would that look like? The opposite of trying to look beautiful is not necessarily becoming a slob. What would it be like to put time, effort, thought, and money into your appearance—with no thought whatsoever to looking attractive to men (or better than other women)? Would you try to look empathetic? Smart? Dignified? Wise? Rich? Commanding? Intimidating? Vibrant? Dynamic? What would that look like? Would it improve your career? Would you be happier? Maybe—more confident?

I remember one day I was getting dressed to go teach a GMAT class. I was running late and yet had thrown on one of those fabulous office dresses that looks odd—like your face doesn’t match your body—without at least a dash of makeup. I looked at the clock and thought: No one cares how good-looking their GMAT instructor is. If anyone cares at all, they probably want their GMAT instructor to look smart and empathetic. I threw on a men’s-style collared shirt and some kind of pants (I assume) and dashed off to class. Sometimes a pencil behind the ear is the right accessory.

If you already live this way, great! If not, try it for a week. You may not have clocked just how many decisions you make based on the idea that women should try to be beautiful at all times. Have you even compromised your “personal brand,” as they say, by trying to look pretty instead of trying to project the qualities important to your career?

4. Cultivate a Healthy Relationship With Aging

Do you have friends over 50? Mentors? Role models? Get some.

I’ve heard young women say that they have to be successful while they’re “still hot,” or else it “won’t count.” Look, we’re all humans and we’re all mortal. We’re in that together. You don’t need to live by some other, terrible ticking clock that lessens your value as a person year by year.

You may not realize that you have this attitude, but in a culture that lionizes youth, it’s easy for it to be embedded in you and to be living with a constant, low-level fear of aging without even realizing it. Is your greatest hope for your 60s that it’ll be some pale imitation of your 30s, where you haven’t lost everything? Or do you just avoid ever thinking about it?

Try reading magazines like MORE or O Magazine that are intended for much older women. ADULT magazine (“adult” as in NSFW) has a series called “Adult of the Week” (“adult” as in “over a certain age”). And check out the “Advanced Style” blog.

Fall in love a little with your future 60-year-old self. And do everything in your power—plan, save, hustle, negotiate for more—to set her up with resources and choices.

5. Put Overconfident Idiots in Their Place

Finally, consider that the gap between where you are now and where you want to be, confidence-wise, may not be as large as you would assume. This is because, as Amanda Hess writes, “know-nothing sociopaths rule the business world.” That is, being “confident” can mean being calm, content, competent, and having a rationally grounded belief in your own, actual, demonstrable skills and abilities. It doesn’t mean being an arrogant blowhard.

Quoth Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review:

...there is no denying that women’s path to leadership positions is paved with many barriers including a very thick glass ceiling. But a much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men.

Instead of being intimidated by very confident people, examine whether they are overconfident and you are just fine. Is someone substituting his tallness and loudness and maleness and social obliviousness for competence and skill?

Practice looking amused whenever someone does this. Smile condescendingly. Say something like, “You sound very confident, but we haven’t seen any data.” Or, “I admire your confidence, but let’s address the underlying assumptions.” Say it as though you are talking to a toddler who has told you he is going to grow up to be Superman, or a fire truck. (See also: How to (Effectively) Be a Feminist in the Workplace.)

Finally, Chamorro-Premuzic reports that “leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders,” and “these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women.” So take charge of any leaderless group—possibly by appointing yourself leader, or by nominating another woman, or by suggesting a roster of responsibilities and meeting facilitation, or by drawing up a list of leadership tasks and suggesting that everyone volunteer for a few.

Maybe you do not have a confidence problem. Maybe you are just fine and you are surrounded by overconfident assholes. That doesn’t mean do nothing. That means speaking up for rationality, sanity, and quiet people with something to contribute.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.

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