Courage, confidence, credit, and cash
Walking in to a job interview with all the confidence in the world is like putting money in the bank. Just by showing up with confidence — shoulders relaxed, eager smile, powerful stride — you’ve got a higher chance of getting that job.
I came up with this model after a friend congratulated me on sending a risky email. I laughed, telling him that I’m frequently terrified, and had lost a lot of sleep about that mail.
He said, shocked, “But you’re the most confident person I know!”
What he was seeing looked like confidence, but was actually energy-draining brain-racing tummy-hurting teeth-clenching courage on the inside.
So where do we get confidence? Why do some people have more than others? Why isn’t it fair?
This model is based on the idea that confidence and courage are related things we can spend, invest, and run out of.
If confidence is cash, then courage is credit
So what if confidence really is like having money in a bank? If you had plenty of confidence, you’d know you’re fine to walk in to any risky situation, knowing that you can do exactly what you want, up to the limit in your confidence account.
I’ve been at the point where I didn’t have enough money in the bank to buy food. I was fortunate enough to have credit to misspend, so I could buy some eggs and discount mac-n-cheese to make without milk — it was too expensive.
The costs of having to spend credit go beyond the financial cost. It’s also the mental energy required to track the exact amount of money available, the emotional toll of disappointing others because you can’t spend more, and the physical toll of working hard for the money you do have.
I’ve also been at the point where I don’t have enough confidence to make a job interview worthwhile. I was convinced that there were more qualified candidates, that I didn’t have enough special value to make a difference. I was terrified, discouraged in advance, and miserable.
Going to an interview with zero confidence requires courage. Having courage is essential when there’s not enough confidence, but it is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Just like spending credit is more expensive than cash, courage is more expensive than confidence.
Both confidence and courage are limited. You only can spend as much confidence as you have already, and eventually you’ll hit your “credit limit” of courage. We only spend confidence or courage when the risks of acting are outweighed by the potential benefit. If the outcome isn’t important enough, then we don’t take the risk.
Imaginary case study: Bill and Harold
Let’s imagine Bill and Harold as fictional, cisgender, heterosexual, white, American men living in the same town, working for the same company. They started on the same day, one year ago.
A promotion is available in Bill and Harold’s company. It would be a step up for either of them. Neither of them have all the skills the new role will require, but the company is willing for the right candidate to learn on the job. Bill and Harold both apply, and both are given interviews.
And now we need to flash back two years.
Bill’s first job was for a plumber. The plumber needed someone to answer the phone, schedule appointments, bill insurance companies and clients, order common supplies, keep the books up to date, and clean and restock the van at the end of every day.
Harold’s first job was for a doctor. The doctor needed someone to answer the phone, schedule appointments, bill insurance companies and patients, order common supplies, keep the books up to date, and clean and restock the exam rooms at the end of every day.
Bill didn’t have any experience, and didn’t have any confidence he’d get the job, but spent courage to get through the interview. He got the job, and his confidence grew.
Harold didn’t have any experience, and didn’t have any confidence he’d get the job, but spent courage to get through the interview. He got the job, and his confidence grew.
The plumber knew Bill wasn’t experienced, but the mistakes were pretty hard to take. One time, three clients were billed with each other’s work, and it took a whole month to get it straightened out.
The doctor knew Harold wasn’t experienced, but the mistakes were pretty hard to take. One time, three patients were billed for each other’s treatment, and it took a whole month to get it straightened out.
Bill was terribly embarrassed about his mistakes. The plumber was clearly angry, and keeping Bill took more time than having an experienced person — but not as much time as finding a new person.
Harold was terribly embarrassed about his mistakes. The doctor was clearly angry, and keeping Harold took more time than having an experienced person — but not as much time as finding a new person.
The plumber asked Bill where the problem was, and what he was going to do to fix it. Even though Bill couldn’t clean up all his own messes, he figured out what went wrong. As he went forward, he took care to avoid problems in the future.
The doctor asked his junior nurse to take on more of the billing work. Nobody trusted Harold’s work, and frequently double-checked the appointment book in front of him. Harold had less responsibility than he started with, and was resented by the rest of the staff.
When Bill made mistakes, even though it was a big hit to his confidence, he got the opportunity and support to build up a bigger store of confidence afterward.
When Harold made mistakes, he had the same hit to his confidence, but he didn’t get the support he needed to recover and build upon it. Going in to the interview, Bill has more confidence cash to spend. He’s got a better chance of getting that promotion.
Discouragements are drains on our accounts
I made up Bill and Harold to show how similar people might develop unequal levels of confidence. But one work experience can’t be the only difference between two people. Real people have different hopes, dreams, family and friends, past experiences, and internal resilience.
There are all kinds of normal human drains on confidence. In puberty, boys suffer through their voice changing, so they are suddenly not in control of how others hear them. At roughly the same time, girls have the onset of menses, so they are suddenly not in control of even their basic hygiene.
Discouragements that have eaten away at my confidence cash include college classmates who didn’t want to let me contribute because “you can’t understand all the math.” The professors who wouldn’t make time for me in office hours, because “you’ll just drop out soon, anyway.” The managers who have suggested, “Maybe if you smile more.”
I can only imagine how much daily confidence it would drain if I were followed around a store when I’m shopping. Or harassed while visiting a museum with my child. Or if I had brown skin and commuted past a “Make America White Again” billboard. Or if I had DACA documentation instead of citizenship or a visa. Or if I did not know where I was going to sleep that night. Or if I couldn’t legally use a public restroom.
What this makes me realize is that some people have to spend more confidence and courage in a day than I do in a month. These are people I work with every day, who live in my community and neighborhood. So why do I find myself in a constant, lampoonable state of worry?
Even though every TV channel and magazine cover invites me to worry (and therefore spend confidence) on germs, vaccines for those germs, terrorism, personal hygiene, being fashionable enough, aging well, and the intricacies of celebrity life, my well-funded, white American existence is abundantly insulated from risks that, for many other people, are normal.
Exceptions to every rule
There are people who have much more confidence than they could possibly have earned. For any risk they’ve taken, even if they have failed repeatedly, they have been insulated from feeling the consequences.
Not only do these people have more confidence than reasonable, they have never built up a courage “credit limit.” When faced with a personal embarrassment or difficulty that they can’t insulate themselves from, their behavior is cowardly and defensive. They don’t have the courage to do the right thing, even when the right thing is obvious.
Encouragements add to our accounts
So the goal isn’t just to have more confidence. We need a flow of courage and confidence to build businesses, buy homes, and take any of our next leaps forward — even falling in love. If we never had to spend courage, we would fail to grow and change into the best selves we can be.
With this model, the answer is simple, boring, and hard: Exercise courage, invest your confidence, and be encouraging to others.
To build muscle, we lift weights. Not necessarily huge weights — just enough to push a little farther than comfortable, increasing as we go. Same thing with courage.
I started a year ago with very light weights: small, little risks. I dyed my hair a bright, Muppet-like red. Now, after most of a lifetime of zero coordination and fitness, I’m learning to tap dance. I continue to write and submit stories and articles for publication and public scrutiny.
Then, when it matters, I have the courage to take bigger risks. I’ve told more than one corporate vice presidents they were wrong, and backed it up with expertise and data. I’ve stood up for myself when discriminated against. I’ve stood up for others when they’re in trouble. I’ve interviewed for a fantastic job, and won it — even when I had less confidence than I projected.
So: Tell your crush you like them. Start writing down that music. Take the mic at amateur comedy night. Run for elected office. Raise money for your favorite charity. Ask for that promotion.
Creative work is always risky. When I work creatively, whether it’s writing, coding, drawing, or 3D modeling, I try to make the choices I have confidence will be most effective.
When I’m not successful, it still stinks. I have enough creative failures to know that they don’t prevent future success, but they still hurt.
Every time I’m successful, my confidence (and my skill level) should increase.
But somewhere deep in my childhood, I learned that taking credit for individual work was somehow shameful. Instead, I learned to give generous credit to others, to point out their contributions over and above my own. It feels risky to enjoy feeling successful.
Using this model, I’ve had to accept that sometimes there are good things that have happened, that I’m responsible for — and that I’m limiting my future self if I fail to acknowledge it. Now, when I have successes, I make a point to acknowledge that the successes are real, and I add that cash to my confidence account.
So: Do the things you’re best at. Ask for and take payment for your work. Accept compliments with “Thank you.”
Be encouraging and encouraged
As a parent, manager, teacher, or mentor, I wasn’t always good at giving people their own space and encouragement to take appropriate risks. Now, I understand that they can only gain confidence and courage by taking on their own risks, and enjoying their successes.
One of the easiest things any of us can do is to encourage others to take their own risks. When I have confidence that my friend or associate will be OK, that they will be successful, that they will be happy, I can add to their courage credit limit just by telling them so. I want them to take risks so that they can grow their confidence by spending courage.
It’s also encouraging to see that something is possible. Where and when I grew up, I didn’t see professional women who weren’t teachers or nurses. As a physics student, I didn’t have role models who looked or acted like me, who faced the same misogynistic pressures in the same challenging environments. Today, I draw encouragement from groups like the Systers of the Anita Borg Institute. Their example encourages me just by being visible, showing their own successes and perseverance through challenges.
Just as seeing role models helps me, being a role model might help others. And it gives me a chance to invest confidence and exercise my courage. I speak at conferences, teach my skills, help people rewrite their resumes, and have conversations about careers.
So: Coach, mentor, manage, and teach other people what you know. Blog, present, tweet, and share your successes. Celebrate out loud.