I don’t even remember putting this book on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did. Confidence is an especially tricky issue for women. Obviously, taking an issue this big and generalizing to all women is problematic, but I found much of the book very helpful.
Through interviews with successful women, researchers, and sharing their own experiences, the authors work to define confidence, explain how women and men’s brains differ, the genetic aspects of confidence, and how we can build confidence, even if our genes aren’t helping.
It’s both a relief and sad that all women, even or especially very successful women, struggle with confidence. The prevailing opinion for a while was that women should act like men to project confidence. However, it’s often inauthentic and thus comes across as weak, the opposite effect.
Studies have shown that whether they are actually more competent, men project a greater level of confidence. If a man and a woman are looking at a job description, a man will apply even if he doesn’t meet all of the requirements, while a woman will not. Men are also routinely overconfident; they rate themselves higher than what their tested skills actually show. If men fail at something, they basically say, “Hey, it’s over. Time to move on,” while women will dwell on it forever.
Studies have also shown that companies should be promoting women to higher levels of management. Women are more able to see the global picture, while men are more task-oriented. Women are also more compassionate and understand the individuals on their team better than men do. Trying to act like a confident man often removes this behaviors from the workplace.
The SLC6A4 gene is the serotonin transporter gene. There are three variants: Two short strands (processes serotonin badly, magnifies risk of depression and anxiety), one long strand and one short strand (inefficient serotonin use), and one with two long strands (best use of the hormone).
Other research shows that the correlation between genes and confidence may be as high as 50%. Some researchers disagree, and leave it at 25% (still an incredibly high amount).
The OXTR gene controls the delivery of oxytocin, which researchers feel is linked to confidence, because it acts in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the center of higher-order thinking skills and executive function. It also keeps the amygdala in check.
Dopamine affects the brain – without it, we are passive, bored, and depressed. It encourages curiosity and risk-taking. Two genes control dopamine: DRD4 and COMT. Variants of these genes encourage “dramatic risk-taking” (DRD4) or cause us to fall to warrior or worrier mode (COMT).
While this all seems crappy if you caught the short end of the stick genetically, environment (nurture) can affect the expression of the genes – whether they’re switched on or off. In a study of monkeys, if a monkey who caught the short end of the stick was nurtured by a great mother, they did exceedingly well as they grew older, more so than the monkeys with “better” genes. That led the researcher to conclude that rather than the genes being determinative, it was more about sensitivity to the environment, rather than vulnerability.
Research also shows that the we can essentially rewire our brains for positivity. Every time we do a an act, our brain creates shortcuts, to operate more efficiently. The more we do the act, the stronger the connection. This can be used to stop negative thoughts from being automatic thoughts. If we focus on consciously drawing the positive, those will become our automatic thoughts.
Ultimately, the authors define confidence as “the stuff that makes us take action.” Confidence is about doing. Nike’s slogan is appropriate here: Just do it. If something goes wrong, use it as an opportunity to grow, rather than a tool to beat yourself up. Just taking action will build confidence. Starting small is a good way to go. As you progress in tasks you can take on things that get increasingly more challenging. Challenge is necessary for confidence-building. It’s conquering something new or gaining mastery that brings about the feeling of confidence.
The biggest takeaway from the book is that there are things we can do to build confidence. Some of us have genes that don’t assist us in the process, but we can overcome those as long as we are committed to working consistently to build confidence.
To get started on the path to building confidence, the authors have a confidence quiz on their website.
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