Developing A Confident Mind: Key Strategies For Experiencing Unshakable Success

By Kathy Caprino

Confidence is something that millions of professionals crave deeply but feel they are sorely lacking. Many believe that confidence is a “trait” that some have and some don’t. But research reveals that that is not an accurate characterization. Most of us don’t realize that achieving and building confidence requires dedicated commitment, energy, focus and work, like a skill we need to hone to be successful. We often mistake confidence for something else (brashness, ego, aggressiveness, etc.), which makes us resist doing the very work necessary to build true confidence.

Finally, we often mistake the physical feelings and sensations we experience when we’re about to do something very important in our lives with a lack of confidence, when in fact, it’s our body responding just the way it needs to.

To learn more about building a more confident mind and how that helps us achieve what we long to, I caught up this month with Dr. Nate Zinsser. Zinsser is the Director of the Performance Psychology Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the most comprehensive mental training program in the country, where, since 1992, he has helped prepare cadets for leadership in the U.S. Army. He also has been the sport-psychology mentor for numerous elite athletes, including two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, as well as many Olympians and NCAA champions. His most recent book is The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance.

In The Confident Mind, Zinsser details the secrets of mental toughness. In this new definitive guide to building and mastering confidence, he shares that confidence is the key to performance in any field, and offers key strategies for understanding, building, and protecting confidence, and applying it when your performance matters.

Here’s what Zinsser share:

Kathy Caprino: I’ve seen in my coaching work that people often confuse confidence with other traits (bravery, boldness, assertiveness, self-acceptance, etc.). From your experience, what is real confidence and what does it look and feel like?

Nate Zinsser: Real confidence is a quiet sense of certainty about oneself and one’s abilities, a sense of certainty that allows you to simply do what you are capable of doing without “thinking” about how you do it. It’s not necessarily loud or brash, as most people think when they hear the word “confidence.” It’s not necessarily flashy or flamboyant, but rather more “businesslike” and methodical. It’s important not to confuse this simple, quiet sense of certainty with outspoken arrogance or bravado, but our media rich culture often does just that.

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Caprino: Many people expect confidence to simply “arrive” just when they need it and are afraid or disappointed when they don’t have it. What’s wrong with this way of looking at it?

Zinsser: Expecting confidence to “arrive” is exactly what most people do and exactly why most people are disappointed. I am routinely amused and amazed by the number of people who admit that confidence is very important to personal and professional success, but then admit that they do nothing to build it up or ensure that they have it when they need it.

What they need to do is “work” on their confidence the same way they work on all their other important attributes—putting time and energy into building confidence just as they put time and energy into building their physical fitness or their professional skill sets. Fortunately, the time and effort needed to develop confidence is rather small but pays huge dividends.

Caprino: You share in your book that confidence can be learned, but also needs to be practiced and mastered in a committed way like any other skill. Can you share more on this?

Zinsser: Confidence is indeed a quality that can be developed through practice. One does so by practicing various effective thinking drills, deliberately at first, with the idea that these drills eventually become natural or automatic. Just as you practice various physical drills to develop a reliable tennis forehand, you practice various mental drills to develop a reliable mental response to an upcoming challenge like a job interview, or to a routine deadline, or to an unforeseen setback.

Caprino: You also discuss holding onto constructive personal memories and the positive impact and stress-reducing powers of that act. Why does that help?

Zinsser: Constructive personal memories are those that produce energy, optimism, and enthusiasm. Creating a mental “bank account” of such memories provides a foundation that one can draw upon when it’s time to step into the professional arena and perform. Stepping into the conference room to make a presentation while mentally reviewing a list of previous successes creates a much different emotional state than stepping into that room while recalling one’s last few rejections.

Caprino: People often tell me that they believe their nervousness or anxiety means they’re not confident. What’s your take on nerves before a big moment or experience?

Zinsser: We humans are hard-wired to undergo a biochemical change when we are about to undertake something is important to us—whether it’s something that we want to do or something that we must do. That biochemical change is unfortunately all too often labelled “nervousness” or “anxiety” when it could just as accurately and just as reasonably be labelled “excitement.”

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When you have “nerves” before a big event it simply means your body is producing chemicals to speed up your heart, get blood to your muscles and otherwise prepare you to faster, stronger, more perceptive, and more reactive. I urge my clients and students to respect their body’s wisdom and enjoy the fact that it produces a state-of-the-art performance-enhancing chemical pretty much whenever you need one, even if it feels a little abnormal.

Caprino: Once we do master our confidence-building, what have you seen are the key outcomes we can achieve? Why should we do this internal and external work to build our confidence?

Zinsser: If we don’t do the inner work that leads us to the conviction that we can do our jobs as well as anyone, we invite uncertainty, hesitation, tension, and thus mediocrity into our work. No matter what game you happen to play, you play it best in that state of certainty where you no longer think about how you will hit the ball, throw the ball, or make the move/speech/proposal or about what the implications of winning and losing might be.

All those thoughts interfere with:

  • Your perception of the situation (like the flight of the ball or the movement of an opponent or the understanding of a customer)
  • Your automatic recall from your stored experiences of the proper response
  • Your unconscious instructions to your muscles and joints about how precisely to contract and relax in sequence to make the right move or the right comment at the right instant.

Whether your game involves instantly reading a hostile defense and delivering a football to the right spot, or returning an opponent’s serve, or delivering a sales pitch to a roomful of skeptical prospects, you perform more consistently at the top of your ability when you are so certain about yourself, so confident in yourself, that your stream of conscious thoughts slows down to the barest minimum.

Caprino: What are your best three tips for people who are ready to expand their confidence and impact, but don’t know where to begin?

Zinsser: I’d offer these:

Construct a top ten list

Start by going back into your memory and construct a list of the Top Ten most memorable and fulfilling moments you’ve had as you’ve pursued your career—the projects you’ve completed, the clients you’ve served well, the contributions you’ve made to your organization’s success. Put this list somewhere visible, so you get in the habit of reminding yourself about how far you’ve come.

Engage in a 3-part reflection

Conduct a simple 3-part reflection at the end of each day:

  • Where did you put in some quality EFFORT? 
  • What small SUCCESS did you achieve?
  • Where do you seem to be making PROGRESS? 
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Record your daily E-S-P reflection in a journal—it’s the “bank book’ of your confidence.

Decide on a job skill that you’d like to develop or improve 

Construct a statement about that skill that reads as if you already have it: “I easily resolve big problems whenever they pop up.” Write that statement out at least five times a day, so that you create a functional, self-fulfilling prophecy for yourself.

Caprino: Finally, after we’ve put in the effort to build our confidence over time, and have shown demonstrated commitment to the process, what can we do in the moment, when we’re facing an event or experience and we still feel shaky and insecure? What step can we take in that second—to help us shift to a more confident state?

Zinsser: This is the moment where your previous work is indeed put to the test. In that second, you will either decide that you are up to the challenge of the moment or you will decide to back away from it.

In that second you must take command of your self-talk with a statement like, “This is my chance to take a step forward” even if you are a little shaky still. Remember that no matter how much confidence work you’ve done, your nervous system will always be firing you up, and that means you probably won’t feel perfectly “normal.” But why should you expect to feel normal when you’re about to step into a big moment?

Caprino: Any last words on building our confidence?

Zinsser: It’s an ongoing process—there’s no magic threshold you can reach where you’ll always have all the confidence you’ll need. It’s a daily commitment to yourself that continues for as long as you wish to improve and grow.


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