Confidence: More compelling than smarts
Alan D. Thompson, ACC
People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property; there is a huge variability in how you perform. People who have a sense of self-efficacy [an element of confidence] bounce back from failure; they approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong.
Dr Albert Bandura
As part of coaching high performers internationally, I still get to travel around quite a bit. While in Singapore recently giving a seminar on “Architecting brilliance” to the International Coach Federation, I enjoyed hearing from many parents in the audience who felt that high performers should be supported even further. After the presentation, a bubbly Asian woman and a grey-haired gentleman approached me. They wanted to know more about the kind of coaching work I do, and whether it would help their son.
“He’s nine years old, and very bright. Would you be able to coach him tomorrow before you go back to Australia?” they asked. Not one to turn down any high performer, I had them schedule a time with me.
Later the next day, my driver pulled up to a large mansion just outside the bustling city hub of Singapore. As I buzzed into the gate, a small boy bounced out from the front room of the house to greet me. “You must be Oscar!” I said, extending my hand.
Indeed it was. Oscar’s confidence was evident immediately. He spoke eloquently, covering his day in school, including the new round of maths testing his class had undertaken. He drifted between a mixture of several accents—a result of his upbringing in various countries. Once his parents joined us for the session, Oscar moved easily to speaking about his latest discoveries, the concept of irrationality, and his favourite soccer players. At one point, he uncovered new solutions to one of the somatic coaching exercises, reaching a conclusion that I hadn’t heard previously. We rounded out the session talking about languages—Oscar is one of the many high performers being taught more than one language at home and at school.
Even when he didn’t know the answer to something, Oscar always seemed sure of himself, secure in the knowledge that he was deserving, safe, and supported. He was a genuinely confident nine-year-old!
Given the confusion—and sometimes negative perception—of self-esteem, let’s start with a bunch of statements to help define each term: self-esteem, self-efficacy, optimism, and confidence.
I am worthy and deserving. This is one of the classic definitions of self-esteem, and looks at a child’s relationship with themselves. We’re not going to reference this one too much. I’m in alignment with Professor Martin Seligman’s notion here that self-esteem is not a useful focus on its own, cannot be taught, and that “self-esteem is a by-product of doing well.”
I can achieve my own goals. Psychologists refer to this one as self-efficacy (self-effectiveness). It looks at a child’s sureness in their own abilities as both an understanding of their strengths, and a trust in themselves.
I feel positive about my life. Closely linked to these concepts, the idea of optimism is extremely important, as it defines a child’s belief that life is generally “good”, and that the world is a safe place.
Finally, confidence is an external expression of a combination of these. Self-efficacy plus optimism, taking into account previous experience and the importance of a goal or event.
Here’s a way to visualise that relationship. I’ve developed it based on work by confidence specialist Dr Carol Craig and, later, management psychologist Dr Anna Rowley:
Confidence = “I can achieve my own goals” + “I feel positive about my life”
+ Previous experience + Importance of goal or event
In other words, confidence appears when “I believe that I can achieve my own goals” is coupled with “I feel positive about my life” (varying based on previous experience and how important a particular goal or event is to me).
The quality of confidence is highly visible; you know a confident child when you see one. They are articulate, with a dynamic and bold use of language. They have unwavering eye contact (depending on the culture). They are also comfortable with trying new things, not knowing the answer and, yes, failure. Importantly, confident children also know when and how to remove themselves from harmful situations (including bullying).
Confidence is a distinct quality of high performers. I’ve found high performers in the creative and arts industries to be some of the best examples of natural confidence. Many of them have been given an early strong foundation of support, have identified their own passions and bring optimism to their own continued success. However, in such a volatile industry (many creative performers aren’t sure what their next project will be), sometimes expressing confidence deliberately is necessary. Happily, this “acting as if” has a positive strengthening effect on deeper foundations, including self-esteem.
Confidence is not a competition. Dr Nathaniel Branden (a gifted child himself) was one of the most prolific voices in the study and application of self-esteem across six decades (1960s through to the 2010s). In his later years, his overly complex and academic theories were sharpened with a more approachable edge: “I remember reflecting on the issue of self-esteem versus confidence one day while watching my dog play in the backyard. She was running about, sniffing flowers, chasing squirrels, leaping into the air and showing great joy (from my human perspective) in being alive. She was not thinking (I am sure) that she was more glad to be alive at that moment than the dog next door. She was simply delighting in her own existence. That moment captured something essential about my understanding of self-esteem.”
After giving a seminar on confidence in Sydney, Australia, a woman came up to me concerned about one of her son’s current challenges. As she told it, he was constantly boasting to others about his intellect and how talented he was. Her question surprised me, as she asked: “What do you do with children who have too much confidence?”
Though the question was justified, the concepts were slightly misplaced. There is no such thing as too much confidence. Perhaps more important even than financial security, mental wellbeing, or physical wellness—none of which have a “ceiling”—confidence is a limitless quality.
If you are noticing a child that seems to have “too much confidence”, consider that it may be in fact the opposite. A lack of confidence can be masked by arrogance, boasting, and “showing off”.
After the trainwreck of the 1980s “self-esteem movement”, I’d like to think that parents and teachers have learned what not to do.
The “pillars” of self-esteem (as popularised by Dr Nathaniel Branden) can be visualised as supporting scaffolding for our lives. Ways of addressing these indirectly includes overcoming laziness, welcoming discomfort, confronting personal fears, being authentic, harnessing focus, and recognising personal values (things which we find important). We can’t work directly on improving another person’s internal self-esteem.
So, how can we work directly on helping another person do well? By working directly on confidence (“I can achieve my own goals” + “I feel positive about my life” + previous experience + importance of goal or event).
First, there are the basic building blocks to consider: Adequate sleep. Sunshine. Exercise. Breathing. Water. Nutrition. Of course, if your child is displaying issues with anxiety or depression, take them to a professional for diagnosis. Outside of these things, here are a few practical techniques for developing confidence in bright children.
Show unconditional support and acceptance (as love). Complete and unwavering support and acceptance means just that. At its face value, this means that there is no room for criticism, insults, or abuse of any kind. At a deeper level, this requires an adult who supports and accepts themselves, and is capable of supporting and accepting those around them at all times. Until the point that your child becomes completely convinced that they are loved unconditionally, even a small amount of doubt or fear can cause harm, and is capable of destroying the effect of many moments of feeling safe and accepted.
Promote persistence. In my 2015 article Promoting passionate persistence, I listed a bunch of practical techniques available to teachers and parents to help a child stick to a task despite failures. These techniques apply equally to promoting confidence. By nurturing optimism at home and in the classroom (both socially and emotionally), children feel safe and supported. Through regularly listening to a child’s goals and helping them to visualise the future, they are encouraged to “look ahead” and continue towards their goal.
Give genuine acknowledgment. Australian child psychologist Dr Louise Porter recommends acknowledging specific actions without praising or rewarding.
Bright children are particularly sensitive to the sincerity of this acknowledgment. Children can tell when acknowledgment is too general or forced. Insincere praise makes a child feel invisible, may make them “addicted” to this constant positive feedback or even anxious that they may disappoint later on. Another piece of “common sense” that was given to us by psychologist Erik Erikson nearly 70 years ago: “Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement. Their identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment.”
Ensure that they are being acknowledged for a specific action (what they are doing well, and what they can build on). Lastly, look for what your bright child is doing right. Examples include acknowledging when a child commits to a goal without giving up (encouraging persistence), and when they are telling the truth (encouraging integrity).
Show them success. Six-year-old Quentin was a bright child who loved science. He was also very quiet, keeping his ideas inside his own head. With a huge capacity for learning and joining the dots, Quentin took in a lot of information and had some big dreams, but wasn’t so good at presenting these to others.
This all changed when Quentin was shown a YouTube video of 11-year-old American boy Peyton Robertson. Peyton had invented a new type of sandbag out of polymer, becoming “America’s Top Young Scientist”. In several of his online videos, Peyton is shown as a confident, articulate boy who speaks passionately about his interests. Just through watching this example of successful speaking, Quentin realised that he needed to express himself more fully to convey his ideas to the outside world.
By introducing bright children to others like them who have achieved their own goals and carry an optimistic attitude, children can realise their capacity. Find resources that demonstrate how to be, and let children have access to these. This can include real-life mentors. More often though, it is useful to have the whole world of mentors available to draw from. Stories have been around since the dawn of time. Books improved this distribution of information. Now, technology and devices provide a seamless way to access global inspiration.
Make way for mastery. I often speak about “getting out of the way” of bright children. Sometimes parents are confused by this. We should support, accept, and love… and then get out of the way? The concept of “getting out of the way” refers to removing obstacles, standing back, and letting bright children flourish—including letting them fail.
Mastery occurs when bright children recognise themselves, and when obstacles have been removed.
Professional coaching with parental involvement is the most effective tool I’ve found for helping children identify and understand themselves. With a focus on individual aspects of the child (including personal strengths, talents, needs, and values) they are able to move past the “high IQ” metric (or “gifted” label) and into a more tangible world of expressing their brilliance.
Putting it together
Confidence amplifies IQ, magnifies individual strengths, and deepens brilliance. In my work with hundreds of high performers over many years, the most distinct attribute—the very first thing I notice—is confidence. It’s a compelling quality precisely because it allows a child to project their inside world to the outside world. It is the surest indicator and the brightest beacon that a high performer has moved past acceleration and is actually flying.