How to be more confident in college

I just taught a couple of classes in the Harvard Wellness Conference during Wintersession, and got this letter from one of the students:

“Thank you so much for speaking at our conference; it was really nice meeting you. Although I only had the chance to attend one of your lectures I felt like I learned a lot and was reminded of some things in my life that I should work harder to improve. I do have a question for you regarding confidence. I feel as though since coming to college I’ve become a lot more insecure and self-conscious, which I thought was the opposite of what was supposed to happen. Do you have any tips or suggestions for building confidence? Thank you so much and I look forward to hearing from you! — Virginia W.”

Well, Virginia, not to worry!  First of all, it’s perfectly natural for us to feel more insecure and self-conscious when we got to college.  Think about it: you left high school the Queen of the Hill! You were the senior, which means that you knew all the tricks and shortcuts.  And not just a senior, but a Harvard-bound senior.  That’s just about as good as it gets for an 18-year old.

Then, of course, you matriculated at Harvard or other college of choice — and got knocked down to the status of freshman, all the way down the food chain, just a notch above an amoeba.  Yeah, it can suck.

Luckily, it’s not a permanent condition, and there are things you can do to build your confidence.  Here are three simple, easy-to-implement suggestions:

1) Bypass confidence entirely by being curious and complimentary.

Mentally, confidence feels a bit like a wall, or armor.  The more confident I am, the taller and stronger that wall.

The problem with a wall is that it can be knocked down, no matter how strong.  It’s also a barrier to true connection.  Even better than confidence, then, is humility.  Here’s what Chapter 66 of the Tao Te Ching has to say about that:

All streams flow to the sea
Because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

Confidence is all about you, and you can get flustered, self-conscious and jittery.  But when you focus your attention on the person you’re talking to and do your best to be curious and complimentary about what she has to say, then there’s no mental space for worrying about you.  And you know what?  You will be perceived as confident.

More important than confidence is charm, which is the ability to make the person in front of you feel like a trillion bucks.  And when you’re genuinely curious and complimentary, you will be naturally charming.

2) Create confidence through conviction.

Do you remember those protesters in the Occupy movement and how they faced down armed cops?  What possessed them to do so?  Did they have a genetic makeup that made them more confident than you?

Not necessarily.  One thing they did have: they believed in their cause.  They had tons of conviction in a cause bigger than themselves, and that gave them courage.  And courage is another thing that looks like confidence from the outside.

So whether it’s a job interview or first date, ask yourself: why am I doing this?  What’s the cause bigger than myself that I believe in?  How am I making the world a better place through this action?  Once you have your powerful positive intent (PPI), then you’re tapped into a bottomless reservoir of courage.  And you will appear very confident indeed.

3) Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Novel activities are inherently stressful.  Any time you get on a rollercoaster or speak in front of a group, your neurology is going to secrete some stress chemicals.  And that’s totally normal.

The difference between the rollercoaster and the speech is that most of us consider one fun and the other less so.  But I’m here to tell you that your body’s response to both events is nearly identical.  It’s just that you say you’re excited about the rollercoaster and anxious about public speaking.

I think that being excited is a whole lot more fun than being anxious.  So why not call it excitement all the time?  When you label it as excitement, at a cognitive level somehow you’re a lot more willing to take on a task.  Excitement is empowering while anxiety is disabling.

And now that you’ve re-labeled the feeling, you’re much more able to push through and do the thing you need to do.  As Krishna said to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Plunge into the heat of battle, and keep your heart at the lotus-feet of the lord.”  It would be unnatural for you not to feel jitters in novel situations, so take it as a sign that you’re doing it right.

So draw upon the courage you got from your convictions, be curious and complimentary about people and their work, and be excited about novel endeavors.  Then, more than just being confident, you’ll be a conqueror of anything that comes in your path.

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