Confidence is Doing.
Lessons from a Cheater

infinate recognition

In high school, my friend Seth figured out how to work the system to his advantage. We attended a large public school where we, as students, had little control over our own fates. We were given a schedule of classes each semester that was more or less written in stone. The programming office would refuse any changes other than clear and blatant errors. Seth, however, took matters into his own hands. Each semester, he would volunteer for the programming office for a few days. In exchange, he’d gain the power to alter his own schedule. He’d pick classes with the best teachers and with friends, and give himself first period off. Sometimes he’d do favors for friends (and especially for the girl he was interested in).

Despite sometimes benefiting from Seth’s maneuvering, it infuriated me. It felt like cheating. I was angry that he was above the rules that governed the rest of us. At the time, I only thought of it as an irritating, and perhaps arrogant, side of his personality. It is only with quite a bit more perspective and life experience that I recognize Seth’s maneuvering as instructive on how to find the ways through and around obstacles– a lesson in confidence.

In their recent article “The Confidence Gap,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman describe how Seth’s and my behaviors in high school are representative of “a vast confidence gap” between men and women. The consequences extend far beyond just a better schedule: “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.” This gap has a significant impact: “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.”

Even before finishing Kay and Shipman’s article, I immediately took their confidence quiz. I scored pretty well. After all, I’m known among friends for making things up with the confidence to pull it off (though, for the record, I do usually confess that I don’t know). The quiz largely gauges confidence around knowing information, however, while the article cites a definition of confidence from Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, that I found much more compelling: “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.”

It is not enough to know facts, or even hold a belief that you might be capable of something; for confidence to be meaningful, you need to act — to speak up at a meeting, to test out a new idea, to risk being wrong, and, of course, to take matters into your own hands and figure out how to change your schedule. A few years into my career, at a small consulting firm, I saw two “Seths” in action again. They were both a few years older than me and very ambitious. One of them figured out an opportunity for a new project, pitched it to a client, and started running a successful statewide campaign. He was quickly promoted. Similarly, the other “Seth” helped grow a portion of our business and was noisy about demanding a promotion. I saw that the squeaky wheel does truly get the grease. I, on the other hand, did a good job managing the projects on my plate (for which I did eventually receive a promotion), but I did not seek out opportunities for new projects. I didn’t see the opportunities, and told myself that I didn’t want to focus my attention on it anyway. Instead, after a few years, I left for grad school. The two “Seths” are still at the same company, now senior managers.

Kay and Shipman describe this sort of scenario on a much larger scale, using Hewlett-Packard as an example. At one point, the company was actively trying to get more women into top management, but they quickly ran into a problem. “Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. At HP, and in study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and over-prepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

I identify all too closely. As Shipman and Kay write, “somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules change, and [women] don’t realize it. They slam into a work world that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners. The requirements for adult success are different, and their confidence takes a beating.” I did well and got good grades in grad school. But now, back in the working world, I still struggle to find and seize those types of new opportunities that the “Seths” identified– and it scares me.

There are “Seths” everywhere– people, typically men, who don’t see rules or roles as fixed. They see opportunities to bend rules, skirt boundaries, or take actions that weren’t explicitly demanded of them. I’m not one of these people. I am a “team player,” someone who is willing to take on extra, but usually when the path of action is clear and the benefit certain. I suffer in nebulous situations that require me to make something happen, and the something is cloudy and the way to get it done even mistier and more elusive. Reading about the confidence gap, I wondered about all the times that I haven’t even tried to wade through the mist.

My inability to see through this mist feels like staring at a 3D autostereogram. For so long, all I could see was a random pattern; I could not believe that boxing kangaroos were going to pop out, until, finally, I learned to relax my eyes and see the image. Seeing the kangaroos took some unlearning. Instead of trying to pick apart the pattern, I had to relax my eyes and take in the whole image. Similarly, I need a new tactic to start wading through the mist.

I want to take control of some of the nebulous things and form them into a solid reality. As Shipman and Kay point out, this is the way that the word beyond school truly works. I know I should maneuver, and seek out the opportunities, or better, create them for myself. I don’t always know how, but I’ve learned that the first step is to take some action. In one nebulous project at work, I’ve started. I’ve called a meeting with coworkers, I’m researching the possibilities, I’ve began to draft the memo. Because, what is the alternative? It’s to make excuses, fake busyness, and to say, “it’s too hard, too fuzzy,” which is really just to say, I don’t know how to start. This is not who I want to be. I want to have the confidence to take action on the work that I think is important enough to pursue. I want to be a Seth.

Image: “The Infinite Recognition” by Rene Magritte (1963)


  1. Virginia Abbott

    Great post! I admire you for recognizing that you are missing opportunities and trying to take action now. However, I think that what is missing from this discussion is that some of us choose not to seek out opportunities at work (or elsewhere) because we are genuinely not interested in them. If a woman doesn’t want to become senior manager because she has other priorities, I think that is perfectly ok. The key, however, is to push ourselves to identify what is important to us and set lofty goals in those areas.

  2. steph

    Great point Virginia! I think it takes confidence too to decide on your own priorities (e.g. what’s really important to you to go after, rather than a feeling that you should).

  3. Steve Togasaki

    It takes great courage to show your vulnerabilities and self-perceived shortcomings. I so appreciate your honesty and forthright nature that allows us the explore ourselves more deeply. Whether gamesmanship or personal style, in the end we all have to look in the mirror and like what we see. You are a gem.

  4. Hana Marritz

    That’s a great article. Thanks for elucidating it. Somewhere in our training we females take a couple of steps back and let the “Seths” of the world step forward. it’s cultural. But we really need to look at that perception and find ways to change it for the new generations of women.

    BTW a great case in point. I had to look up and down the article to find who wrote it, even though I looked at the beginning to see the author, I missed it. Finally, there it was. How about writing “By Stephanie, Stern” in big bold visible letters and putting your great words into action.

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