Confidence is a fickle friend who nips out for a fag at the first sign of trouble. If you’ve lost your mojo – through illness, career or relationship lows or the sudden realisation that your greatest achievement today was chipping three weeks’ worth of hardened Shreddies off your once-aspirational Eames Eiffel Chairs – you’re not alone. Charlotte takes comfort in the words of a poet who was denounced in his lifetime as “an upstart Crow… that supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you.”
I hesitate to write about confidence as a women’s issue – because I don’t believe it’s the biggest factor holding us back professionally. And I’m certainly not saying that there would be no pay gap or all-male boardrooms if only the ladies weren’t such self-effacing little flowers. It’s a human issue – but it is one that has affected me on and off throughout my career and particularly since I became a mum.
I went to Mumsnet’s Blogfest last weekend and was inspired to see so many women telling us there are no limits to what we can achieve. And it was uplifting too to see a huge audience of women, a handful casually breastfeeding as they listened, responding “yes we can – and we’re already doing it”. A few of the speakers talked about confidence. The audience cheered when Lisa Jarmin told us she changed her email signature to “freelance writer” and then it was so. And we loved Suzanne Moore for telling us “if you don’t feel good enough then just pretend to be”. It got me thinking about confidence; and I want to share with you a few thoughts on the subject and a little story from a few days ago – when I felt as if Shakespeare’s ghost had jumped into my car to tell me that anyone who’s anyone has moments of self doubt.
My confidence is up and down from one day to the next. So what is it that makes me feel sky high? And what sends me toppling back down towards the nearest ditch? It’s complicated of course but three principles stand out:
- I feel confident when I’m doing something I’m proud of.
- I gradually lose confidence when I feel I can’t get on with what I’m good at.
- And my confidence nose-dives when I find myself compared to someone whose accomplishments far outstrip my own – particularly if that person has otherwise got a lot in common with me.
It strikes me that the first two examples in this list are perfectly appropriate and healthy. There are plenty of factors that hold us back from doing what we’re good at – some of which particularly abound when we become parents – and there are sometimes ways around them; but that’s a different blog for another day.
What I’m interested in now is the third situation: that crushing bubble-burster of a moment when you find out who else is applying for that job – or when Facebook cheerily announces that one of your university peers (maybe one you never really rated that much) has just got a book deal or an MBE or their own TV show. Those are the moments that stop you short, scorch your cheeks and make you mutter miserably to your yourself: ‘Who was I trying to kid?’
This happened to me a day or two ago. It was about a quarter to six and I was parked up outside a plush slab of Cheshire house (not mine), using my car as a little mobile office. I spend a couple of evenings a week helping the children of the rich to tighten their future grip on the establishment by dragging them through their English GCSEs. This is a small sideline I quite enjoy: I only work with kids I like and I get paid to talk about literature. (Yes, I have ethical qualms about it; I know that the children whose parents can afford this bespoke educational leg up are seldom the ones who most need it. But my defense is pragmatic: we really need the money. And it gives me a night off from delivering the dumbfounding newsflash to my children that yes, they will be going to bed tonight.)
Anyway I had some poems to read through ready for the tutoring session but first I was checking in with my virtual life. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself that day: I’d had some great feedback from a client earlier and read some nice comments on our blog; and I was pretty much on a productivity high: I had more great ideas I was burning to crack on with than there are (childfree) hours in the day. So I was feeling less like a fraud than I usually do.
Until I checked my email. It was just a link to a website: a bit of competition for Still You. But this site was spookily close to our own thing – just by coincidence: both started at pretty much the same time. And it would be weird if there wasn’t competition – it’s a crowded marketplace. But this website really got under my skin. It clearly had plenty of money behind it and its staff list was impressive. As I read the profiles of its writers – a column in the New York Times here, a bestselling book there – my guts tightened. What were we doing daring to imagine that our own little project might go anywhere? Real success is for people like this: London people; connected people; people whose byline mug shots were probably taken by Mario Testino. It is not for people like me: who unwittingly accessorise cat-hairy jumpers with Frozen stickers; who sometimes cut their own hair; and who have been known to take interview notes with a Gruffalo pen.
In fact, when I read what these people had written, I wasn’t cowed by their talent. Of course they were good – but the angel on my shoulder says so am I. But it was those towering lists of accomplishments that did me in. I still believe at the grand old age of 35 that my best is yet to come. It’s all a question of perspective. To some people my CV is enviable: I made Radio Four programmes for years. I struggled hard to get where I did at the BBC – and it was a prickly path. (Another blog post in that too!) But I believe I’ve got more to give than my CV would suggest. (Rachel says that I’m maybe putting a bit too much pressure on myself to be a Woman of the Year type. She’s probably right…)
When it comes to self-confidence I think we often cling to our achievements like weaponry; and we bandy them around to intimidate the competition: Brownie badges, prefect lapel pins, qualifications, awards, our connections with impressive universities, employers or people. It’s nice to have these things and of course they can be meaningful but they’re just ciphers for what you can actually do. What’s real is what you know you’re capable of. The accolades you won three years ago won’t help a client or employer today. They want to know what can you do for me now?
Anyway none of this wisdom came to me as I sat in the dark, in my car, crestfallen and pathetic. So I put it out of my mind and picked up my poetry books to prepare for my tutoring session. The lad I was helping had been given a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets to study. First on the list was Sonnet 29. These are the opening lines:
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
(You can read the whole poem – with a modern English version alongside it – here.)
Now I’m not the kind of person who can punch the air without looking like a twat. Nor can I convincingly come out with “Get in there!” or “Fuck yeah!” or even a credible-sounding whoop. But the point is I was really quite pleased. This is Shakespeare! It’s fucking Shakespeare! Shakespeare having a moment of self-doubt! (Yes I know that the sonnets are dramatic constructions so it’s not exactly him talking – but my point is he must have felt it: you couldn’t write that sort of thing unless on some level you’d been there.) I just love it! Shakespeare didn’t go to university. He started out earning a precarious living as an actor and, as his writing career was taking off, he took some nasty abuse from university-educated contemporaries who saw him as just some actor who had no business trying to be a writer. And it got to him. We’ve all got our points of vulnerability. But how confident we feel probably has very little to do with how good we really are. In fact Bertrand Russell reckoned there’s an inverse correlation. He said the trouble today is that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” I cling to this quote – true or not – when my confidence takes a hit. And now I’m going to cling to Sonnet 29 too: the sonnet in which the William Shakespeare wishes he was as good as all the other writers.
Actually the poem goes off into a bit of of a soppy love-song ending along the lines of “but when I think of you I feel on top of the world”. That’s not quite where I’d go with how to overcome self-doubt – nice as it is to have someone who believes in you. Because really the belief has got to come from you yourself. Just remember that when you feel overwhelmed by someone else’s achievements, the only important question is what have they done today? And is it really any better than what you’re doing today? And probably the answer is that it’s not better or worse: it’s different. Because they’re good at doing their thing but you’re the best person in the world at doing your thing.