Who Dares, Wins (If You Do It Right)

[6-Minute Read]Grab that great opportunity with both hands but take care - how you rise to the challenge will determine if the journey builds your self-belief or destroys it.

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

Who Dares, Wins (If You Do It Right)

Grab that great opportunity with both hands but take care – how you rise to the challenge will determine if the journey builds your self-esteem or destroys it.

A Sweaty-Palmed Panic Attack

In 2013, I was a freshly minted director on the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) board and the youngest appointed in its 90-year history.

Senior executives who had polished their expertise on the arduous climb to the top of impressive corporations led the organisation. My career followed an entrepreneurial route which showed in my notably different biography and mannerisms. My appointment signalled to “the market” that the organisation was heading in a new direction.

One day the presiding chairman offered me the opportunity to do a 5-minute welcome address at an annual breakfast event. It would be a formal affair with silver service and suits. Of course, I accepted with a stone-faced confidence that I didn’t necessarily feel inside.

I buckled down to write and practise the speech. I chose simple words that I could deliver confidently and then practised relentlessly. On the morning of the address, I felt ready to succeed.

Unfortunately, all that confidence evaporated the moment I stepped toward the stage. I didn’t have to look down to know there were tiny beads of sweat on my palms.

Why now? I thought as the panic attack gained strength. I’ve done the work and earned the right to be here. Why now?

My calf muscle trembled as my other foot landed on the second step.

There’s no rush; take your time. Breathe slower. Breathe in for three. You’re just part of the show, not the main act. Get it done.

When I finally reached the podium, 900 sets of eyes looked back at me from the darkened room. Cutlery clattered as they paused from their breakfast.

Photo: Delivering the welcome address

My mouth and throat felt drier than a desert. My mind went blank of all the words I could recite unprompted minutes before, and I feared opening my mouth to speak in case nothing came out.

I looked over at the MC; she smiled and nodded encouragement (oh, the power of a caring MC! I will never forget her kind eyes); I breathed in and began to read from my notes.

As I stepped off the stage, I felt like I had let everyone down. I wanted to do my best to honour the trust people had invested in me, and although I got the job done, my performance fell a long way short of what I had hoped. I felt crushed inside.

What Went So Horribly Wrong?

Before stepping onto that stage, I was prepared to nail the speech and thought I would.

We will need to dissect my mind to understand what went so horribly wrong. Here, let me hand you the scalpel.

Let’s categorise human thought processing into two broad groups. The first category is thoughts occurring in the conscious mind, which are thoughts you intentionally process and often sound like a voice in your head.

By adulthood, most of us have learned that we can control our conscious thoughts and, consequently, exert control over our emotions and behaviours. I can choose to have positive thoughts about someone, and I’ll then feel happy toward them and behave positively, shaking their hand and smiling. If I choose to have negative thoughts, I might frown and walk away from them rather than engage with that person.

When I accepted the offer to do the welcome address, thoughts of self-doubt immediately sprung into my conscious mind. Questions like, “Can I do it?” and “Am I good enough?”. I’m sure you’re familiar with them. I then masterfully controlled those conscious thoughts by telling myself, “I can”, and rigorous preparation.

“Our conscious minds are really just a summary of what our brains get up to all the time. It’s like a broom closet in the mansion of the brain.”

~ David Eagleman for BBC Future

The second category of thinking covers those we don’t know are happening. Experts refer to these as unconscious, subconscious, subliminal or preconscious thoughts. I’ll call them all “non-conscious” for easy reference.

Most of our thinking happens in the non-conscious mind, and various statistics emphasise this point. Some say that 95% of our processing is non-conscious, or the non-conscious mind processes 20 million bits of information per second, compared to the conscious mind only doing 40 bits per second.

Whichever is accurate, all agree the non-conscious mind is a busy place. Without you knowing it, the non-conscious mind is driving your life.

It:

  • Moves your body – coordinating muscles and pumping your heart
  • Processes sensory data – the sights, sounds, and smells that surround you
  • Converts sensory data to emotions – see kittens, feel love
  • Stores memories and beliefs – your cumulative life experience and learning
  • Stores instinct – deeply programmed memory and responses
  • Generates intelligence – combining all of the above into epiphanies, intuition and insights

My non-conscious mind proved its superior power when I stepped onto the stage. While I convinced my conscious mind that I could perform the task, my non-conscious mind said otherwise.

No More Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I have no regrets about accepting the offer to deliver the welcome address, and I continue to grab moments like that with both hands. However, the way I rise to the challenge of those moments has changed dramatically. 

Have you heard of the expression “fake it until you make it”? It’s common advice if you’re hesitating to step into a new role or situation where you don’t have all the necessary skills. You act like the person who can do the job and then develop the missing skills. The advice steers you toward backing yourself and away from waiting until everything is perfect.

I have frequently followed that advice throughout my professional life and achieved some excellent outcomes.

Women in leadership were a rare sight during the early stages of my career. We had to make significant assumptions about how to earn respect, which often meant finding ways to adopt masculine stereotypes of power. We faked it until we discovered how to make it a reality.

Photo: Prime Minister Thatcher epitomised female-masculine power in the 1980s (source Getty Images)

Self-belief is your opinion of your ability to learn and become proficient at a task. You have high self-belief when you know you can do the requisite learning and build competence. Low self-belief has you constantly questioning your abilities.

Self-belief often gets confused with bravado, an ego-driven behaviour where you pretend to be an instant expert at something and try to convince others to have the same opinion.

“Fake it until you make it” is an example of bravado, although people rarely label it as such. It directs you to pretend you’re already an expert, convince everyone that’s the case and then build the competence. 

Bravado poisons your self-belief by sending toxic messages into your non-conscious mind. For instance, if you issue the internal instruction to “fake it” and be someone you’re not your non-conscious mind interprets that as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not one of them”.

It’s reading between the lines of your conscious thoughts, and the message is bitter.

Do it often enough, and those messages become reflexive responses, ensuring your first thought in any new situation is negative, and that erodes your self-belief.

That’s why people who consistently use bravado often have fragile self-esteem and seem permanently trapped in defensive, competitive, or selfish behaviours. I used to be super-competitive.

In the old days, I would get a gut-wrenching knot of self-doubt in my stomach every time I took on a new challenge. I experienced it so often that I considered it a basic fact of life, but it’s not.

I rarely, if ever, feel that anymore and it’s not because I’ve stopped doing extraordinary things.

Photo: Feed your self-belief by dumping the ‘fake it’ approach.

Don’t Mask Up, Rise Up

Now I refuse to fake it until I make it. Instead, I start from my core and build outward until I reach where my audience stands. 

I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know my personality and passions. I love contributing, solving complex puzzles, engaging deeply with people and sharing my life with nature and animals. I have quirky humour and a philosophical mind, and I see patterns in life that others don’t. Now I use those fantastic assets as my foundation for rising to meet a new challenge.

It boils down to reshaping the questions I ask at the start of a new challenge.

In the old days, my opening questions were, “What would someone good at this do? How can I be like them?”

Now I start with “What aspects of my personality and passions do I want to bring into play for this challenge?”

The shift is subtle yet profound. Grab a piece of paper right now, think of a challenge or goal you would like to achieve and answer the old and new questions above. Notice the very different feelings evoked. That’s your self-esteem offering up a big dose of the thank you vibes. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

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