We were sharing stories as new friends do, laughing over the twists and turns our careers had taken, searching for common ground. “How did you get to here?” she asked. By “here” I knew she didn’t mean the Asian fusion bistro where we were eating kung pao rice bowls. She meant the “here” of this mid-life career ladder, with plenty to look down at and, let’s hope, many more rungs to climb.
“I think it took the slow process of gaining confidence,” I said. She looked at me kind of funny. “Really? But you’re confident now, aren’t you?” she asked. Turns out that what she thought of as confidence—and until that very moment what I thought of as confidence— was actually boldness.
For her, a successful, smart woman who had paved her own way, confidence meant bravely mustering the conviction it takes to speak up and project strength, no matter how much quavering might happen on the inside. What she was defining as confidence was the cousin of courage, a coat to be worn whenever bravery was required. I knew that coat. I’d worn it too many times to count as I’d swallowed down nagging self-doubts to find a surer, steadier voice. Sometimes it fit me perfectly and I’d wear it with style and grace, winking to myself all the while. (“Look at you, you’ve got it all going on!”) But other times that coat was tight and confining and I had to work hard to stretch it. Or it was too big and heavy, forcing me to puff myself up to fill it up. Whether too big or small, the only way to wear it was to prove the coat was really mine—that my answers were the right answers, that I was smart, capable, competent enough—while tuning out the doubt inside that grew louder with each tug of the coat. To make this coat fit, I had to button it with arrogance.
“Arrogance is the opposite of confidence,” I said aloud over lunch that day as the thought came to me as a clear and simple truth. Because isn’t confidence, at its core, the antithesis of trying to fit into a coat that doesn’t really fit? To be confident, to be sure of one’s self in one’s own skin, requires the willingness to accept what one can see and to keep exploring the rest, to resist the coat and embrace the wearer, to ask questions and stay open to their answers. It’s a growth curve we all travel as we move from the skill of summoning bravery—and with it the occasional puffery of arrogance—to donning the genuine confidence that comes when we know ourselves well enough to accept flaws and appreciate strengths. For me to have confidence means knowing that I might not always be confident, accepting that some moments might be better than others and being okay with the idea that confidence is an evolving process rather than a tangible skill to be acquired and checked off a list.
“So, are you confident now?” my friend asked. The answer was different than the hearty yes I would have given twenty years or two days ago. “I think I’m getting there,” I said. “How about you?” “Yeah, that’s about right,” she agreed, “but I sure am enjoying the ride.” “Me too,” I said over a fork full of rice. “Me too.”