Never Let ‘Em See Ya Sweat

 

When I arrived at Merrill, I had what I believed was a brilliant idea for a program on the topic of financial services innovation. The program would be launched on a global scale, across the entire Global Markets Business. It had the potential for an 8,000-person participation rate, with enormous visibility. I pitched the idea to the head of Global Markets who liked it very much but was skeptical about its challenging execution. To put his mind at ease, I decided to obtain sponsorship from one of his direct reports. With that in mind, I brought the idea to the co-head of Fixed Income Currencies and Commodities (“FICC”), whose rock-star status made him hugely influential within the business. He liked the idea but was totally risk averse, and the sheer scale of the program scared him. He also questioned the program’s execution with its many moving parts across multiple regions. It was risky, and he didn’t want to be associated with something that he thought might fail.

But I knew I was good at my job, and I had the experience needed to execute a program as complex as this one. Plus, I had thought through every last detail of the implementation and knew exactly how I was going to pull this off. Self-efficacy kept me driving forward with intense focus, and I paid no attention to the skepticism that was being raised by the other business heads. Through perseverance, passion, and conviction, I got them all to buy in. 

But their doubts somehow managed to seep into my head, and I began to second-guess myself. Once I got all the required sign-offs, I went home and literally threw up. I was rattled and unnerved and was having a momentary crisis of confidence. I wrestled with doubt the whole night through and tossed and turned sleeplessly through anxiety filled dreams that ended with night terrors. 

The next day, I went to work and told the co-head of FICC about my stress and anxiety, at which time I think he went home and threw up. He had just agreed to champion a program with a leader who seemed unsure of herself and who doubted the project’s success. He saw visions of the program failing on an enormous scale and, with it, his popularity going down in flames. I could see the color draining from his face. I realized right then and there that sharing my stress with him was a bad decision. It was at that very moment that I learned that you should never, ever let ‘em see ya sweat.

Confidence is an essential characteristic, especially when you’re in a position of leadership. No one wants to turn to the captain of a sinking ship only to find him curled up in a fetal ball of panic. And when the end is imminent, most people prefer a fearless leader who will bravely lead them, even if it’s through a delusional sense of hope and optimism. People feel more comfortable working with those who are confident in their abilities than with people who are unsure of themselves. In business, men and women alike respect women who have confidence. Confidence puts people at ease and provides them with a sense of security and trust. No one wants to do business with someone who doubts herself or seems afraid. This is especially true in finance where the stakes are high and money is at risk. In reality, everyone is pretty much afraid, maybe not all the time, but certainly some of the time. Feeling afraid is normal, but showing fear can be the kiss of death. 

So where does confidence come from? Well, to understand confidence and other similar qualities, we will have to poke around the human psyche and speak in psychobabble. A discussion that touches upon the human psyche is relevant because, while most career books offer practical advice, they tend to ignore the realm of the human condition. Yet, what often stands between us and success is not just circumstances, but rather what lies within our psyche. Our emotions, our fears, and our insecurities stand in our way, and they are all in our head. Actually, they are our head.

"The toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head" - Joe Henderson

 

The psyche of a woman is often her greatest foe. Women tend to overthink and overanalyze, which can become paralyzing. Unlike other aspects of life where introspection is required for self-growth, in business too much introspection can be detrimental. It can intensify fears and create limiting self-images that lead to feelings of doubt and behaviors of self-sabotage. Before you know it, you’ve concocted a toxic cocktail of defeat.

Confidence, self-efficacy, and self-esteem are three very important qualities that are often mistakenly believed to be the same thing. But they are not. They are distinctly different. We gain a sense of self-efficacy when we see ourselves mastering skills and achieving goals that matter, while self-esteem is our own assessment of our worth. Together these qualities contribute to self-confidence.  

To understand these qualities, we need to take a look back to when they were formed, which any good shrink will tell you was during childhood. We were all born with purity of thought and knowledge of our own greatness. But then the world took its toll and perversely re-programmed our patterns of thinking to make us all think less of ourselves. Our minds became cluttered with negative ideas and limiting self-images, which morphed into what we call self-esteem. 

For me, my self-esteem came from my mother, who herself struggled with her own issues of low self-worth. She grew up in the background of two talented sisters and felt that she had little to offer the world. She married my father, who was a smart man and whom she admired for his intelligence. I was my father’s daughter and had his intellect, so my mother looked up to me as well. Growing up, I always sensed her admiration of me as she hung on my every word. It made me feel smart and very special. And when the world overwhelmed me and became almost too heavy to bear, my mother was right beside me whispering in my ear, “You can do it.” Those were powerful words to constantly hear from a parent. And after an entire childhood filled with these types of whispers, I grew up believing I could do it. Anyone would, as long as the other parent wasn’t saying, “Shut up, stupid.”

Our formative years lay the groundwork for the development of self-esteem. Once it is formed, it is hard to change because it is deeply rooted in our psyche. Low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy aren’t necessarily remedied by success or any other external factors because they are driven by fear and insecurity, not logical reasoning. But everyone has feelings of doubt and flashes of low self-worth; this is the case with both men and women. My friend owns and operates a two and a half-million-dollar company, and once in a while, he’ll say to me, “It’s not bad for a loser.” As you look up the success chain, you will find more of the same. I once saw an interview with fashion icon Diane Von Furstenberg and she said that you never feel the success, and you always think that things are going wrong. She said, “So many mornings I wake up, and I feel like a loser, and I ask other people who are successful, ‘Do you ever feel like a loser?’ and they say, ‘Yeah.’” And two of the smartest and most successful colleagues that I’ve ever known told me that they frequently wake up in the middle of the night to the same recurring dream that the world has discovered that they are a fraud. I’m not sure these feelings ever go away. Even the most confident people have flashes of doubts and panic sometimes.

Because confidence and self-esteem are closely entwined, having low self-esteem will affect your sense of confidence. But unlike self-esteem, which comes from within, confidence is about behavior and has more to do with external factors. Confidence can be strong, but it can also be very fragile. Confidence needs to be frequently replenished because it is not constant. Confidence fluctuates based on our ratio of successes to failures. 

While self-esteem and self-efficacy are about how you feel, confidence is about how you act. This is important because, as we’ve discussed in previous chapters, how you act is within your control. Therefore, it is entirely possible to act confidently, even if you don’t feel confident. So yes, you can actually fake confidence. I wouldn’t, however, suggest doing it all the time because you cannot consistently perform in a way that is inconsistent with how you see yourself. But you can fake confidence just enough to get you through certain situations as long as you never let ’em see ya sweat.