x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The confidence conundrum and what we can do about it

Shoba Narayan explains why, despite not being funny, she really should pursue her dream of being a standup comic.

One of the things I announce regularly, often just for effect, is that my lifelong dream is to be a standup comic. It produces the desired effect. Everybody laughs. If you saw me, you would know why. I don’t look funny, I don’t talk funny. In fact, I am pretty much galactically unfunny. It feels pathetic to admit this, but announcing this desire to be a comic is my funniest line. I am no closer to achieving this dream than I was the first time I actually said those words. I keep telling the world that I want to be a standup comic but I don’t do anything about it.

This paradox has been addressed in a number of recent essays about female self-confidence. One essay in The Atlantic, titled, “The Confidence Gap”, describes research based on social psychology that shows how women consistently undervalue and underrate themselves. Men and boys, on the other hand, consistently think that they are better than they actually are. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud” is a thought that has crossed the minds of the most powerful and seemingly confident women. What’s with this confidence conundrum, and what can women do about it?

Although, inevitably, studies deal in sweeping generalisations, they often show that many women are far more perfectionist than men. They would rather do something perfectly or not do anything at all. Men on the other hand, are willing to blunder through tasks, blithely making mistakes and learning from them. They plunge into activities that are far above their abilities, get criticised for it, get used to the criticism and improve. The criticism makes them resilient: witness the sight of young boys in the playground, calling each other “morons” but improving their game in the process.

Playing sports, it turns out, is a great confidence-builder. Rough-housing and trading insults on the sports field is great preparation for the testosterone filled aggression of Wall Street. By dropping out of sports, girls are denying themselves the chance to grow in these areas.

Some psychologists say that focusing on competence rather than self-esteem is a good way to increase confidence. Self-esteem is a nebulous concept, they say. Simply telling a child that she is wonderful will not make her feel good about herself.

Instead, focusing on the tasks that she has accomplished and the effort that she has expended in achieving measurable results is often a better way to bolster teenage self-esteem.

The next time you tell your child, “Honey, you are so smart”, stop yourself. Instead, put out a 10,000-piece puzzle, ask them to finish it and then say, “Wow! You worked hard at it and solved it.”

My favourite line comes from Professor Richard Petty of Ohio State University, who has studied confidence building for decades.

“Confidence,” he says, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into actions.”

I think it is a terrific thought because it tells me what to do. There is no sense in my labouring the point that I want to be a stand-up comic if I don’t do a thing about it.

The trick is to silence the voices in my head – the ones that say I don’t have a funny bone in my body and will therefore fall flat at this exercise.

The trick is to actually get out and engage. To act, to rush “rashly” into the goal at hand instead of thinking once, then twice, and then succumbing to inertia.

Near my home is a club that offers stand up opportunities for amateurs every Thursday. I think that I need to get out there and attempt comedy.

Next week, I aim to do just that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir