The Truth Behind the Confidence of Wildly Successful People

Confidence isn’t something you can fake. It’s a byproduct of mastering knowledge, which isn’t so much a destination as a lifelong journey.

Confidence is a key ingredient to success, but a lot of business owners try to develop it the wrong way. Ben’s inability to find true confidence had stalled his brand consulting business for years. It was actually a mentor of his, another brand consultant named Deidre, who wisely pointed this out to Ben. She tried to help him with his confidence, but to no avail. That’s when Deidre, who I had coached, sent him to me.

Blowing it

When I first got together with Ben a few years ago, he explained his frustration. He’d been out on his own for a few years and the only clients he seemed to ever get were small ones. Anytime he got a shot at acquiring a decent-sized client, he blew it.

Deidre, who had subcontracted Ben to help out with a couple of big projects, recognized his lack of confidence straight away. To help Ben, she advised him to act confident—keep his head high, give straight answers, use a firm tone of voice, etc. He did all that, but getting his own big clients still eluded him.

Wildly successful people

During our first meeting, I told Ben that while Deidre meant well, she’d given him a bum steer. Deidre’s own confidence didn’t come from acting confident, it came from a trait that is common to wildly successful people.

When Ben pushed me to tell him what the trait was I shifted the conversation in another direction, asking him what he’d studied at school, whether he went to industry conferences, what he read and how much. He’d studied marketing and advertising, and he’d been to a few conferences, but none since leaving an agency he’d worked at before flying solo. As for reading, he did a little for pleasure and occasionally checked out industry stuff online. The last time he read a full book on branding was during school.

Trade-show revelation

“Ben,” I said, “what’s the first thing you notice when you step into Deidre’s office?”

After naming a few furnishings, he finally gave me the answer I was looking for—the hundreds of books that lined her shelves.

I then told Ben about a revelation I had when I was about thirty. I was at a trade show for financial advisors selling a couple of business books I’d coauthored. When the speaking sessions broke out the trade-show floor would fill with financial advisors—young ones, those in the middle of their career and successful veterans. Milling among the crowd were the speakers, who were all among the world’s top advisors.

“Ben,” I said, “of those groups, who do you think bought more of my books? I should add that our books were geared to the junior entrepreneur.”

“I want to say the junior advisors, but you’re going to tell me I’m wrong, right?”

Bags full of books

As I explained to Ben, very, very few junior advisors bought any books. Some of the middle career folks bought, but a much larger portion of the veterans bought. But what surprised me most was that every single speaker who walked by—literally every single one of them—bought our books. In fact, their bags were filled with books from all the other vendors too. That made no sense to me.

I even advised one of the speakers not to buy our books. I was worried he was going to be disappointed because he would already know everything in the books. He looked at me and said, “I’ve never read a single book that didn’t have at least one great idea.”

Never stop learning

Ever since then I’ve noticed that—almost without exception—whenever I’m in the office of a very successful person I find shelves full of books. Seth Godin, one of the world’s leading marketing and branding gurus has said, “It’s not an accident that successful people read more books.” Most successful people never stop learning, and most successful people are extremely confident. The two things—confidence and knowledge—aren’t unrelated.

The ignoramus effect

There is however an ironic relationship between confidence and knowledge, because they don’t always go hand in hand. Ignorant people often overestimate their abilities—don’t we all have a relative like this?—while those with more knowledge sometimes suffer from a lack of confidence. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Another phenomenon is that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. I remember having that experience when I reached university—the sudden and massive exposure to how much there is to know. It was daunting, and it made me feel small.

Blowhards and masters

In business, the kind of false confidence that comes from ignorance doesn’t fly. Most clients are savvy enough to know they have a blowhard in the room. Fortunately that wasn’t Ben. He fell into that middle ground where many of us linger—an awareness of what you don’t know, leading to doubt. For those in this category, there’s hope, because you can get over that doubt by developing mastery of an area of knowledge. Deidre developed mastery of branding by continuously reading about branding, putting her knowledge to work in the real world and seeing positive results. It’s her mastery of branding that has given her confidence. She’s not acting confident, she is confident, and that genuine confidence is what earns her the trust of high-powered clients.

As I told Ben, if you want to move up market and start working with the big clients, you have to move out of that muddy area of doubt and acquire the kind of confidence that comes from mastering a subject area.

Three super confident words

Oddly, three words that Deidre and many successful people use to inspire confidence are: I don’t know. This phrase shows that you’re comfortable with what you know and what you don’t know. What you don’t know isn’t some monstrous cavern that you’re trying to hide by pretending you know more than you do. People can see through that. By the way, Deidre follows up “I don’t know” with “but let me find out.”

Camp confidence

Ben took our conversation to heart and immediately started a program of self-education that involved picking the brains of his mentor Deidre, going to conferences and reading and reading and reading. As he learned new branding strategies he would try them out on his smaller clients. He would frequently see great results, which would make him feel more confident about his new knowledge. After a year of some solid study and practice he felt an immense sense of confidence. It made him realize how much doubt he used to carry inside. Around that time he got a meeting with the head of a large summer camp, and closed the deal. It was his biggest to date. Over the years since, as his knowledge and confidence have grown, he’s gradually built a clientele of solid organizations.

The big takeaway

Confidence isn’t something you can fake. It’s a byproduct of mastering knowledge, which—as the speakers at that financial trade show have proven—isn’t so much a destination as a lifelong journey. But if you don’t set off on that journey the doors to big clients will likely remain closed to you. If you’re not a natural learner, somebody who pursues knowledge out of habit, you may, like Ben, need to push yourself.

If you want to share your own story about how increasing your knowledge has helped build your confidence, please let us know in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.

Author’s note: this post is based on business owners I have coached. I’ve changed their names and some telling details.

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about the author

Former Staff Contributor Donald Cowper is a best-selling author and head of content at ClearFit.