I was 16 years old and being given a car ride to a cricket match by one of my teammates. He was our opening batsman and a good cricket player—I’m guessing around 40 to 50 years old. He started asking about how my education was going. I told him that I was about to sit my GCSE exams and was probably going to do sciences for my A-Levels (those are the exams sat by high school students in England). He acknowledged my ambitions and then said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “That’s great, but let me tell you from my experience, that much more so than education and grades, confidence is the most important skill you can have in life.” He then went on to give me some examples of how he believed this to be the case.
It’s funny, I never forgot that conversation, but at the time it didn’t really register in my mind. Certainly not the importance of the point he was trying to make. It’s easy when you are very young to just be living as if you are on a well-defined and preset path. Put your head down, study hard, get a good job, and everything will just fall into place. While it is indeed crucial to work hard and educate yourself while you are young, one quickly realizes some other harsh realities of life once you get out in the real world. Namely, that education and grades are not enough. Many crucial life skills are sadly not taught anywhere near enough in school, like how to communicate successfully and manage your finances. But the biggest one that is not hammered home enough is how to develop your inner confidence, and the simple truth that is lacking in it is going to hold you back in more ways than you could ever imagine.
It’s undoubtedly been my observation, from looking around at people that I’ve seen reach great heights and exceed all expectations, that sheer confidence and self-belief has always been at the center of it. I’ve seen very average intelligence people with great confidence (and this obviously comes with other skills, like the ability to communicate) excel unbelievably in their lives. And I’ve also seen very high IQ and book smart people, who would ace their exams, have very mediocre careers and never quite reach the heights they aspired to. I’m sure you probably have too.
It’s important to note that by “confidence” we’re not talking about an obnoxious or huge ego type of confidence—but just a healthy dose that will take you where you want to go (although between the two extremes of over-confidence, or having zero confidence, I think we know what most people would pick).
Obviously, it goes without saying if you work in health care—especially as a physician who is the team-leader and makes the final decision—you have to display great confidence if your patients are to have faith in you, balanced with humility and empathy. In fact, no matter what field you are in, this combination will take you far.
I’ll let you into a little personal secret. There was a time in my life where I was pretty shy. I couldn’t have ever imagined writing blog posts that were read by thousands of people, let alone speaking in front of thousands (just a classroom of 20 was enough to make me feel on edge). Perhaps that cricket teammate when I was 16 sensed that I needed to hear his advice—I don’t know. I’d hazard a guess that most people are naturally closer to the shy end of the spectrum when they are young. There’s only ever a handful of children and teenagers who always put their hand up first or enjoy being on stage! The rest of us have to self-reflect and learn new skills. What I did know though, was that I wasn’t entirely happy, had high ambitions, and didn’t want a lack of confidence to hold me back in my life. More so, when I was in university, I dived right into improving in this area. Nowadays, I think I could teach a class on how to walk into a room full of strangers and start confidently introducing yourself, or stand up on a stage to give a big speech without batting an eyelid—which I now relish! That took time and made me very uncomfortable at first. But I’m glad I changed. Am I exactly where I want to be, or have I achieved all of my goals? No! But life is always a work in progress.
There’s a common misconception out there that you are who you are, and that’s it. That’s a crock of bull. It’s been widely studied and researched: the human brain is very plastic, and anyone can learn new habits and patterns pretty quickly. It takes on average, just over two months, to get into any new habit and make that normal for you. The hardest part is the inertia of simply getting started and being consistent.
If I was to give any young person in high school now, a golden piece of advice, aside from obviously studying hard to get good grades, it would be just what my cricket teammate told me: do everything possible as soon you can, to build your self-confidence. It may make you very uncomfortable at first, but you will never look back. As the saying goes: if you are somebody that always seeks to feel comfortable, you are probably going to end up having a very uncomfortable life. If you are someone that keeps pushing yourself to feel uncomfortable, you are likely going to have a very comfortable life.
Very few confident people wish they were more shy. But you can bet your bottom dollar that a hell of a lot of shy people spend a lot of time seeing what some of their friends and colleagues are doing, and wish they could be more confident.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author, and co-founder, DocsDox. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand, and on YouTube.
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