Want to build your self-confidence? Let these brilliant Ted talks be your guide
It’s easy to get knocked down in life. But self-confidence is a secret weapon that conquers all. When you truly believe in yourself, that certainty takes on a strength of its own. Like a ship in a storm, you can’t be swayed.
Here, five TED speakers share the personal battles they’ve face in finding that all-powerful inner conviction:
Hear the “why” that drives you
The takeaway: For confidence, first comes courage
If confidence has eluded you so far, it may be because you haven’t found your purpose – that’s the message from Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi in this gripping TED talk.
Mwangi spent the first 24 years of his life being what he calls “a smart coward” under the dictatorship of President Moi. In a climate of fear and recrimination, he kept his head down. It was a survival strategy that most Kenyans around him used. But this all changed in 2008, when political violence erupted across the country in the wake of a disputed election.
In his role as a photographer, Mwangi captured images of the scores of his fellow countrymen who had been raped and killed in the aftermath. And he realised he could not stay quiet any longer.
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A few days later, he arrived at a stadium where the president was giving an address. “I knew very well I had to make a decision,” says Mwangi. “Was I going to live like a coward, like everyone else, or was I going to make a stand?” As the president began to speak, Mwangi found himself on his feet, yelling and telling him to remember the victims of the post-election violence.
That one moment was the start of something different, and bigger, than himself.
Mwangi is now part of a large activist network of young people in Kenya, who are working to make the country a better, fairer place. His story shows that confidence is conditional, but courage comes from within. When you know what fires you up, and act on it, incredible things start to happen.
“There are two most powerful days in your life,” Mwangi tells us. “The day you are born, and the day you discover why.”
You don’t have to be loud to be confident
The takeaway: Don’t pretend to be what you’re not
From a young age, American lawyer Susan Cain was taught to suppress her introvert within. Like many others like her, she believed that in order to be successful, you must be loud and outgoing.
Cain argues that this bias is so deeply ingrained into our belief system, that all our major institutions – from schools to workplaces and beyond – are designed for extroverts. From open-plan offices to brainstorm sessions, most organisations assume that our productivity and creativity comes from a gregarious place.
But, says Cain, “solitude matters, and for some people, it is the air that we breathe”.
Confidence is a value that’s often dressed up as loud – but you can be just as bold and assertive if you come from a quieter, more introspective place.
For proof of this, look to some of history’s most famous introverts, including civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt. These people, and many others like them, didn’t need loudness to stand up for what they believed in.
In her on-point TED talk, Cain encourages us to be authentic, and use our inner, individual skills in finding confidence.
“Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase, and why you put it there,” she says. Introverts should remember that “the world needs you and it needs the things you carry”.
You don’t have to be a certain way, in order to find confidence. Just do your thing: and if that requires “the courage to speak softly”, then go for it: be the person you are.
Unlearn the lessons you’ve internalised about gender
The takeaway: interrogate your conditioned beliefs
We live in a world where imposter syndrome – the false belief that you are not worthy of your job – reigns large among professional women.
One famous study by the firm Hewlett Packard showed that, while women will only apply for a role if they meet 100% of the qualifications, men are happy to wing it with just 60% of the experience required. When a patriarchal thread has long dominated the workforce (creating a huge gender pay gap), women underestimate their own potential.
And so, it becomes impossible to discuss confidence without also considering the parallel role of gender.
In this powerful TED talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues that “what we believe and what we value about gender” is central to self-confidence.
When she first taught a lecture to students, Adichie agonised over what to wear. Because she is a woman, she automatically felt she had to prove her worth. And so, she opted for a sensible suit that she did not like, but seemed less feminine – in order to be “taken seriously”.
“Had I then had the confidence that I have now to be myself, my students would have benefited even more from my teaching,” Adichie says. “Because I would have been more comfortable, and more fully and truly myself.”
In order to achieve confidence, you have to first interrogate the role that gender may play in holding you back. And, while women have many more opportunities in a modern age, Adichie shows that there’s still some subtle, unwritten coding around gender that we need to call out.
This is just as important for men as it is for women (think of the pressure to be “manly”).
“Culture doesn’t make people, people make culture,” says Adichie. So, both sexes should join together in saying, “yes there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must do it better”.
When we unite to challenge gender expectations, we pave the way to greater self-respect.
Get your power pose on
The takeaway: not-verbal signals are far more powerful than you think
In the animal kingdom, species routinely use non-verbal expressions to signify their power and dominance. Chimps, big cats, birds: you name it, they all assert themselves by physically opening up and taking up space. And when they feel powerless, they do the opposite; they close themselves in and appear smaller.
In this brilliant and illuminating TED lecture, social psychologist Amy Cuddy, argues that humans do the same thing. We have universal symbols of power and pride that we use the whole time (think Usain Bolt’s lightning pose) – and we also close in when we’re feeling vulnerable.
These non-verbal signs have a powerful influence on our life outcomes. Cuddy’s research shows that the kind of sweeping, instant judgements we take from others’ body language can led to decisions such as whether or not we get hired, whom we choose to date – and even if we get convicted for a crime.
Your body language also has a huge impact on yourself: your thoughts, feelings and hormones.
Read more: 10 amazing things that happen in your 30s
Just two minutes of power posing, Cuddy says, can “significantly change your life”. When you adopt a position of dominance – stretching out and opening up, Wonder Woman -style – science shows you become more confident and more optimist as a result.
Why? Well, just as the mind changes the body, the body can change the mind.
“This is about you talking to yourself,” says Cuddy. For example, before a job interview, you’re typically hunched up and looking at your notes or phone. You’re making yourself small. But what you should really be doing is striking a power pose or two (perhaps in the bathroom, if you feel self-conscious) to get into the mind frame of confidence.
In experiments Cuddy and her team conducted, those who power posed before a mock job interview were evaluated much more positively as a result. Rather than competence, this came down to presence. When candidates had presence, they were seen to be confident, authentic and passionate.
Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behaviour and our behaviour changes our outcomes. When it comes to body language, you don’t fake it ’til you make it – you fake it ’til you become it. You embody that physical power.
Don’t deny your fear, use it
The takeaway: Own and share the fear you’re feeling
Boston-based musician Joe Kowan had a problem. He loved writing and performing folk songs – but he also suffered from crippling stage fright. And he couldn’t find a way to render these two things.
One night, he decided to face up to his fear and attend a local mike night. “It was packed, there were like, 20 people there,” he jokes, in his self-deprecating and very relatable TED talk. “And they all looked angry but I took a deep breath and I signed up to play.”
Quickly, the adrenaline kicked in. His heart rate increased, his breathing got faster; his whole body was “trigger happy”. This fight-or-flight response was, of course, “not conducive to performing folk music”.
A lot of people share this same performance anxiety when giving a speech or delivering a presentation. In fact, 75% of Americans suffer from public speaking anxiety, and – to show how irrational it is – it’s something we fear more than death.
In the situation Kowan experienced, we’re told to go back and try again. Repeat the same activity over and over, until your fear has diminished.
Well, Kowan tried this, and it made absolutely no difference. Things only improved for his nerves when he put them centre stage.
Kowan decided to write a song that exploited his stage fright. That way, he figured, “the more nervous I was, the better the song would be”.
And then, instead of feeling awkward for him, the audience “could experience fear with me – like we were all one big happy nervous uncomfortable family”.
And amazingly, it worked. As he demonstrates in his talk, Kowan was able to get past his stage fright only when he decided to confront the elephant in the room.
What can we learn from this? When you try to repress your fear, it will only get worse. You’ll feel self-conscious, so will other people – and that one thing you’re trying to hide will come bubbling up to the surface.
For public speaking or any other interactions that mess with your confidence, it’s best to just be honest. Be willing to be vulnerable, have a joke, acknowledge what’s going on. Not only will you feel better, you’ll feel an instant, more authentic connection with your audience, too.
Three great trips to build your confidence with
Smash your limits in South Africa
Come abseiling down Table Mountain in South Africa, paddle-board the Cape Peninsula and learn how to surf.
Challenge yourself in Chile
White-water raft the Petrohué River, party in downtown Santiago, and hike amid the peaks and lakes of the Torres del Paine National Park.
Hike the Everest trail in Nepal
Spend nine days ascending ancient mountain trails in the Himalayan peaks, pushing your fitness and dialling down amid a forgotten world of prayer flags, hanging bridges and remote Sherpa villages.
Images: Movie Stills Database, Shutterstock, Instagram