Self-confidence is so important that those without it better fake it

First published in UT San Diego, March 19, 2013

Rule No. 170

It’s all done with mirrors, wires and trap doors.

Characteristics often assigned to successful entrepreneurs are passion, discipline, dedication and vision. What is often not mentioned is self-confidence. I am interested in the power of that trait.

A good friend recently said, “I never felt so insignificant as when I recently attended a TED conference.” TED, which stands for technology, entertainment and design, is an annual gathering of more than a thousand people who pay more than $8,000 to attend a three-day event where they listen to brilliant people talk in 12-minute increments about how to change the world.

So who wouldn’t be intimidated?

Here is another data point from the same person: “I was in the men’s room at the urinal with Gates on one side and Bezos on the other. It is a wonder that anything worked.” Still, he added, they all did their business the same way.

Now what is interesting is that this friend is an accomplished and successful entrepreneur in his own right. But the issue of self-worth and self-confidence is different. It is more subtle, and it is prone to being shaken rather easily. Because the fledgling entrepreneur has not “done it before,” supreme self-confidence has not yet legitimately been earned. And yet, it is exactly this required trait of self-confidence that inspires people to follow you through the fire and the jungle to the golden temple. A person may exhibit great leadership qualities, yet still lack the self-confidence that is an essential ingredient in starting a company.

So how does one find, create, exhibit and nurture self-confidence?

One answer is you bluff. Now, on the face of it, that might seem to be a recipe for disaster because underneath you are sure you will be found out. From my experience, I have found that people want to believe. They want to be taken on a journey. They will embrace a willing suspension of disbelief in exchange for a peak experience. Consider Transcendental Meditation, Scientology and yes, all religions.

This is a nuanced discussion. I am not suggesting that the entrepreneur lie — I actually believe that you should never do that — but I am strongly encouraging you to “not let them see you sweat.” To that end, the entrepreneur needs a mentor, consigliere or a psychoanalyst — a safe place to hide — a safe place to be small and weak and lost and confused and scared. This safe place is not where you work or compete or network. Because self-confidence ebbs and flows, and sometimes there is only darkness, this safe place needs to be separate from your work life.

This issue of self-confidence touches all areas of entrepreneurship, but it is not part of the written business plan. It needs to live organically in the entrepreneur’s DNA. And as this DNA gene replicates and evolves, this self-confidence feature grows and increases with time.

One of the ways I think about the challenge is to use visualization and to say, “I am going to appear to be the thing I want to be before I actually am. And I will become it in reality before anyone finds out that I wasn’t.”

In the 1970s, Reverend Ike, a well-known preacher, had a mantra. “If you want a Cadillac, you got to see yourself in that Cadillac.” In essence, he wanted you to imagine prosperity.

In a recent presentation, one of my first slides described entrepreneurship as “It’s magic.” Now I am not suggesting that you need to channel Penn and Teller. But to some extent, entrepreneurship is an illusion. You put the lady in the box, you saw the lady in half, and then she reappears sitting in the audience. The crowd goes wild and asks, “How did you do it?”

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