Sunday, January 6, 2013

Choosing Confidence

In most settings I was mild-mannered and shy while growing up (I say most settings because some people will laugh to read that sentence).  I remember as a teenager hearing other people boldly talk about politics, current events, music, health, whatever the subject, and being very impressed.  I thought to myself (no joke), “Boy, I wish I had opinions.”  
Original illustrations. :)

I was a studious girl, and the opinions eventually came --- as they tend to do with education.  But I think what I had really been wishing for was the confidence to express an opinion in the presence of someone who disagreed.  Even in those settings where I was not so shy, I was never confrontational.  This can be a virtue, and I’m satisfied to think that sometimes it was.  But when it is one’s character rather than one’s choice to avoid conflict, it is a weakness.

These days I find myself very ready, in most settings, to say kindly but confidently, “Well, I just don’t see it that way.”  What accounts for the change?  Certainly, a graduate degree and a few more years of experience under my belt leave me with talking points.  But after contemplating my own transformation, I have come to the conclusion that confidence is a choice.

Following are some examples of my progress, and how I got there.

Cooking.  Once I was terrified even of using a recipe.  Then I was terrified of deviating from a recipe.  Then I was terrified of the hard recipes with words like whey and meuniere.  Now I feel like I can handle cooking… even feel that I’m a good cook!

  • How I gained confidence in cooking: I tried one recipe at a time, looked up one term, bought one new ingredient.  Experience and practice led to confidence.

Raising my hand. In grad school I was in a class of 20 really smart guys, and then one other smart girl (who never spoke) and smart myself.  There were some really outspoken guys in that class, and I really probably only raised my hand once.  I regret that!  I had things to say.  Now I am a professor, and I challenge students and sometimes colleagues on a regular basis when I disagree with their thought process.

  • How I gained confidence in public argument: I had to talk myself into this.  I had to tell myself that my ideas were just as valid as the next person’s.  I had to walk through my idea in my mind, and agree with myself, and know why.  And then I had to take a leap and put myself out there.  I had to be willing to be vulnerable.  (Love this TED talk.)


Motherhood.  In the beginning, when Peter would cry, I would pick him up and flutter all over him and say in a high pitched voice, “It’s okay baby!  Oh baby what’s wrong?  Are you hungry?  Hurting?  Oh I don’t know what you need.”  Within a couple months this had changed to a calm, low voice, “Peter, it’s okay.  Mama’s here.  We’re safe and warm and sleep is such a nice place to be.  Rest your head.”

  • How I gained confidence in answering my child’s needs:  One day I realized that all this time I had been assuming that my baby knew what he needed, and was just waiting for me to figure it out while I tried all the wrong things.  I realized that in fact, he had no idea what he needed (consciously), and what he needed most was to feel my gentle, sure confidence.   Once I realized this, I decided that for him, I would be confident.  I just decided!  And you know what?  Suddenly his other needs were much more clear to me.  Confidence led me to smarter, quicker decisions.  It changed me fundamentally as a mother.  And all I did was decide.

By the way,
I also love this TED talk.  The speaker talks about a controlled experiment she and some colleagues did that proved how our body language chemically affects our level of confidence (and not just the other way around).  Stand in a “power pose” (see above three illustrations) for two minutes before a job interview, or performance, or crucial conversation, and even in that amount of time your testosterone levels will jump and your cortisol levels plummet.


  1. These pictures are forever emblazoned in my soul. I need to read the post still. But the pictures made me happy. You're the best Skares.

  2. I said to Keenan, "I just read Meredith's post," and he glanced at the screen and said, "Oh, is it on the positions?" because he saw your vivid illustrations (which I'm sure you had a blast creating). He's tried the stance idea before performances, and it does work! I told a student about it last week who needed help feeling confident before an important upcoming audition. She was glad for the tip. I'll pass the TED talk along to her.

    I'll have to do some thinking as to whether it's my character or my choice to avoid conflict. Hmmm...

  3. All I can say is ... "I am amazed and know not what to say".

    I can also say.... "I wish I were you, Meredith".

    One more thing I can say ... with CONFIDENCE ...
    "I'm really glad I know you, and have your influence and friendship in my life".

    Perfectly lovely post.

  4. I also remember those days when I was too shy to voice opinions. Obviously, I'm over that now :). I love your insights into how you gained confidence and your whimsical illustrations.

    That TED talk on vulnerability has been influential for me as well. I'm still learning to live open-heartedly and assert my willingness to be vulnerable.

    I actually learned more about vulnerability as a teacher than a student. Sometimes, still being my shy self inside, I would try to act outgoing and cheerful while inwardly I was hiding behind a closed heart wondering what to do about the students my age using cell phones during class. During times like that, I wasn't a great teacher and my students had a hard time connecting with me. When I was inwardly confident and ready to engage with my students, they responded much better to me. It also didn't hurt to learn some classroom management techniques that helped me gain confidence :).

  5. I well remember the quiet shy Meredith, as I probably spent more time alone with her than anyone except her mom. The quiet but amazing Meredith who led my studio without making a sound, the quiet Meredith that others looked up to but could not figure out how to be like her. I always new you had all of this in you, from the very beginning. You have amazed us all. Thanks for telling me about Ted, I have never heard of it, living in a very tiny corner of the world in my violin world.