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Believing in Yourself and Your Dream When No One Else Does: Part 3 – A Kaizen Approach to Building Self-Confidence

Let’s face it – there are going to be times in your life when you’re going to have to carry the weight of your dream or goal by yourself. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a circle of enthusiastic supporters, when it comes to doing the work to turn that dream into reality, it’s all you.

You’re the one who is going to have to put in the effort. You’re the one who is going to have to keep moving forward when it’s tough. You’re the one who is going to have to keep the vision alive.

And this is where most of us get stuck.

“Stuck” can take a lot of different forms – procrastination, an overstuffed schedule, lack of inspiration or motivation, waiting for the perfect opportunity or timing, etc…

And if we dig a little deeper, we’ll uncover limiting beliefs – usually related to the idea that we’re not enough or we don’t have enough of “something” – money, education, beauty, connections, talent, etc…

And if we dig deeper still, we’ll find fears – fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of what other people will think…

According to Susan Jeffers, PhD, author of “Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway”, the granddaddy of all these fears and beliefs is the underlying fear that we can’t handle “it”. The simple (but not always easy) solution is to increase your faith in your ability to handle any situation or outcome that comes your way.

In other words, build confidence in yourself.

So how do we do that?

Building Your Self-Confidence Muscle

In order to grow, physical muscles need to be repeatedly and consistently worked against resistance, often in the form of weights. Building self-confidence is similar – it needs to be exercised regularly and consistently in order to grow. It requires intentional action and reinforcing external experiences.

Just like we can’t think ourselves into physical shape, we can’t think our way into confidence.

In order to develop self-confidence, we need to take on challenges that provide resistance.

But simply pushing ourselves to tackle new challenges isn’t enough.

Muscles also need protein to repair themselves and grow after a workout. When we’re building our confidence muscle, the “protein” we need is success – situations where we have effectively handled a challenge or mastered a skill, or simply survived an outcome we didn’t want.

Unfortunately the importance of this “success protein” is often overlooked when we listen to conventional wisdom.

The Flaw of “Massive Action”

One of the most pervasive messages we get from society, and especially from the “success gurus”, is that to achieve anything worthwhile, we need to take massive action! Crush big hairy audacious goals! Go big or go home!

Unfortunately, this approach sets most of us up to experience failure rather than success.

Imagine walking in to a gym for the first time and trying to lift the heaviest weight you can find. You’re either going to hurt yourself because your muscles aren’t yet ready to handle that weight and you can’t maintain the correct form to do the exercise safely, or you’re not going to be able to move it all, so your muscles get zero benefit and you’ll get discouraged and give up on the whole idea of getting into shape.

Sadly, this is frequently what happens when we buy into the idea that the only way to turn our big dream into reality is to attack it with massive action – we get all hyped up and push ourselves to take on challenges that are way out of line with our current abilities and skills, or that push us so far out of our comfort zone that it triggers the brain’s fight, flight, or freeze response. We set unrealistic expectations with regard to results or timelines.

The result?

More often than not, we slip and fall short. Discouragement and doubt set in. Maybe we get fired back up and try again, but rather than learning from our mistakes, we repeat the cycle – attempting steps that are too big with timelines that are too short. Once again, our results are disappointing. We start to blame ourselves – our lack of willpower, talent, or luck.

Our confidence muscle, starved of “success protein”, shrinks with every cycle. Our fears and limiting beliefs grow stronger. We become afraid of getting back in the arena. We start to believe we’re destined for less.

But that’s a lie.

The failures that eroded our confidence were simply the result of a flawed approach.

Fortunately, there’s a better strategy.

A strategy that’s been used by successful businesses and athletes and musicians and students since the beginning of time.

An approach that feeds the confidence muscle a constant stream of “success protein.”


What the Heck Is Kaizen?

Kaizen is a Japanese word that translates to “good change.” In practice, it means continuous, small, incremental improvements or steps.

The word was originally used to capture the process used by Japanese manufacturing companies to increase quality, efficiency, and productivity.

But kaizen is not just for factories – kaizen can be used by individuals, too, to produce equally dramatic results.

In fact, it’s probably something you’ve used in some way all your life without being aware of it. When you were in school, you didn’t start off in first grade learning advanced algebra or calculus – instead, you learned your numbers, then moved on to addition and subtraction, then multiplication and division and so on, in a series of small gradual steps. If you played a sport or musical instrument, you started by learning the most basic skills, refining them and adding new skills or techniques gradually over time.

Kaizen is effective because it works in harmony with the way our brains are wired. We learn best in small progressive increments. Plus, small changes slip right under our brain’s fear radar.

And that makes kaizen the perfect tool for building our self-confidence muscle.

(To read more about the origen of kaizen, and the brain science behind it, check out “Using Kaizen to Sneak Past Your Brain’s Fear Radar”)

Using Kaizen to Build Self-Confidence

To build our confidence muscle, we need to work it against the resistance of challenges, right?

When we take a kaizen approach, we set small goals that stretch us, but which also have a high likelihood of success, and we repeat this process, just like doing reps with weights in the gym.

The beauty of this approach is that it provides us with little hits of “success protein” early and often.

There are two effective strategies for designing these “resistance” challenges:

  • If the goal is to increase confidence in ourselves in general, the challenges can be anything that puts us outside our comfort zones. In fact, the more variety, the better. This allows us to develop faith in our ability to handle the wide variety of “its” that we encounter in life. Stepping outside your comfort zone might look like taking up a new hobby or sport that requires you to learn new skills, visiting new or unfamiliar places, learning how to use a new app or computer program, meeting new people outside your comfortable social circle, even driving a different route to work, just to shake your brain up.
  • If the goal is to develop confidence in a specific area of our life or a specific skill set related to our big goal or dream, we’ll want to look for small steps we can take in those particular areas. For example, someone who dreams of writing a novel might start by simply writing for 5 minutes every day, joining a writers group, or sharing their work with a trusted friend. Someone who wants to overcome a fear of public speaking might start simply by voicing their thoughts or leading a discussion in a group where they feel comfortable, or joining a Toastmasters group.

A few more tips for designing your personal “Self-Confidence Training Program”:

Tip #1: Start with the Right Level of Resistance

In the examples above, the steps may seem ridiculously easy, or still scary hard. The key is finding the right-sized challenges for where your confidence is right now.

The first thing a good trainer does with a new client in the gym is test their strength, in order to determine what level of weight they can safely handle. One person may barely be able to do a body weight squat, another may start out with a 150 pound bar. The trainer then develops a personalized training program with exercises based on the client’s starting abilities. The programs for the two examples above will look very different in the beginning, but they’ll both be based on appropriate and progressively increasing resistance. 

It’s the same thing when we begin to develop our confidence muscle. We’re all at different levels, sometimes even between different areas of our lives. We need to realistically assess where our confidence, skills, and abilities are currently at, and then select an appropriate level of challenge. Just like Goldilocks – not too big, not too small, but just the right size.

We want challenges that will stretch us a tiny bit outside of our comfort zone or current skill set, but where success is pretty much guaranteed. Remember, your confidence muscle feeds on repeated experiences of success. Frequency is more important than size.

Tip #2: Celebrate Each Little Victory

Our natural impulse is to discount or overlook the little steps forward – I mean, if it’s not massive and audacious, it can’t be worthwhile, right?

WRONG! Ignore that impulse!!!

Each and every step forward, no matter the size, is incredibly valuable. Recognizing and celebrating each achievement is the “success protein” your confidence muscle needs to grow – do not skimp on the praise!

When I coach my clients, I get ridiculously excited when they report their daily kaizen steps towards their goal, because I know each tiny action serves a more important purpose: changing the circuitry in their brain – growing their belief in themselves and their ability to create change in their lives. I’m generous with the praise, encouraging them to recognize their own achievements, because this increases the association of positive feelings with the actions they’re taking, which in turn helps to cement in the new habit or direction.

Tip #3: Gradually Increase the Challenge

In the gym, if you keep doing the same exact exercise routine with the same exact weights, you’ll experience some improvement initially as your muscles adapt, but you’ll quickly reach a plateau. The same thing happens in the real world when we get used to a new challenge.

Over a period of weeks or months, the trainer gradually increases the level of resistance as those muscles get stronger, and pretty soon you’re moving weights that you couldn’t budge when you first walked in the door.

In the same way, when we’re building our confidence muscle, we need to be very careful that we don’t get stuck on this plateau – and the way we can do that is by consistently doing things that make us a little (or a lot) uncomfortable. Essentially, we want to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

When you feel comfortable with the challenges you started with, that’s a signal that it’s time to level-up. Add a little challenge to your challenge

Tip #4: Don’t Let the Bulked-Up Weight-Lifters Intimidate You

But… but… what about all those people crushing their goals and making progress quickly with massive action… this kaizen approach seems so slow and wimpy!

It’s easy to get intimidated or discouraged when we see the accomplishments of people at the top of their fields, and think about the amount of effort and skill it takes to be there. And when we listen to the gurus, their examples of success always involve massive dramatic action. It’s the same phenomenon that keeps many people out of the gym. We see athletes or weight lifters in the peak of condition, and we start comparing ourselves unfavorably.

But here’s the thing – we’re looking at them in a single snapshot of time. We’re not seeing where they started – or if we do get a “before” picture or profile, we’re still looking at only two distinct moments in time. Our brains then compress the years of slow gradual progress between their “before” and “after” into a quantum leap of transformation.

The reality is years (sometimes even decades) of small, incremental steps that we don’t see. When they were beginning their journey, they were working with much smaller challenges, and taking much smaller steps, than what you see right now. Over time they gradually increased the size of their steps – just like you’re going to do.

Trust the process. Start with the level of challenge that you can handle, work your confidence muscle consistently, feed it “success protein”, and before you know it you’ll be the intimidating one achieving feats you once thought impossible.

Your Turn

I’d love to hear from you – what are your biggest challenges when it comes to confidence? And what strategies have you used to build your faith in your ability to handle whatever life throws your way? Share your ideas in the comments below!

And check out these previous two articles from the series on “Believing in Yourself and Your Dream When No One Else Does”:

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