Nothing reveals the maturity and wisdom of a relationship, and the two inside it, than a very difficult conversation. While sitting over coffee last week, a close friend and I found ourselves amidst the potentially thorny landscape of such a conversation. To our mutual relief we not only survived our talk, but emerged closer, wiser, and more open.

I reflected upon it later, remembering similarly scary conversations with others in the past, and how they either didn’t go well, or, out of fear, they didn’t happen at all. For a moment I entertained the idea that I was becoming more clear and courageous. I was just about to indulge in a short round of self-congratulatory back-patting, when a realization hit me: it wasn’t just me that brought me clarity and courage, it was our relationship, and it was her.

Forged through years of self-inquiry and mutual support, our relationship had become one of safety, contemplation, believing in one another, and the fierce uplifting of one another’s true expression. It was this ‘field’, that allowed our talk to happen. My friend’s openness, vulnerability and trust was as responsible for the outcome as my courage.

Through that exchange I realized the power of the company we keep. We are, in fact, an expression of those with whom we surround ourselves.

Systems theory reveals that a system (for example, a friendship, family or company) is influenced, either positively or negatively, by its parts. But there is a kind of irresistible gravitational pull towards lower performance. For example, take a small class of adults—if the instructor’s expectations are that each person do their projects, and he or she upholds that expectation, the class will for the most part fall in line with that expectation.

If, however, one person does not do their project, and the instructor gives no overt consequences, then the entire class will begin to slide into the vortex of that low performance, in spite of their individual high standards. Over a few days, most will not complete their projects, regardless of their intention to succeed. Systems are very powerful.

The same is true of the system of people with whom you surround yourself. If you surround yourself with lots of engaged, accountable, wise people, but also have a few hangers-on around you, your life will remain compromised. It’s just physics.

You know the ones I’m talking about. They constantly complain you are not there for them. They whine about how their life never changes. They find subtle ways to put you down. They criticize you when you take a risk. They don’t quite ‘get’ you. I have a word for these people—sandbags. And they hang over the edge of the basket of your hot air balloon, keeping you from flying into your adventurous life.

You know these people by how they make you feel about you when you are around them. Here’s a little experiment to try. Imagine someone with whom you feel completely at ease and content. It doesn’t even have to be a person. It could be pet. It could be a dead person. Hold them in your mind, close your eyes, and feel what it is like to be around them. There, that feeling you feel is your baseline, and that person or pet is your baseline reference. Use your reference person or pet as a metaphorical line in the sand. Anyone who consistently evokes less than that level of comfort and safety needs to go.

Sure, you are going to have challenging moments with people who are close to you that may make you feel unsafe or threatened. Or you may be a caregiver to someone challenging due to illness. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about examining your overall experience of being around certain chosen friends, partners and colleagues.

Now that you’ve drawn a little imaginary line in the sand, using your reference and baseline as your guide, next, make a list of all those around you who drop below that line. These are your sandbags and it’s time to snip the string to each and every one of them.

‘Oh, but a few sandbags are ok,’ you might say, ‘they keep us from flying off into the ethers; they keep things realistic and reasonable.’ Hmmmm. Well that depends. How limited do you want your adventure? How small you want your life?

Conversely, you know how beautiful someone is, by how beautiful you feel in their company. Time for a new list. A fun list. Write down the names of those who you feel not only beautiful with, but joyful, inspired, and positively challenged. These are people who believe in you, and who hold you marvelously accountable to your best dreams and values.

I suggest you even expand the list to those who you don’t know so well, but you sense this is possible with them, and that because they are at the edge of their game (whatever that is), they’ll inspire you to be at the edge of yours. They say ‘yes’ in face of obstacles, and strive to live outside boxes. You know who they are. You look at them and say, ‘wow’.

All these people are your ‘good company’. Cultivate your relationships with them. They’ll help you reach your dreams. David Whyte wrote an apropos poem about good company called Sweet Darkness, and the last part goes like this:

…Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

Good company sees you. And being seen is incredibly powerful. Keeping good company will create joy, levity, inspiration and creativity in your life. Are you ready for lift off?

 

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
– Bertrand Russell.

Two US sociologists, Jessica Collett and Jade Avelis, wanted to know why so many female academics opted for “downshifting”: setting out towards a high-status tenured post, then switching to something less ambitious. Contrary to popular belief, their survey of 460 doctoral students revealed that it wasn’t to do with wanting a “family-friendly” lifestyle. Instead, self deception was to blame — the idea that they were frauds, and didn’t belong in that high powered world. Apparently this phenomenon is much more widespread than surveys suggest which would make sense since, if one believes one is an imposter, one would want to keep that a secret.

While women are much more prone to it than men, men are certainly not excluded. A recent panicked call from my son’s friend after his first week of a prestigious college shed light on how talented intelligent people can be susceptible. “I just feel I don’t belong here,” he said. When I questioned him more about it he confessed, “Everyone here is amazing. I won’t measure up; I just know it. I’m a fake and I must have gotten here by mistake.”

Yet a ‘confidence gap’ definitely exists between men and women. Here’s the crazy thing, the higher women climb up the professional ladder, the more self-doubt they experience. According to journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, authors of The Confidence Code, this gap in confidence plays a huge role in the professional glass ceiling women experience today. And it is real. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Yet their performances do not differ in quality. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. This is true for men and women. People mistakenly believe that competence creates confidence. However, the reverse is just as true: the more confident you are, the more competent you become. The good news is that confidence can be unconditionally gained, and easily.

But let’s deal with a couple of red herrings first, shall we?

First, people think that you have to ‘build confidence’. This implies that you do something, succeed at it, this proves you are good at it, which in turn gives you the ‘right’ to feel confident. But if you are a life long learner, and always pushing your edges, you’re often going to experience way more failures than successes. So this little myth creates a negative Sisyphus-like feedback loop, where you’ll never ‘feel’ confident. When I say confidence can be unconditionally gained, I mean that it can be created without the condition of having competence first. So stay tuned below…

And the second red herring is the way confidence lurks so scarily close to qualities like cockiness, pride, recklessness, presumptuousness, impudence, pushiness, and arrogance. These are what the Buddhists call ‘near enemies’ (for a better description of near enemies see my previous blog post). Women, and men in tune with their sensitivity, are wary to cross that line between confidence and superiority. But they hesitate at their peril. Remember that only accountable people worry about those things. Arrogant people do not.

So now that we have those two smelly fish out of the way, let’s talk about how to really, truly, easily rewire your body for confidence, right now. And the answer is deceptively easy and simple: body language. In a nutshell, how you posture your body, not only impacts how others perceive you, but also rewires your own brain towards not only feeling confident, but doing confident and therefore competent things.

I first stumbled into this awareness when I began working with people and horses years ago. I noticed that the horses responded to clarity and confidence reflected in a person’s body language (since horse’s don’t know English, body language was the only way in). I also noticed that people themselves changed because of their body language. They indeed became more confident, and became more successful in any given task with the horse. Their success wasn’t because they learned a skill and did it well, it was because they changed their body language first. But then I noticed something really amazing. Over time they became not only more confident and skilled with the horses, but in their life. Hence the birth of the EQUUS Experience as an astonishingly effective life-mentoring approach.

Body language is the singularly most influential aspect of all communication — verbal and non-verbal. According to studies, words, tone of voice and body language account differently when it comes to how it affects others. Words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38% and body language accounts for a gargantuan 55% of the influence on others. And yet startlingly we have very little awareness of our body, and our posture. But lucky for you, you’re reading this blog and so that is going to change.

The lovely Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and Associate Professor at Harvard Business School did a really wonderful, and touching, TED Talk revealing her research into body language and the transformative practice of embodying what she calls ‘power poses’. According to her research, when participants held any particular power pose — ie, chest up, chin slightly elevated, feet slightly apart and hands on hips — for just two minutes, their brains reflected the hormonal levels indicative of confidence. Similarly, when they held collapsed poses for the same length of time, the brains reflected stress, anxiety and a diminished state. Literally, how you position your body, shapes who you are!

So she coaches people to adopt the practice of standing in a two-minute power pose before entering into any situation that is going to require strength, clarity and confidence. Her favorite is the ‘Wonder Woman’ stance. As she triumphantly says, ‘Don’t fake it until you make it, fake it until you become it!’

Are you a fake? I certainly hope so. I hope you fake it ever day. Fake it and fake it until you become it. So here’s what you are going to do: each time you are about to enter into any kind of situation that requires the best of yourself to show up, you are going to grab your smart phone, set the timer to two minutes and strike the pose. Do Wonder Woman, do Superman, do Chariots of Fire across-the-finish-line and play the theme song if you have to.

Confidence is yours right now and is your unconditional birthright. It lives latent inside your body as a gift waiting to be opened, and waiting to change your life into the adventure you know it can be.