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Artwork by James Victore

Risk-Taking

Op-Ed: Confidence vs Shyness

Is shyness genetic? Can confidence be learned? Designer James Victore on overcoming self-doubt and acting with conviction.


As a design professor at the School of Visual Arts, each semester I do an impromptu survey of shyness in my class by simply asking who in the group believes they are shy. Inevitably, at least three quarters of the students raise their hands… albeit only shoulder high. I don’t believe this phenomenon is limited to students of the visual arts, but do other professions like accountants or TV repairmen suffer from this? Are we all shy?

Shyness is not genetic. At least it is not proven to be. There is no gene for it. It’s my belief that it’s cultivated within us, by environment, by family and just dumb luck. As a child, I was terribly shy. I don’t believe I was born this way. As the third of three children, I was always introduced as, “This is my baby, the shy one.” And thus I became shy. A habit was born. I was told by authority that I was shy, and I began wearing it around like I owned it.

Unfortunately, as an adult I found this habit does not serve me well. As a designer and lecturer I frequently find myself on stage or in front of a camera and have to “play” someone who is comfortable being there. Years of practice have lessened my fears, but I still have to summon the courage to walk confidently to the podium.
I was told by authority that I was shy, and I began wearing it around like I owned it.

I have come to believe that shyness is more a habit than a hard-wired personal quality. Similarly, confidence has always seemed like one of those ambiguous traits, like willpower or intuition, that can be practiced, exercised and strengthened, like a muscle. But just like any physical exercise, it’s always hard and takes constant work. And, more importantly, constant awareness.

My own definition of confidence is “being there.” This means being in the moment and acting with intention, not distracted by second thoughts or being “in your head.” Not listening to your inner critics or assuming what others are thinking of you, judging or presupposing “their” reaction instead of just moving forward—and confidently.

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In my own life, defeating my shy default setting is something I have to deal with every week. In my professional efforts to teach to a broader audience, to answer questions and give advice, I have had to take a big step out of my own comfort zone with weekly short videos called “Q+A Tuesday.”  Prior to each taping session begins a regular and tedious laundry list of inner-trepidation and self-doubt. My inner critics start in with, “I’m too dumb/ugly/ young… It won’t be good/work… They will laugh/not watch/cast stones….” You may be familiar with the conversation.

Confidence means being in the moment and acting with intention, not distracted by second thoughts or in your head.

Why do we get so caught up in this “too much thinking?” What’s the worst thing that could happen? The answer is failure. Most of us are so afraid of failing that we don’t even risk it. And what’s worse, risk and rejection become something to avoid at all costs. A habit is formed. We close doors that may lead to opportunities and stop putting ourselves out there for other people to respond to. This fear of rejection is normal. Everyone shies away and has moments, or extended moments, of self-doubt. But the fear is also a test, it means you are onto something and you should pay attention to it and not shy away.

The doubt comes not only from the inside, from your own personal critics, but also from without via our friends, family and well-wishers whose concern it is to keep you out of harm’s way and within your—or possibly their own—comfort zone. Here you need to trust yourself, lean into the fear, and resist the “be like us” mentality from a society that wants you to fit in.

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Your pursuit of personal greatness challenges others to fear for their own causes, their own battles and pursuits. Your freedom is a reminder of their own imaginary restraints and limitations. Yet, for others, your confidence will be a beacon. People follow conviction, assertive advice and brave leaders, and there’s nothing more powerful than a confident man or woman.

Trust yourself, lean into the fear, and resist the “be like us” mentality from a society that wants you to fit in.

The point is not to create a protective, alternate super-ego or some indomitable spirit within, but being conscious and in charge of the fear that tends to run our lives. To be comfortable with who we are, comfortable with the fear and comfortable with doubt. Confidence is accepting fear and self-doubt as part of our lives, and not living under it.

Confidence comes from a place of abundance and wealth. It gives us the courage and freedom to move forward, to ask for help, to ask for more, to ask for what you deserve. To be able to begin before you’re ready and have the willingness to fail. And to be cool with failure as well.

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This opinion piece comes from artist/designer James Victore, who has been ignoring the status quo and lighting fires under asses for 20+ years. You can learn more about him in this 99U interview, and follow him @jamesvictore.

Comments (65)
  • Sissy Emmons Hobizal

    I think the point of this article is really important though the introduction was a bit slippery on the distinctions between shyness and introversion as many people have pointed out. It understandably touches a nerve.

    I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s book “Quiet…”, where she defines (scientifically) the differences between introversion, extroversion and shyness. It’s encouraging and a huge relief/boost of self confidence for those of us who have been made to feel there is something wrong with us if we don’t immediately want to jump into a room full of people or find it difficult to work in a noisy open office plan. 

    Not being outgoing and the life of the party doesn’t mean you’re *afraid* of doing so—it’s society that labels the quiet with the defective term “shy.” We’re all so much more complex than the words we’ve developed to describe ourselves. 

    The slipperiness of Mr. Vittore’s intro makes it sound as if introversion needs to be fixed which I don’t think is his argument and distracts from his excellent points later on. His suggestion that we should all work to get over our fears of rejection, failure and intimidation to speak up is great encouragement for those of us who get overlooked for our unwillingness to be assertive. 

    The recommendation that confidence is something that can be practiced and exercised like a muscle is even greater. 

  • Bhuddasay

    It is interesting in society how if you are very confident you are labeled arrogant. If you are too shy you are labeled a sheep, so to speak. So when people label you as “shy” or “confident”, are they trying to get you to conform or are they “soft”-touching a description of you so as to not hurt your feelings? Are they themselves shy because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or confident that they know “how you are” and realize that this is an honest description of you “socially” and know that they may offend you but may not care? Are the words shy and confident a description of “you” or them?

  • Low Deposit Property

    Hi Behance, I also agree that shyness is more a habit than a hard-wired personal quality.
    Similarly, confidence has always seemed like one of those
    ambiguous
    traits, like willpower or intuition, that can be practiced, exercised
    and strengthened, like a muscle.
    Rent to Own

  • casestudy_bpt@yahoo.com

    Hi Behance, I also agree that it’s cultivated within us, by environment, by family and just dumb luck. As a child, I was terribly shy.Looking forward for great articles.

  • Jeffrey Jing Houng Tseng

    I think you are right at most points but,

    “To be comfortable with who we are, comfortable with the fear and comfortable with doubt. But the fear is also a test, it means you are onto something and you should pay attention to it and not shy away”

    This is were i disagree.. Fear is not some feeling you can turn on and off in any way.. Fear is an instinct by nature. The whole point of fear is that you have to be aware of something that can happen that you don’t want. You can guide/suppress fear by getting to the source and experience that particular fear several times.. To fool yourself nothing could or would happen or show yourself that the chances are pretty small. But that doesn’t mean there is no reason to be afraid. Simply because it could still happen.

    Fear is a part of our survival.

  • Carry Trade

    Hi Admin, I also agree
    that were helpful to me through playing tennis. On the court, negative thoughts equal bad shots or tentative play. In design, negative thoughts squelch creativity or undermine a presentation.

  • Ross the kiwi

    I was introverted and shy until I was 45. I would say that I am no longer shy (e.g. irrational dislike of interacting with strangers), but am still introverted (e.g. enjoy my own company).

    I don’t know whether shyness is inherited or not, but my own experience is that it may not be a permanent condition.

    And if you are wondering how did I change? – well it was just a classic midlife crisis – one day I decided that I wasn’t enjoying life enough, and that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life that way. So I decided to change, and I did. It was pretty scary for a couple of weeks, but after that it has gone well for 4 years.

    Best outlet for me in overcoming shyness? I learned to dance. Lindy hop, in my case. Lots of introductions, in a safe environment, where everyone’s in the same situation of being new. Plus regular social occasions organised by someone else, so all I had to do was turn up. This isn’t the only place where I made new friends, but it’s definitely the most efficient🙂

  • jerricarr

    YES, it IS possible to be introverted and confident too! I would only use “shy” to describe a characteristic of a child, not an adult. As adults we are something else…afraid, guarded, uncomfortable, quiet, careful…to name a few. Great thoughts in this piece🙂

  • Sakita Holley

    This is excellent. Thank you James.

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  • umalkhayr

    amazing article.

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  • Samantha Clark

    Hi All,

    There’s a song called ASK which goes like this.

    Shyness is nice and

    Shyness can stop you

    From doing all the things in life

    You’d like to

    Yeah. It is true. I have had the same feeling of shyness for a very long time.

    Realize that being shy is not a benefit. It holds you back from so many important things in life — friends, sex and success, among others.

    But, Now I’m pretty happy about myself after knowing the proven strategies and techniques of overcoming shyness and social anxiety.

    Thanks to this amazing book. The Shyness and Social Anxiety System.

    I found this at this blog.

    shyness-or-socialanxiety.blogspot.com

    Hope It helps you in overcoming shyness and having so many boys around you everytime.

    If you have any further queries about anything else. Please feel free to contact me at samanthaclark4u@gmail.com

    http://www.shyness-or-socialanxiety.blogspot.com/

  • Guest

    hi)

  • DMS

    I don’t believe confidence, per se, is something we can exercise. We overcome fear by exercising the courage to take action. My confidence grows when I allow myself to make mistakes and repeatedly show-up and try again. Lather; Rinse; Repeat. Behavior eventually changes internal attitudes. Courageous behavior, even more so!

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