Artwork by James Victore

Op-Ed: Confidence vs Shyness

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.

More insights on: Risk-Taking, Well-being

James Victore

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James Victore runs an independent design studio hell-bent on world domination. He is an author, designer, filmmaker and firestarter. James has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is represented in the permanent collections of museums around the globe. He is the host of Burning Questions.
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