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Developing super self-confidence

Your past performance provides a valuable foundation for your future success. Here’s how to use your experience to create self-confidence, the belief that you can accomplish challenging goals.

To accomplish a specific goal—whether, for example, you’re vying for a new position at work, training for a bike race or preparing to move to a new community—a sense of self-efficacy can help.

Self-efficacy was an important part of psychologist Albert Bandura’s work to understand how a person's thinking influences his or her personality. Dr. Bandura recognized that a person’s belief in his or her ability to accomplish an action was a powerful factor in motivating him or her to try an action.

“Self-efficacy is belief about a specific ability you have that develops over time from your experience,” says Brig. Gen. Dana Born, Ph.D., psychologist and dean of the faculty at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s the certainty that you have the ability to do a task you consider challenging.”

Self-efficacy vs. self-esteem

Self-efficacy is not the same thing as self-esteem. Self-esteem is a person’s sense of self-worth; self-efficacy is a person’s perception of his or her ability to accomplish something.

Self-efficacy builds on itself. People who believe they can’t accomplish a task often believe it is harder than it really is. This leads them to feel stressed and to fail to plan how they might accomplish the task. One way to accomplish tasks you think you can’t do is to break the task down into smaller tasks. This is called task planning. Decide what steps you must take to accomplish a task, then set a realistic goal to accomplish one step and achieve it. This can motivate you to set your next-level goal. When difficulties arise as you’re striving to achieve the next step, confidence in your abilities you got by achieving previous steps can give you the determination to push ahead.

Best of all, says Dr. Born, because self-efficacy can be earned through experience, it’s something you can develop for any goal.

To cultivate your sense of self-efficacy, here’s what Dr. Born suggests.

Work your way up

To establish self-efficacy, develop an overall goal, such as wanting to run the New York City Marathon two years from now. Then, set realistic yet challenging incremental goals that will get you there, such as running three half-marathons this year and so on.

“Take on small tasks that are challenging, yet within reason and measurable,” advises Dr. Born. “After you succeed at those tasks, aim higher by creating a more difficult incremental goal.”

Assess your success

We’re often our own worst critics, which can undermine self-confidence if you’re too hard on yourself. To give yourself credit for the small successes you achieve toward your major goal, assess your progress periodically.

“Besides patting yourself on the back for accomplishing each bite-size goal, pay attention to any feedback you get from others,” says Dr. Born.

If your goal, for example, is to be able to give presentations to large groups, congratulate yourself for speaking to smaller groups. Then, take note: Did people laugh where you intended them to? Did anyone say they enjoyed your talk? Did the audience seem attentive?

The attitude that will help you while you’re on your way up is one that says, “I’ll try,” not “I can’t.”

Get support

Don't think that you must slog along alone while you’re achieving your small goals and setting larger ones.

“Get support that’s targeted to your goal,” says Dr. Born.

If you’re trying to lose 15 pounds, for example, find someone who’s been successful at losing weight to help keep you accountable and determined. If your plan isn’t working, the person can help you brainstorm about changes you might make to reignite your resolve.

Eventually, your hard work will pay off; you’ll achieve the larger goal you’ve been working toward.

How do you know when you’ve made it? Your sense of self-efficacy is strong when you feel you have the ability to perform the major task you’ve been working toward despite any lingering doubt you may have.

If your goal is to be a manager, you know you’ve made it when you can say, for example, “I can easily lead others and maintain high standards.” What helps is achieving a series of small, cumulative successes.

“In time,” says Dr. Born, “they’ll create an internalized sense of mastery.” 

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