It’s easy to think that external validation will help build your confidence. Getting that paper accepted. Getting that grant. Having someone more established in your field cite your work or compliment you on it.
It won’t. Like Groucho Marx, who famously would not want to join a club that would have him as a member, if you lack confidence in your work, you will question external judgement.
When someone compliments your work, do you contradict the compliment in some way? Do you point out the flaws that the person complimenting must obviously have missed? You may tell yourself that these reactions to compliments are evidence modesty but they actually have the effect of insulting the person who just paid you a compliment.
You must build your own confidence
Start by accepting the nice things others say about your work. You don’t have to say much. A simple “Thank you” will do.
Extend this practice to recognize your own accomplishments. Notice your skills. Notice the knowledge you have acquired that is not common knowledge. Remember that what is common knowledge in some contexts is not in others.
Regularly notice what is working well for you. Are you catching yourself doing things right? Or are you ignoring all the stuff you are doing right in order to focus all your attention on the one or two things you are doing wrong or haven’t mastered yet?
Don’t be fooled by things seeming easy, natural, or obvious.
If you are highly skilled at something, it will feel easy to do. If you don’t remember how you learned how to do it or when you practiced the skill to perfect it, it will seem natural. When someone compliments you on that skill, accept that it is indeed a skill that you learned and mastered.
The same thing goes for knowledge. What seems obvious to you is the result of knowledge gained through study, research, and experience. People who have studied different things, read different books, and experienced different things may not know what you know. They are not stupid. They are differently knowledgeable.
Compliments aren’t the only indicator. Have you ever found yourself being frustrated that someone else doesn’t know something, hasn’t read something, or can’t do something that feels easy, natural or obvious to you. This is a sure sign that you have a skill or knowledge. Don’t diminish yourself by insulting the other person. Recognize your own skills and knowledge, and show compassion to those who have different skills and knowledge.
Don’t be fooled by liking
Don’t discount your skills and knowledge because you like to do those things, or read about that stuff, or whatever. Chances are that liking it is what got you the skills or knowledge to begin with. It takes time and effort to learn new things and master skills. You wouldn’t put in the time and effort if it was not pleasurable in some way.
Work is defined by the expenditure of energy (in physics and everywhere else). Liking something doesn’t change how much energy you expend on the work itself. It only changes how much extra energy you need to spend convincing yourself to do it. Not-liking something is like having sand in your engine — it adds unnecessary friction and means you have to do more work to get the same result.
Your work is not less valuable because you like it. It is more efficient and you produce better results.
Being confident is a practice
Learn what it feels like when you are confident. What physical sensations accompany confidence for you? Learning to reproduce those feelings can help you feel more confident.
What practices could you develop to do this? They probably have nothing to do with the content of the task you face. For example, I find that correcting my posture helps me feel more confident. I sit or stand properly, adjusting my hips and shoulders. I take a deep breath. Before I meet with a client, I take off my shoes and stand in mountain pose, do a couple of half sun salutations, return to mountain pose. It takes about 5 minutes.
Try a few things and observe what happens. Adjust until you find practices that help.
While you are developing practices that work, you will be more aware of having to summon confidence before you walk into that classroom, open that email, read those reviewer comments, write that draft, etc. However, you will always have to do this. You will develop habits. And then your will have less sand in your engine when you do those things.
Edited March 7, 2016.