12 ways to build kick-butt confidence by taking action

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

I grew up in a family of nine kids. Maybe you saw the TV remake? It was called “Survivor.”

I’m kidding – sort of. Our parents worked hard to give us everything we needed – but we did learn to fend for ourselves. That’s where confidence comes in.

I learned pretty early in life that confidence trumps skills, connections, and even money. When I feel confident doors seem to open up, sales come in, and punches roll away. Life seems to have a bounce in it.

But, if confidence is so powerful, why don’t we have as much as we want all the time?

The problem is the past.


Just like optimism, willpower, and resilience, confidence tends to dissolve when faced with the memory of when we failed.

As you are reaching out to call a sales prospect, you’re reminded of a sales call that tanked. 

You’re getting dressed for a party and dreading the inevitable awkward conversations that usually happen at parties.

In an argument, you remember being frustrated the last time you lost an argument. So you fight back. 

You sound like an amateur on the sales call, the party is awkward (as expected), and you regret what you said in the argument. 

Where was confidence when you needed it?

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, when bad things happen we see them as:

permanent (this isn’t going away),

personal (it’s my fault, I’m not worthy), and

pervasive (everyone is over weight, in debt, and struggling in their marriage). In other words, we make it worse. 

Goodbye confidence.

It’s kind of like the old chicken and the egg (horse and cart?) metaphor. It’s hard to get more confidence, when it takes confidence to make good things happen so you can get more confidence. Huh?

So what’s the solution?


I’ve been busy lately building my business, adding staff, and taking on new clients, all the while trying to maintain a healthy balance between the fun of work and the fun of life. I’ve noticed my confidence has been acting like a pimply teenager at a school dance. One minute I’m full of self-doubt, not sure what foot to put first, the next minute I’m standing tall, making decisions, and moving forward with confidence.

And as much as affirmations and visioning have their place, I’ve learnt that taking action, in the right direction, works better and faster.

Here are 12 ways to actively build more confidence, instead of wishing and waiting for it to happen.

rain-man-1988-16-g-reduced1. Dress better. Sounds silly, but it works. This isn’t about how much you spend on clothes – it’s about taking pride in how you show up. Spending a few more minutes on your grooming and clothes can do wonders to what goes on in your head (remember the scene in Rain Man when Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise come down the escalator studded out in their new suits?).

Nothing succeeds like success.” Sir Arthur Helps, in Realmah, 1868

2. Set a small goal, and achieve it. It could be as small as a short run you take before work, or not indulging in an afternoon cookie. Keeping promises is like fuel for your confidence fire.

3. Don’t fight back. You’re tempted, AND you know arguing back only makes it worse. Pull on your big girl pants and take the high road. You will always win more arguments by really listening, than from spitting out vengeful attacks.

4. Do a small thing, really well. It could be an email reply you spend just a bit more time crafting, or repairing the baseboard at home. Spend a few more minutes, put some love into it and feel good about your work (read “Admit it: you’re failing” for more tips on doing small things to make a big difference)

5. Read a book to make you smart. I like to have one book on the go to make me smarter and one, well, just for fun. Some of my recent favourites in the smart category, are: The Willpower Instinct, The Lean Start Up, The Power of Habit, Be Excellent at Anything, The Now Habit, Steve Jobs, and The Happiness Project

“To wish you were someone else is to waste the person you are.” —Anonymous 

6. Get your money in order. Nagging worries about money chip away at your confidence. Make a plan, reduce some debt, set up automatic payments – small actions, in the right direction, pay big dividends, long term.

7. Fix something. Broken shower curtain, loose door knob, dripping faucet? Don’t let small “must-do’s” erode your confidence. Spend the time and money, get it fixed, and remind yourself you are in charge.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” —Helen Keller 

8. Keep promises. No biggie, a promise to pick up your child at 3:15, to make dinner, or phone the gas company. Promise making is an opportunity for confidence growing. Make it happen, be accountable, build confidence. And then do it again.

IMG_30649. Learn a new skill. Learning to ride the unicycle last year was more than a fun challenge – learning a new skill (even something as hopelessly awkward as riding a unicycle) is a cool way to feel good about your abilities. Grow abilities—grow confidence. What could you learn this week?

10. Remember names. Small thing, but it works. Repeat them, write them down, rehearse them. Don’t use forgetting names in the past as an excuse. If you can remember the names of actors in movies, or players on the Boston Celtics, you can remember names.

“Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend.” —Lao Tzu 

11. Exercise more consistently. It might only be 20 minutes, but get out everyday. Consistency is more important than intensity. Every time you workout you kick negative doubts out (see “Why I joined the Morning Club” for more tips on exercising daily)

12. Change a habit, for the better. Drink less coffee, skip the morning muffin (there’s a reason for the term “muffin top”), make sales calls in the morning, only check email hourly – whatever. Improve a habit and build confidence to make and keep commitments.

What are you going to do to build more confidence? Tell me in the comments below.