Angela Duckworth on Confidence: Why It Matters and How To Inspire It

Angela Duckworth says, “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.”  

Duckworth is an expert on human behavior, a MacArthur “Genius Grant" winner, and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She studies ways to enable people to reach their full potential.

Recently, I sat down with Duckworth to talk about confidence. It’s not a secret that confidence is a huge asset. It boosts motivation and resilience and reduces stress and anxiety, all of which propel personal, academic, and professional success.

In our conversation, Duckworth explained just how key confidence is to unlocking potential. It’s near impossible to see our own potential, let alone live up to it, without confidence. She also described how others can spark our confidence. When someone we respect lifts us up and treats us as an equal, they help us believe in ourselves, rebuild our confidence, and see our own potential once again.

Without confidence, we can’t spot our own potential

Confidence shapes the way we perceive ourselves. Without it, we doubt our abilities and potential to succeed, even when the evidence says otherwise.

When our confidence is low, we slip into negative self-talk. Our inner dialogue becomes peppered with unfounded doubts and judgments, sabotaging us from the inside out. According to Duckworth, negative self-talk often convinces us of two false realities: We’re the only people with problems, and they will not get better.

  • “I’m the only person who doesn’t understand what the teacher says, and I never will.”
  • “I’m the only person who doesn’t know what they want to do with their life, and I’ll never figure it out.”
  • “I’m the only person who’s alone on a Friday night, and I always will be.”

These pervasive ideas eat away at our ability to perform. They sap our motivation, enthusiasm, and creativity. They also make us feel like perfection is the only option, blocking us from feeling satisfied with perfectly good work.

When someone we respect lifts us up and treats us as an equal, they help us believe in ourselves, rebuild our confidence, and see our own potential.

Duckworth saw this in action while teaching seventh-grade math. “When kids forgot to turn in homework or goofed off in class, my first thought was like, ‘Do you not like math? Do you not like working? Do you not like me?’ But a lot of the time, when we got to the bottom of things, confidence — not ability — was their limiting factor.”

Low confidence can undermine high performers, too. When it’s loud enough, negative self-talk drowns out praise, positive feedback, and other clear signals of success. It convinces us that we’re either messing up or about to mess up, even when evidence clearly says otherwise.

Duckworth told me about a time in her own life when she performed superbly but allowed negative self-talk to undermine her.

“Just this morning,” Duckworth said, “my 19-year-old dug up a video of my first-year calculus professor because she’s thinking about taking the same class. It was like Proust and the madeleine: I was immediately back in that chair.” On paper, calculus should have been Duckworth’s favorite class. She adored the professor, earned great marks, and enjoyed the material. But after that first-year calculus class, she decided not to continue taking math.

“I just didn’t think I would be successful if I pursued higher-level math. I didn’t even see that option because of my self-talk. I would have done fine as a math major, but my confidence blocked me. I wrote off the idea before ever really considering whether it was something I wanted.”

When others spot our potential, our confidence grows

Confidence doesn’t turn on like a light bulb. It’s built over time, and it ebbs and flows as we encounter new experiences and challenges. However, other people — particularly those we look up to — can spark our confidence by acknowledging our potential and treating us as equals.

“I credit a lot of my growing confidence to my first year of graduate school,” Duckworth said. “I had these hour-long conversations with my professor, Marty Seligman, every week. I was his student, but during those conversations, he really treated me like an equal. He would say something, and I would listen, and then I would say something, and he would listen. Getting lifted up like that, even for just one hour a week, did wonders for my confidence.”

Conversations like these shock our systems into believing in ourselves. When someone we look up to treats us like an equal, they take our training wheels away, even if just for an hour. And when we don’t crash and burn, we start to think we might not need training wheels at all. In other words, their confidence inspires ours. By seeing our potential, they help us see it, too.

Confidence doesn’t turn on like a light bulb. It’s is built over time.

Speaking to someone who’s been around the block can also give us much-needed perspective. On our own, the voice that tells us, “I’m the only person with this problem, and it will not get better” is extremely convincing. But someone who’s a little farther down the path can assure us — either explicitly or through stories of their own experience — that the voice in our head is lying. They can tell us from firsthand experience that we aren’t alone, and this isn’t forever.

“When a math teacher tells you they used to struggle in math class,” Duckworth explains, “it plants a hypothesis in your head. It gets you thinking, maybe you are normal, and maybe things will get better. And once you’ve got that hypothesis, you start noticing the little wins, like a good grade or a fun class. Each little win is evidence that your hypothesis is correct. Slowly but surely, you start building that confidence back up and believing in yourself.”

How can we inspire confidence on a global scale?

Duckworth’s insights got me thinking: How can we help more kids feel confident and spot their own potential? How can we apply Duckworth’s idea — that conversations with other people have this power to spark confidence — to lift up teens around the world?

At Hello World, our mission is to discover and develop the potential in teens. We seek to understand barriers that block kids from reaching their full potential and find new ways to remove them.

On the Hello World app, teens participate in a unique evaluation process to apply to academic programs, internships, and other development opportunities. It’s important to us that our application process is a learning experience in and of itself, too. Our job is only done when every applicant — even the ones who aren’t selected — have learned something that will help them do better the next time around.

To make that happen, we encourage participants to provide peer feedback on the platform. It helps them learn from their fellow applicants and reflect on their own materials. Similarly, teens can hold a curiosity conversation — a chat with someone whose career path intrigues them —  to develop skills through the Rise application process. That way, even if they don’t get selected, they walk away from the experience having stepped outside of their comfort zone and engaged in conversations that could grow their confidence.

Have you found ways to help teens gain confidence, too?

If these questions and ideas resonate with you, please, say hello. We want to connect with individuals and organizations to continue creating new ways to help teens around the world reach their fullest potential.