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Episode 100: 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch’s 100th Episode: Building Back Your Confidence, with Claire Shipman

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Episode Description

Today "3, 2, 1, iRelaunch" reaches a milestone! This is our 100th episode and we are delighted to showcase Carol’s conversation with Claire Shipman, Co-Author, with Katty Kay, of “Womenomics," “The Confidence Code” and “The Confidence Code for Girls," and former national news correspondent for ABC, NBC and CNN. Claire and Carol discuss how to build back confidence after experiencing the diminished sense of self so common among relaunchers on extended career breaks.

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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host for today. This is a special occasion podcast because it's our hundredth episode and we are thrilled to be interviewing Claire Shipman, best-selling author and speaker and former network reporter for ABC, NBC and CNN. Claire is the coauthor along with Katty Kay of three books, The Confidence Code, The Confidence Code for Girls and Womenomics. Today, we're going to focus primarily on confidence building strategies for relaunchers.

Claire, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Claire Shipman: Carol, thanks for having me, and on this special show, I'm thrilled to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, we're so thrilled to have you as our guests for our hundredth episode. So the topic of confidence is so important for relaunchers because almost to a person, relaunchers experience a lack of confidence,

even if they were senior or high performers before they took their career break. And we often think about this in terms of having a diminished sense of self resulting from feeling professionally disconnected over time, especially if your career break is related to some sort of a caregiving role.

I remember feeling this myself. So can you just talk about some of the origins of what leads to a lack of confidence, whether you are on a career break or no career break?

Claire Shipman: Well, what we found in our research about confidence, and it is really interesting is, confidence has a lot to do with risk and action and experience.

So confidence isn't really something that you necessarily are going to just have. It's not self-esteem. It's not just, “I feel great about myself, therefore I'm always really gonna feel great.” It really is an experiential quality that you have to build. And so we build confidence over the course of our lives when we do things and when we try things, but the trick is you build confidence when you do things that are hard, that involve risk and usually some failure.

So when you're in a career, you tend to naturally stretch yourself a bit and build that confidence. And when you step away from any activity over time, it's really natural. You're not as familiar with it. You're not taking risks in that environment anymore. And so it seems inherently even more risky and something you're less familiar with.

So I think the first thing for everybody to remember is that when you step away from a career for a time it's natural to feel that way. I mean, I feel that way and I've written three books, now I'm contemplating another one and I always end up having the feeling of, “I don't think I can do this again.” “What qualifies you to do this?” It's a very natural feeling to have.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And it's so interesting how you talk about this in terms of, it's not necessarily something you're born with, but you're saying it's different from self-esteem, there's this experiential quality to it.

And when you're on a career break, naturally, you are apart from, and you're not having that experiential quality as it relates to your career, you're having other experiences. So this is such an interesting explanation and it makes a lot of sense as to why some of us, many of us who are on extended career breaks, do feel less confident over time. That's really eye opening.

Claire Shipman: I think the other thing I just wanted to add to the other piece of that is, it's especially important, as you start to look at relaunching to understand that the experience you've had, whatever you've been doing while you've been on a career break is probably incredibly valuable and helpful to whatever you want to move back to.

So to some extent, it's a natural feeling to have that you've been out of the mix for a while. You don't feel as confident, but then there's also, I think something we could do is sort of readjust the lens and help ourselves understand that, actually the other stuff we've been doing has probably broadened us in a way that will be really useful as well.

Carol Fishman Cohen: It's totally true. I mean, if you just think about yourself at, let's say age 29 versus age 42,and how much more self-aware you might be, you are grounded and you have a more mature perspective. These are definitely qualities that relaunchers bring to the workplace that are huge attributes. So, it reflects what you're saying.

Claire, I know you have your latest book is out, The Confidence Code for Girls

and I have not read that book yet. I'm guessing that some of the advice you give there is, it's better if you start early and you work with girls to maybe put them in a position where they are building their confidence or, or we'll build it over a period of time.

But for our audience, of course, we're already grown and fully formed adults. And I'm just wondering how you would address confidence-building for an audience like ours, where people are doing this in the context of returning to the workforce and probably in their forties and fifties.

Claire Shipman: Well, the good news is, we focused on girls because there's really interesting data that shows for girls right at puberty, that they suffer a pretty extreme confidence drop, right?

Girls and boys go along having similar confidence until about age eight or nine. And then the confidence for girls plummets for four to five years and really, actually, it doesn't recover until we're well into adulthood. And partly what happens is that girls have the sort of EQ ability, the emotional factor and, the stuff that lets us ruminate and overthink that all kicks in right at puberty.

So, this is another thing to keep in mind too, is that thinking can be the enemy of confidence, too much thinking, overthinking, ruminating.

So, that's why we targeted girls, but I will say this for our adult audience. It is definitely not the case that it's harder to build confidence for us as adults than it is for kids. I mean, it's great to start early because if we can help girls avoid that drop that's terrific. But there's a very specific moment where we're just trying to educate girls about what's happening and saying, “Don't hold back, keep taking risks,” really help them through that period.

But in fact, as you mentioned, all of us who are looking at relaunching or doing something different have built a lot of life experience. So we do have some wisdom that just needs to be sort of unearthed and dusted off, I think. And so I think that the key thing for this age range that's more mature, if you will, and I've experienced this myself, is really two things. It's starting to understand these are the things that help with confidence, starting to be aware of the messages we're telling ourselves inside. So there's a brain, there's a thinking component.

And then it's being aware of, are we willing to take risks and are we pushing ourselves to take risks? What's our relationship with risk taking and our willingness to endure some failure? Those are the two things that ultimately will allow us to kickstart our confidence. I mean, the brain piece of it is really important because when we're overthinking and ruminating and caught in a negative cycle, you know, “I thought somebody was going to email me back,”

or, “I am never going to get back to work,” “I'm a failure.” Any sort of catastrophic thinking, jumping to conclusions when you go in that cycle for too long, really inhibits your ability to take chances and take risks.

Really, we found the formula for confidence building is very simple. It's just taking risks, having some failures and continuing down that path, having those experiences that involve some struggle. That's what builds up our confidence in the long run. So if we continue to play it safe or avoid, we’re never going to build more confidence.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, as you're talking, I'm thinking about the experiences of relaunchers, especially right now in a “full employment economy,” it really reflects the experiences of most people who are looking for jobs, career breaks or no career breaks that, to get rejection over and over and have that negative self-talk cycle start going, it's really easy to fall into that in this kind of economy where it looks like everyone else has a job. “So why don't you have one too?”

I'm glad that you are bringing this up. It just makes me wonder if when relaunchers are in a job search, to frame it as, “I'm going to go for this job opportunity right now and do everything that I can, but I know there's a possibility that I'm not going to get it. And, and that may feel like a failure in my eyes, but it's also going to be a learning experience. I'll be that much further ahead for the next one.”

Claire Shipman: It's interesting too, because I was thinking about the difference between the way men and women might approach a relaunch situation. I think, and I speak in generalities, not because everybody thinks men act one way, all women act another way. Of course, we're all on a spectrum, but there tend to be some differences. And I think for men at mid-career, let me just say, men and women both feel a lack of confidence. Men and women will both feel a sense of fear at taking something that they perceive to be a risk.

What we found is that men and women often react in a different way to that. Men will often recognize the fear and their response will be to act anyway, to jump in and, sort of “damn the consequence” if you will, “I'm just going to do it.” And women will tend to hold back. That over time can add up to a lack of action, which means a lack of risky experiences and therefore a lack of confidence building.

Men and boys often learn more naturally that they can just do things.

And it's okay. But I think when you're looking at coming back from a career transition or a career break for men, you also have that societal component of how much career matters. There's just a completely different framing often for men still today in terms of a career break. What is it, what is a career or a job in a man's life?

They're often afforded less flexibility in terms of the judgment there. And so I think that can make the stakes for this mid-career situation or a relaunch sort of equally intimidating. Whereas they might not be at the start of a career, I think it can be similar. And so I think it's really important to be ready to fail and to understand that failure.

I mean, this is one of the things we talk about in The Confidence Code is just try to embrace that Silicon Valley chestnut, “fail fast” and understand that some failure is part of success. And it's really hard to do if you're a perfectionist or you're used to constant success and it's really hard.

You have to understand if you're not doing a little bit of failure, you're actually not succeeding at all. And I think that has to be the starting place for this moment in your life.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, absolutely. We've had men, of course, who have taken career breaks for all different reasons, but the ones who've taken career breaks for childcare reasons have talked to us about how they are perceived differently by different employers. And sometimes they'll say, “Wow, I could tell that that person was really uncomfortable with the idea that I was a stay at home dad. And I had to decide that maybe that wasn't the best working environment for me. And I had to keep having conversations until I was talking to people at employers who really got me.”

So you're hitting on something that's definitely a unique situation for men, but something that we think is changing. And it's also relevant for women in the broader sense. Claire, I remember when The Confidence Code came out, I don't know if it was right before or at the same time, you and Katty Kay wrote a famous article in The Atlantic, that either excerpted The Confidence Code or, it was an article about the content. And there was a discussion in there about confidence versus competence. Can you talk about how they're linked, and do they build on each other? And if you're competent, does that automatically mean that you're confident? What happens?

Claire Shipman: It's so interesting. Well, what we found was there was a professor out at Berkeley doing a really interesting study about confidence versus competence, and which is more important. And of course, Katty and I thought because we're women, “Well, duh, it's competence, right? Of course we have to be competent.” Well, no, it turns out he was finding that in terms of workplace success, confidence often has the edge, which was shocking to us.

Because I think what we realized then, and the more we dug, was women often really value competence, right? Because especially when women are perfectionistic and focused on detail, and this is something we get into in The Confidence Code for girls too, one reason why we wrote it, right?

The school system we all go through rewards that, dotting every I, crossing every T, A’s on papers, this is what matters. And you get in the real world, it's like, “Oh no, not so much.” Actually, it's your ability to take risks, fail, do things that nobody ever talked to you about for twenty-two years, especially as a girl.

So I think it is very important to understand that confidence is actually an important skill to have in the workplace. Now we're not talking about bravado or false confidence, because this professor was studying that too. It turns out we don't even know we can, but we can sniff out fakes. But it's a real sense of, “I can make things work,” that, “I can do something and even if I fail, I'm going to keep going.” And I think what we started to understand too, is we need to sometimes cultivate that over perfection. Competence of course is important and every career will be different.

In some careers, you really can't make mistakes, I mean, you really want a competent helicopter pilot. There are some places where you do not want errors, but there are also times, I think we've all done this in our careers where I would stay up all night working on a piece for Good Morning America, I'd make sure I would get every little thing just right. Did it matter? Maybe one time out of 400 and maybe the other times I was driving the entire team crazy by keeping them up all night. And then I couldn't do a piece the next day because I was so burned out. So it's really about saying that there's a balance. And we have to be able to do things that are going to increase our confidence and that necessarily often means being willing to be less than perfect.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So is that one of the strategies?

Claire Shipman: Well, it's certainly a strategy for, for me. So when we talk about being willing to take risks and fail, I think the important thing to understand is, risk taking will look different for everybody. It depends on who you are, and what's risky to you. For some people it's speaking up in a meeting, for some it's doing things less than perfectly. We've talked to lawyers, one lawyer in particular, who's a partner in a firm, said she struggled with decision-making and it would just jam up her days and her entire operation, because she felt every decision she made had to be perfect. And she finally had to set a rule for herself that nine out of 10 decisions she made will be good and 10% are just going to be wrong and she would deal with the consequences.

So it was almost giving her herself a mental crutch to just move through things, knowing she wasn't going to get everything right. I think you have to figure it out. For some people that is indeed a risk, the thing that you need to focus on and for others, maybe not so much, it just depends on where you need to be pushing

to get out of your comfort zone.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know what you're saying here is so important about defining what's risky for people. And the idea that a definition of risk could be that I am going to venture out into the world with a 90% rule, that things are not going to be a hundred percent perfect all the time. And for me, that’s a huge risk where other people might define risk as something totally different, such as some physical feat or something like that.

Claire Shipman: Yeah, it's been so helpful for me personally, because I used to agonize over every email I would send or request, or writing to somebody that had seemed to me to be slightly confrontational and I would procrastinate because I thought it had to be perfect.

And now I literally just have to make a point of saying, “Nope, it's good enough. I'm going to send it. And even if I made a mistake, it might take me another day if I don't just press send.” But I think that's just my issue. Everybody has the areas where they need to kind of push themselves to be a little bit more brave. And especially when you're relaunching, it's recognizing that you will have some vulnerabilities.

The other thing, when you say competence versus confidence, that I think is so important, it's something iRelaunch does so well. Of course you can't just create confidence out of whole cloth. It is scary to do something entirely new, to feel that you're out of practice. This is why we talk about it in the book: you start small, you start in little pieces, you don't dive into something that's terrifying and try to do it all at once. And I think whether it's doing a lot of reading so you master one little corner of what you want to master, and that starts to make you feel you're on stable ground again. Or maybe it is the internship process that you all do so well.

Maybe it's making five phone calls to people that are a little scary, but you're going to learn something. So you start to get reacquainted.

I know I feel that way. I feel terrified about a new book project until I can do one article and then one more and start to think, “It's going to be okay.

I can get there.” But I think mastering a little corner and then the next little corner, that's when it will seem frightening and that's okay. You tell yourself it's normal, but then you make progress that way bit by bit.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes. This whole concept of taking baby steps that you're describing, a perfect example is if you can teach a single course at a local college on a topic that you know well, that forces you to become a subject matter expert all over again on a topic you used to know, and now you have to get up to speed again to teach it. That's a baby step and these adjunct lecturer positions are renewed on a semester by semester basis. They usually don't pay that much, but they're a great way to step back into the work world on terms that work with your schedule initially and force you to become a subject matter expert all over again in your field.

Claire Shipman: Right. That's a great idea, actually.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. It's kind of like an internship in a way, if you think about an adjunct lecturer role.

Claire Shipman: I mean, this really doesn't have a lot to do with confidence building in terms of what we write about in our book, but just an observation from the workplace, because Katty and I do a lot of speaking to corporations about women in leadership, so we get a feel in a lot of different industries for what's going on. I do really think that everybody who's taken a career break really needs to understand right now that what they have probably done in their career break really is as valuable to the employer as what they would have been doing in a job.

I think there's an increasing awareness among maybe more enlightened companies. Not every company is like this, but we need broad thinkers these days, and people making broad connections and people who can literally manage. I mean, honestly, if you have been involved in childcare, you are fully ready to manage at a high level in a corporation, right?

There is almost nobody, I've talked to senior managers about this, they recognize that the soft skills that are required for this kind of this new term, I don't know if you've seen a lot of the research on it, but the “emotional labor” that actually has to happen at work as well these days, it's invaluable, not enough people have it.

So, do you go in there touting it guns a-blazing? Maybe not, but you should certainly feel that that is a skill that is in fact really, really valuable. So I would say if you try to not immediately say to yourself one of those negative brain spins, “I'm never going to get a job. I haven't done anything in 10 years of value,” that's just absolutely wrong.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Claire, I just want to circle back to something that you had said earlier about being able to sniff out fake confidence, because one of the strategies that relaunchers have talked to us about, and this was even something that was put forth in the nineties by one of the most senior women in entertainment, Dawn Steel, who wrote a book in which she talked about projecting more confidence than you actually feel because it's kind of like a performance initially, but the good thing about it is ultimately your real confidence level catches up to what you're projecting and then it becomes one and the same.

And, we've heard relaunchers say, “I was a little worried that I'd get found out because I was projecting more confidence than I had initially, but ultimately

I built up real confidence to match that.” So curious about your thoughts on this “fake it till you become it'' concept that I know is now talked about by Amy Cuddy. Any thoughts about it?

Claire Shipman: Well, it's interesting. We did look at that in our research and I think it works. But I think we would recast it in terms of the way it works best, especially maybe for women, because the only problem with mentally saying “fake it till you make it” or “I'm faking it, I'm going to do something I'm not,” is that we already tend to feel like frauds all the time. So it's kind of doubling down on that concept, which makes us think about being a fraud even more. But here's the hitch, and this is what Dawn was talking about, in order to start building confidence, you have to start somewhere. You have to take that first risk.

You have to do that first. So how do you jump off the cliff? You need a crutch. And so I think at least recognizing “I'm afraid and that's normal,” understanding that fear doesn't mean you're a failure. It's a normal feeling to have when you're about to do something you haven't done before, so you own it and then you say, “I'm going to act in spite of it.” A young girl gave us this phrase, which we really like, which is “Do it afraid, I just do it afraid. I see that I'm afraid I'm going to do it anyway.” And so I think to some extent, understand that it's normal to be nervous and then just go do it. And if it works, it works. And if it doesn't, you learn from it and move on.

So for us, the key is you have to do it. And so whether you can fake it and say, “This is who I want to be,” that might work for some people. If it doesn't feel as comfortable understanding that fear is normal, and you're going to use that to act instead of hesitate.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And can you talk to us about some of the other active strategies that you recommend to people to build confidence?

Claire Shipman: Yes. I mean, I think the other thing that's important, as I mentioned, is recognizing what's going on in our heads and that understanding, fear as a normal is part of it. We talk about ruminating. Don't ruminate, rewire.

And so I think part of that is recognizing when you are letting your head spin with a lot of negative thoughts. We talked to one expert who was very funny. She is a neuroscientist, extremely well-worded, successful. She realized she was creating a mental habit for herself every day she headed home. She created a mental list of what she did wrong that day. And she's a neuroscientist, she finally realized, “Oh, I think I'm actually rewiring my brain in a really negative way going over everything I did wrong.” So she set a new goal, which was a much smaller list, but just three things that she had done well, or achieved, or things that she thought she had wanted to do and gotten done.

So I think starting to recognize, what is the story you’re telling yourself in your head and can you switch it? And I think, especially when you have something, like you didn't get an email back, somebody told you no, somebody says I can't talk, or I'm not sure. Instead of when you start telling yourself, “I see this happen, I knew I was a failure, this is going to be a disaster,” whatever thing that's taking over your life. There's a lot of great research that shows, if you can think of one alternative explanation for that, like one different way of interpreting it, you'll get out of that negative loop.

So maybe it's, “Well, I knew this, I knew that I'd have to do five calls. I knew this position wasn't quite going to be right. Maybe it will work out next year.” Even if the research shows, even if your Plan X isn't realistic, it doesn't matter. It gets you out of that negative brain loop.

So I think what's really essential is starting to recognize the negative stories you're telling yourself, and to try to flip them. Some people literally keep a list of accomplishments on their desk that they try to update. So that as you start to get into that zone, you have it and you can look at it.

The other advice that we think is incredibly helpful for building confidence and it's actually another crutch in a way quite similar to the “fake it till you make it,” and we call it “from me to we.” It's essentially the understanding that people are often motivated more to take risks or doing something on behalf of other people. When the focus is off of ourselves, it's easier to say, “I'm going to stand up and speak in front of an audience because I know it's going to help the group team or this is going to be good for the larger collective.” And so there's a lot of interesting research on this too.

An Ohio State professor studied young women who were applying for jobs and found that when they could get their minds off of themselves and how they were inevitably going to fail immediately, or however they thought, when they started, and think, “Today, am I going to do what this team wants me to do? Or how am I going to help Bob finish X?” And so if there's any way to think about getting back to working this chance, sending this email, trying a job I don't feel fully comfortable doing, it's actually going to help, whether it's my family, or something larger than yourself to get the spotlight off of yourself.

Or literally when you're in a moment you find particularly risky again, think about how what you're doing is benefiting other people. It's just a way to get hump and start to get that experience that you need to start the confidence building process.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, this is so true. If you think about people who, especially in caregiving roles, when they're working on behalf of someone else to help enable them in some way and how adept they are at it, when they're working on behalf of someone else, yet when they try to apply that to themselves, they don't feel the same way.

So I love this piece of advice to sort of reframe it and think about it as if you're helping someone else.

Claire Shipman: Yeah. And it might be the comfort. It might be the team. It might be sort of understanding, “Actually I'm going to really help that enterprise. It's not about furthering my career.”

Carol Fishman Cohen: Right. Yes. Excellent way to rethink that. So Claire, we are running out of time unfortunately, but I do want to ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience even if it's something we've already talked about today?

Claire Shipman: I think the best advice is learn to live with risks, learn to live with that feeling in your gut, that “I'm not always comfortable and I'm not always meant to be comfortable. And that's a good place to be.” I think it's especially hard for women to do, but it's hard for human beings to do. We love our comfort zones, but if you say, “I can thrive when I'm a little bit uncertain and I'm a little scared of what's going to happen, and that place is really thrilling and there's so many more possibilities for me there.”

Carol Fishman Cohen: Excellent. Claire, how can our listeners find out more about your work?

Claire Shipman: We will have no surprise, a website, and it has confidence quizzes, our work, our work on girls, links to that.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And can you just say that one more time, the website name?

Claire Shipman: The website is

Carol Fishman Cohen: Excellent. Thank you, Claire. Thank you for joining us today.

Claire Shipman: Carol, it's been my pleasure. It's really so exciting to see what you've built.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, we love everything that you're doing and learning from you all the time. So, thanks again.

Claire Shipman: Thank you.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And thank you for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break.

I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch, go to And if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on iTunes and your favorite podcast platform and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

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