I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour talking to a group of law students about professionalism and success. At some point our discussion turned to the idea of self-confidence. The group had read Clayton Christensen’s “How Will You Measure Your Life”, and was struck by his statement that the most self-confident people he knew were also the most humble. Several students, in fact, vocally disagreed.

I wonder why. Perhaps because we understand so little about true self-confidence. Or, maybe because the pictures of self-confidence we see most often are really arrogance in disguise. So, what are the keys to real self-confidence?

  1. It’s All About the Editing

Our lives, like all stories, are a mixture of success and failure. The amount of self-confidence we have lies in how we edit those stories. When you think back on your life, do you see only the bad? Do you overemphasize the mistakes you’ve made and the areas where you may have fallen short of a goal? If you could write your story, would it be an epic where the hero encounters troubles, learns something about herself, and ultimately returns victorious? Or is it just a tragedy?

It’s important to realize the most important story about us that can ever be told is the one we tell ourselves. Be a good editor. Be sure to find and celebrate your success for what it is. We all have times when we have hit the ball out of the park, at least figuratively. Don’t forget the grand slams in your life, and don’t diminish their importance by saying they were easy or not that big a deal.

By the same token, don’t dwell on your missteps. Sure, you have failed – we all have. But what has come from those failures? What was the lesson? How are you different? Craft the story of your life as a jumping off point for your future success. It is a key to self-confidence.

  1. It Comes from Within

It seems so obvious. That’s why it’s called self-confidence, right? But how many of us are really able to derive our confidence from within? From what we know to be true and good about ourselves? From what is important to us about our achievements? Based on what I see in my work, I would guess very few.

Instead, we go on a life-long mission to collect awards, compliments, and achievements that matter to those around us. So we can hear how great we are. So we can see it in our boss’s congratulatory email. So we can count it in our checking account. The problem is that somewhere in that process the “self” in self-confidence gets lost. Without that foundation, when we fall on hard times or our fans are distracted by something or someone else, we are lost.

Spend some time with yourself. Get to know who you are and what you like. Decide what you think is interesting, noteworthy, or important about you. Find the part of you that is unchangeable – the part that is there in the midst of your greatest achievement and your worst defeat. Build your foundation of confidence from that center.

  1. It’s Goes Hand in Hand with Humility

Those who have true self-confidence, who know their own failures and hardships and derive their worth from intrinsic traits rather than the opinions of those around them, have a kind of humility that is unmistakable. These are the servant leaders. We all probably know at least one – the ones who give of themselves over and over because they know that they are no better, and no worse, than those they serve. Those who give without worrying what is in it for them because they know who and what they are.

The truly self-confident are humble because they have respect for themselves and respect for those around them. They like who they are. And the beauty is that this humility works to reinforce our sense of self-esteem. It gives us the ability to learn lessons from all the people and situations in our lives, to admit that we do not know it all.

So, if you’re looking to build more self-confidence in your life, beware the trap of arrogance. Opt instead for the true confidence that can only be found by telling your true story, working from the inside out, and adopting an attitude of humility.