Book Review: The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris

What is confidence? That question lies at the heart of Russ Harris’ book, The Confidence Gap. Most of us view confidence as a feeling and, in fact, that is how most dictionaries define the term. Oxford defines “confidence” as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” What this definition doesn’t tell us, of course, is when this feeling should or must emerge. To be confident, is it necessary that one start out that way?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us may assume that this is in fact the case. We may believe that good and necessary action emanates from an unshakable, and perhaps innate, belief in ourselves, our teams, or our values. We may have watched the courageous actions of others from movies, history, or even our own communities that made it appear that their bold acts flowed from confidence. As a result, we may value confidence highly and simply assume that feeling confident is essential to living a worthy life.

This, however, is the very confidence gap that Harris argues against falling into in his book. According to Harris, the confidence gap is the space between action and feelings of confidence. He argues with clarity and wit that many of us believe that feeling confident is a necessary precondition to acting with force and skill. As a result, many of us never begin and take the action necessary to develop true confidence. Over time, this process can accumulate into a cluster of memories and fears that make us feel powerless, stuck, and drained.

The way out of this, according to Harris, is to instead accept the reality that anything challenging in our lives will inevitably cause most of us to feel unsure. In other words, Harris tells us to stop expecting and trying to feel confident from the outset. He suggests that we use mindfulness strategies to help us allow uncomfortable bodily sensations and acknowledge the troubling thoughts that may impede action. Harris suggests that neither thoughts nor feelings are themselves problematic if we can learn to “defuse” from (or not overidentify with) them. As we go through this challenge and take on new risks, Harris also explains that a healthy amount of self-acceptance (or self-compassion as I would call it) is essential.

To that end, much of the book is devoted to describing strategies for defusing in detail, including my favorite, which is to sing your nasty inner commentary to yourself to the tune of “Happy Birthday” or to type the statements out and put them in a funny font. I mean, doesn’t the phrase “I’m going to ruin my life.” seem less threatening when you type it out in pink Comic sans? And don’t these well-worn self-doubt phrases seem a little less dire when you sing them to yourself in the tune of “Happy Birthday”: “I’m a terrible mom. I’m a bad attorney. I am a total failure. My life is a mess.”

They sure do. Because, as Harris suggests, the words and the feelings don’t have power in themselves. They only have power because they can create discomfort in us that can stun us into inaction. If we can use mindfulness strategies, however, to give ourselves some space and grace in the midst of that discomfort, we can still learn to move forward in the midst of discomfort. That’s when we find confidence because we learn that fear can come but it doesn’t have to hold us back. In this way, Harris suggests that confidence is in reality a process rather than a feeling.

You could learn a lot of the lessons from The Confidence Gap without reading the book. In fact, I liked the book because it seemed to explain back to me in logical and research-based terms what I had experienced in my own life. I had always struggled with self-doubt and overthinking, but started to work my way out of those habits with years of mindfulness practice. Eventually, I learned my pattern: I would feel a rush of inspiration to try a new thing, then set out to try it, and then feel scared and want to quit.  After a while, my mindfulness practice became established enough that, instead of quitting or never starting at all, I learned how to not accept as true every thought that came to mind, care for my fear, and keep going. Over time, I noticed how often my fears were exaggerated and how rarely they affected my actual performance. Now, even though few new challenges go by where I don’t experience some fear and doubt, I am far more confident in myself because I know what to do with the fear and doubt. Now, I just bring it along for the ride instead of letting it drive the bus.

The Confidence Gap is a useful read because it can help you sort out the mélange of thoughts, sensations, and expectations that arise in the space between ideas and actions. The analysis in the book may help you understand what confidence really means for you and the strategies may help you avoid letting the confidence gap turn into a lifelong (or maybe just too long) inaction rut. So, if you want more confidence in your life or to understand the subject better, check out The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris for insightful analysis, useful strategies, and a much-needed examination of what confidence means.

Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Anyone interested in mindfulness is almost by default interested in habits too. Even if you start a meditation practice with the aim of finding just a little bit more peace and quiet in your life, you inevitably will end up reviewing in detail your daily activities, the patterns of your mind, and the impact of your habitual reactions and behaviors. If you give the practice long enough, you very likely may start to see the impact of your habits and be in a position to change them in a positive way.

This is what happened to me. Years ago, I was unhappy, stressed, lonely, and saddled by constant overthinking. I started meditating, created enough mental clarity and stability to see that I was making some fundamental mistakes, and I slowly started to change them. First, I started making more of an effort with my social life, then I reactivated my exercise habit, and finally I added creative pursuits into my life. Nearly a decade after my meditation practice started, my life is much improved and it’s largely because of some habit changes.

So, I was not at all skeptical when I heard about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I knew that habits were important and I understand that even tiny habits could, over time, have huge consequences for one’s life. I admit, though, that I was just a little bit skeptical because I kept hearing, over and over again, about James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I heard so many enthusiastic reviews that my inner rebel/cynic thought it must be too good to be true. But, it’s January and I’m thinking about my habits like many people as we move all too slowly out of this global pandemic, so I decided to give it a shot.

After a few chapters, I immediately understood why people love Atomic Habits: it offers clear, concise procedural steps for building better habits and ending undesired ones. The book itself is a very easy read. It’s short and has crisp, concise chapters broken up into bite-sized pieces. Clear’s writing style is, well, clear. He writes in plain English and a conversational tone. Though he often supports his conclusions with scientific studies, he explains them with examples that most of us would recognize from popular culture or our own lives.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Clear’s book, though, is that it offers a much-needed structure to those of us who want to review and change our habits. Anyone caught in the snare of a bad habit knows that it can feel overwhelming and rob us of any motivation to change. As Clear explains, habits are incredibly powerful because, for a behavior to become a habit, we have to accept it as part of our identity and then practice it and hard-wire it into our brains. Undoing that process for habits we want to change, therefore, can seem confusing, daunting, and even futile.

To address this, Clear distills the process of habit creation into a succinct set of 4 laws: (1) make it obvious; (2) make it attractive; (3) make it easy; and (4) make it satisfying. By offering this system and strategies to support habit change at each phase, Clear’s process is a practical, logical, but also self-compassionate way of cutting through the inner resistance, doubt, and angst that goes along with any effort to change one’s habits. At the heart of Clear’s advice is the fundamental idea that discipline and willpower aren’t the way to change habits, but instead processes, routines, and supports are how to do it. As I have written before, I heartily agree with this approach and have experienced its benefits in my own life when I attempted to start exercising, lose weight, or cut down on my alcohol consumption. And I am definitely going to use some of Clear’s advice to address my current struggle of watching too much Netflix before bedtime.

So, am I ready to declare myself officially wrong to be skeptical about Atomic Habits? Not so fast. My habit of resisting admitting when I am wrong is pretty engrained, so I can’t let this review go without some critique. One thing I didn’t like about the book was that it sometimes made habit change sound a bit too easy. While Clear appropriately has a chapter devoted to the struggle of habit change, it is surprisingly devoid of personal experience with struggle. This may not have been so noticeable if the book had not begun with Clear’s compelling story of a high school head injury that set him on the path to becoming a habit guru. Another problem was that the book lost steam after the first few chapters because even its structure seems to follow a set of rules and it quickly began to feel formulaic and rote.

These criticisms, of course, are not enough to devalue the practical advice and actionable steps in Atomic Habits. Instead, they are perhaps wish lists for the future works I hope to see from James Clear and a suggestion to read the book one chapter at a time with a period to digest the content before moving onto the next. If you are thinking of habit change this January, Atomic Habits is a concise and easy read that is certainly worth your time.

Do you need some help making our meditation practice a habit? Download the Meditation Habits worksheet below to apply some of the principles from Atomic Habits to get your meditation practice established as a habit. You can also check out our free ebook, Pause and Begin Again, to help you start or resume a meditation practice on our Resources page.

Review of Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Editor’s Note: We originally published this review last June. As a tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh, who passed yesterday, we publish it again in gratitude for Hanh’s teachings and work.

You don’t really need to read all of Thich Nhat Hanh’s many books to understand his central teachings. This may be a good thing, since the world-renowned Zen master, peace activist, poet, and spiritual leader has written or had his talks compiled into so many books that it was difficult even to account for all of them. Over the years, I have read over 10 of his books, since they are readily available and seem to address any number of the problems in life. On one occasion years ago, I had been struggling to maintain calm during my youngest daughter’s tantrum phase and happened upon Anger in a bookstore. I saw it as a sign and purchased it, grateful for any advice I could get on that subject.

On another occasion, I’d had a fight with my husband and stumbled upon a pocket tome called How to Fight while hunting for diapers and baby food at Target. Hanh’s wisdom, it seemed, showed up whenever I needed it. Though I had not had the foresight to summon it, I at least knew enough to accede when the universe was trying to tell me something. So, this month, when I planned the theme for the blog as joy and happened upon Hanh’s book Happiness, it was too perfect to pass up. Like the other occasions, I hadn’t been looking for the book. Rather, in a happy accident, I found Audible Plus, which has a lot of free books for members, including a treasure trove of excellent books relating to mindfulness and meditation. While scouring through the titles, I came upon Happiness.

I found in that book what I found in most of his others: simplicity and truth. I had already read several of Hanh’s books before so I had a sense of what he would say is the key to happiness: to use your breath to come back to the present moment, no matter what you are doing or what circumstances you are in, and to treat yourself and all around you with kindness and compassion. In Happiness, that’s what he says in a nutshell and he offers examples, applications, and practices to help you do this in your life. All of those things are critical, of course, but I don’t keep coming back to Hanh because I needed to be taught those ideas. Instead, I keep coming back to his books because I need to remember them.

As a lawyer and mom, my life is so busy and changes so regularly that it is easy to get knocked off balance. I am frequently tired, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. If anything happens to trigger my perfectionism, competitive streak, or cause an onslaught of social comparison, it can be easy to feel like I’m on the wrong track and my efforts will never be good enough. The thing that helps me in those times is to remember what actually matters. And that’s what Happiness does: it reminds the reader that happiness is not something to seek out but instead something to relax into.

Book after book offers us hacks and self-help advice to fix our lives. In Happiness, Hanh says that your life isn’t broken, though he suggests in the compassionate way that only he can, that you may be missing the best parts. The key to happiness, he recommends, is to avoid becoming constantly distracted by your “projects” and to keep coming back to the present moment over and over again to discover how perfect it is. As he explains, when we let ourselves do that, we notice more how we feel, what we need, and how to connect deeply with people and face the problems in our lives. That’s how we find happiness.

“Yeah, but it’s not that simple,” you may be thinking. After all, life is hard. Real calamities happen. Being present doesn’t fix that. Of course, that’s true and Hanh, who was exiled from his home of Vietnam for nearly 40 years, doesn’t deny that. Rather than pretend, like so many books offering platitudes and life hacks that suffering can be avoided, Hanh argues instead that happiness is resilient enough, powerful enough to persist even in the midst of it if we can allow ourselves to experience it.

In this way, don’t read Happiness if you want a how-to or self-help book. Don’t read it if you are looking for easy solutions or hot takes on current trends. Don’t read it to improve yourself. Rather, read Happiness if you are sick of books like that and you want to just remember for a little while that you are fine just as you are. Read it to remember that slowing down, calming down, and being present for the experiences of life are the things that create real happiness. And, then, when you have forgotten all of that as you are bound to do, read another of Hanh’s many books to remind yourself again.

Book Review: Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley

I have this bad habit of buying books so that I don’t forget about them. Then I flip through them once, decide I don’t have time to read them right now, and set them on my bookshelf only to forget about them. I did this with Every Body Yoga years ago. I had heard the author, Jessamyn Stanley, on an episode of Call Your Girlfriend and thought she sounded so personable, down-to-earth, and cool that I couldn’t resist.

But life and law practice intervened and I didn’t get around to reading it until I enrolled in yoga teacher training and heard multiple classmates and teachers mention it with affection. When I dusted off the book and finally read it, I wished I had done so sooner. Then, I shared it with a friend who told me she was interested in trying out yoga to balance out her fitness routine. As I wrote previously, my own yoga practice got off to a rocky start because I was saddled with judgments about my body’s appearance and perceived limitations. I found in Stanley’s book an experience that, though it was undoubtedly unique, reminded me a bit of my own.

Stanley came to prominence when she began posting pictures of herself learning and mastering yoga poses on Instagram. At the time, Stanley wasn’t anyone famous or even a yoga teacher. She was just a person seeking community and support as she did her practice, largely on her own. Indeed, Stanley recounts in the book how she learned the basics of yoga with studio classes, but practiced on her own in her apartment for a time due to a lack of funds. It wasn’t until she gained a following and built her own confidence that she became a yoga teacher. Now, she’s got nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram, her own online studio, and a second recently released book.

Though this story certainly showcases the power of courage and following one’s passions, it also demonstrates how yoga as a practice can help yogis of all kinds learn to love and care for themselves. In Every Body Yoga, Stanley relates how yoga helped her care for herself through the difficulties of her own life, including making decisions about education and work, challenges in her intimate relationships, and even losing loved ones. While yoga was a powerful force for her, Stanley explains that practical impediments to yoga practice still exist for many people. She offers examples throughout her story of the emotions elicited for her as she walked into a class with only thin white women and the expense of maintaining a yoga habit with studio classes. It is for this reason that Stanley felt compelled to start documenting her own practice for others.

To make yoga truly accessible to everybody, Stanley also offers a thorough but concise summary of yoga philosophy and the varieties of asana practice. This may help those new to yoga determine what classes might best suit their bodies. In addition, about one half of the book is devoted to explanations and demonstrative pictures of commonly used poses and props, and sequences paired for specific purposes. Thus, any new yogi could pick up Stanley’s book, a yoga mat, and some blocks, and start a home practice for the same price of attending two or three yoga classes in a studio.

In short, Every Body Yoga is a how-to guide intended and best suited for those new to yoga, but it offers inspiration, heart, and a great story of self-love that even experienced yogis might enjoy. If you are curious about yoga but aren’t sure it’s for you, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Everybody Yoga. But don’t let it sit on your shelf gathering dust. Give it a read, give Stanley a follow on Instagram, and get on the mat.

Why Lawyers Need the Big Magic of Creative Living

“You should read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.” This was advice from another lawyer, Jeremy Richter, after I appeared on his podcast The Lawyerpreneur where we talked about how we liked to write and make things and didn’t care if other lawyers thought we were “weird.” I like and respect Jeremy quite a lot, but I confess that I had assumptions about Elizabeth Gilbert because of Eat, Pray, Love (in truth the movie version of that book) and I ignored his advice. Months later, I wrote a LinkedIn post about the paradoxes of writing which said, essentially, that it takes time but makes energy, it is frustrating but somehow still offers happiness, and it is often lonely but provides a path to belonging. Another lawyer messaged me, asking if I had read Big Magic because my post sounded just like it.

This was enough to make me see the writing on the wall. I immediately checked Audible, found a remaining monthly credit, and started listening. Halfway through the 6-minute opening chapter, I saw even more writing on the wall: I was totally wrong about Gilbert. At this point, I am not even sure what my problem with Gilbert was, but in retrospect I think I just discounted her work because it was popular. After reading Big Magic, however, I wish more people, and in particular, more lawyers knew about it.

Big Magic is a series of mini essays on living a creative life. Some of the essays contain stories about Gilbert’s writing career, but many others offer examples of creative people from across the millennia, reaching all the way to those early humans who drew pictures on cave walls. While the stories are not chronological or even directly related, they come together at the end like random bits of fabric collected over the years to create the cohesive pattern in a quilt. This analogy is perfect for the book because Gilbert’s central thesis is this: creativity is an essential part of being human because it is the part of our humanity that gives us access to divinity.

By this, Gilbert does not deny that living a creative life is hard—even gut-wrenching at times. She devotes several of the essays, often comically, to discussing rejection, the pain that comes when the muse visits but then leaves too soon, jealousy, competition, and dealing with the worst critic of all: the one inside your own head. But she argues that it is still worthwhile, regardless of whether your particular creative pursuit brings you fame or fortune and even if it drives you nuts on occasion.

Why do I love this book so much? Well, because I have lived it. While I have not yet written a smash hit novel or lived the life of a professional writer, I have experienced firsthand the benefits that living a creative life can offer. It took me a long time to accept my own creativity and allow it to flourish. Like a lot of lawyers, I thought for too long that I should focus solely on my law practice. Then, I had to get over the idea that I was “wasting my time” if I put effort into projects that wouldn’t lead to any benefits. As it turns out, the benefits of my writing were pronounced for both my life and law practice, though the path that those benefits took to find me were often indirect. Ultimately, though, it was when I finally accepted the truth that my creativity exploded: I was going to write because writing made me happy and lack of attention and praise was not going to stop me.

There is a lot written these days about mental well-being for lawyers and professionals and for good reason. Many resources, and even those on this blog, attempt to help by offering to fit wellness practices into the nooks and crannies of our overpacked lawyer calendars. I don’t criticize this approach because it was how I started my own journey and because studies show us that a few minutes a day can make a huge difference for our minds, bodies, and even relationships. But, for my lawyer and professional friends, I hope that the quest for greater happiness does not stop once a daily habit of a few minutes of mindfulness or another self-care practice is established. Then next step, if you can afford it and brave it, offers rewards of a much greater magnitude.

Mindfulness practices can help lawyers and professionals find stability and even heal themselves in the midst of our stressful and busy lives. If we let them, however, they can also help us notice what we need to do next to grow and to create. As Gilbert posits, this is the birthright of all humans and it is essential for a happy life.  I know your schedule is busy. I know we are (still) living in a global pandemic. I know that nothing is certain right now or ever. But those realities don’t make happiness and creativity luxuries; they make them both essential. If this weren’t the case, those early humans would not have had the urge to paint on cave wells even as they faced the daily task of survival.

So, if you have a project in the back of your mind, maybe you want to write an article, maybe you want to refinish that piece of antique furniture, maybe you want to finally make one of those crafts you’ve been saving on Pinterest, I hope you will do it. If you need encouragement, to get over all the voices in your head that tell you it’s a waste of time, or permission to connect with your own spirit, go read Big Magic. Then go make stuff.

Are you a creative lawyer? By this, I mean do you make or want to make anything, including fiction, nonfiction, or even a podcast? You aren’t alone. Join the CLAW (Creatives. Lawyers. Artists. Writers.) Alliance to find a community of other creative lawyers. For more inspiration on this, check out the Instagram Live I did with CLAW member, Becki C. Lee, an IP lawyer and children’s book author.