Search Results for: confidence

The Confidence Gap


For most of her life, the heroine of my forthcoming novel has had difficulty speaking up for herself. In a recent blog, I wondered how many women, like Lindsey, experience failure in their personal and/or professional lives because they “wait to be asked” rather than asserting themselves? It’s hard, after all, to be successful if no one knows what you can do or what you think.

confidence gap - edmon de Haro

credit: Edmon de Haro

An article in the May issue of The Atlantic, The Confidence Gap, offered a very robust answer to my question. Based on an array of sociological and scientific studies, the article posits the existence of  “a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.” The authors, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, themselves highly respected and successful journalists, attributed this confidence gap to “factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”

The impressive data they marshal includes:

  • A Manchester Business School survey in which women consistently assess their value at 20% less than men with comparable skills and education.
  • A joint study with Cornell University and Washington State University in which women who underperformed men in a test on scientific reasoning also skipped many of the questions. When required to answer all questions — to guess if necessary—their scores were comparable to the men.
  • A personnel study at Hewlett-Packard that indicated that women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications while men typically applied when they thought they could meet 60% of the requirements.
  • Differences in the brain chemistry of men and women with respect to making choices, dealing with stress, and emotional memory.
  • Differences in the impact of testosterone and estrogen on social skills vs. competitive activities.
  • Differences in the impact of socialization—early schooling and sports in particular—on the need for approval and/or the ability to bounce back from criticism or failure.
  • Startling examples of a confidence gap as experienced by several of America’s most successful women.

But what ultimately makes this article so compelling is the authors’ ability to frame the confidence gap in a way that any woman, regardless of biology, upbringing, or gender norms, can recognize and address in every day life.

Quoting Richard Petty of Ohio State University, the authors note that “Confidence is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” In the authors’ view, confidence “is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and then transforms those judgments into action.

The authors recognize that taking action isn’t always easy and it isn’t always enough.  Sometimes courage or anger or creativity or the willingness to take a risk is also required. They also believe that, whatever your level of confidence, action reinforces it and inaction erodes it.

I was struck by how powerful this simple concept is. Virtually every example, every survey conclusion, every statistical study had, at its core, a disconnect between a woman’s desire or ability, and the action she took in response to it. Confidence may make it easier to act, but it is not the same as a decision to act. By the same token, a decision to act can build confidence.

In my novel, Lindsey’s challenge is to learn to act and to speak up even if she is unsure?  Can you do that … can you bridge the confidence gap?

Health Care – Insurance 101



Balancing Risk for Health Insurance

Given the recurring debate over a private market vs. a single (government) payer for health insurance, I thought it might be helpful to review a few basics of the insurance business. What follows borrows from an essay by Frank J. Lysy, a retired economist at the World Bank.

What is insurance?

Well, duh … an insurance policy is a contractual agreement in which you (the insured) make regular payments. In return, you get the insurer’s promise to protect you against claims associated with events explicitly enumerated in the policy.

As with all contracts, you do need to read the fine print.

How does insurance work?  

An insurance company has to manage premium income so that it has enough cash to pay claims as they come due. While an insurer cannot predict the claims profile of a single policyholder, a “pool” of policyholders typically has identifiable claim characteristics based on things such as age (drivers under 25), location (urban vs. rural), or health factors (smoker vs. non-smoker).

If the pool reflects a statistically “normal” population, the insurer can estimate expected claims with a high degree of confidence, and set a premium rate that will generate funds sufficient to cover those claims. If, however, the pool does not reflect the population as a whole, the insurer will find it difficult to match the actual level of claims and the premium income.

Ensuring that premium income generates enough income to cover future claims is the primary management task for an insurance company, whether it’s in the auto, homeowner or health care business.  However, it is a particularly daunting challenging for health insurance.

The Health Insurance Company’s Perspective – Adverse Selection

You, the policyholder, typically know more about your health situation than your insurance company.  If you have a family history of heart disease or cancer, you’ll probably want health insurance. By contrast, if your budget is strained or you are a healthy young adult, you may opt to forego health insurance.

Another problem is “free riders” that buy health insurance only when they expect to have a significant medical expense (e.g., a planned knee replacement).  As recently seen with the “Special Enrollment Periods” (SEP’s) under the Accountable Care Act (ACA), the pool of individuals who enrolled during an SEP had significantly higher-than-average health care costs; many let their policy lapse once their medical bills were paid.

This adverse selection means the pool will have a higher-than-normal percentage of individuals with higher-than-average claims. In this situation, a premium rate that would cover claims for a statistically normal pool of individuals will not be adequate to cover actual claims. To compensate, the insurance company can raise rates in the next premium period. Unfortunately, the now higher rate may lead some policyholders—typically those at low risk of medical expenses—to drop their insurance, causing the pool to develop an even more adverse profile.

Your PerspectiveBiased Selection

Health insurance companies, of necessity, try to bring the pool closer to a normal profile by enrolling policyholders who have lower-than-average claims.

For years, they accomplished this by denying coverage if you had a pre-existing medical condition. With the ACA, that’s no longer an option. But they can still build in criteria (check that fine print!) that allow them to deny claims you thought were covered, or to impose higher co-pays on certain types of expenses. For example, you might find that your surgeon’s fee is covered but the anesthesiologist’s fee is not. Or that drugs with a reasonable co-pay are “reclassified” into a tier with a substantially higher co-pay.

These unexpected costs can be financially devastating.  A Harvard Medical School study found that 62% of personal bankruptcies in 2007 in the U.S. were caused by medical problems; 78% of those filing for medical bankruptcy had health  insurance at the start of their illness.

Another angle to encourage people with higher-than-average medical expenses to enroll in a different company’s health plan. A classic example is adding the cost of gym membership to the insurance premium. This can deter anyone not interested belonging to a gym, but appeals to someone who is already paying for it.  This strategy improves the profile of the pool because people who go to gyms are generally healthier than the overall population.

What About The Individual Mandate in the ACA?

These two problems—adverse selection and biased selection—explain why the ACA requires every American to have health insurance. If everyone is insured, there are no free riders.  You can’t game the insurance company by waiting to purchase insurance until you know your medical expenses will be high. And if everyone has to have health insurance, insurers can be more confident of having a normal claims profile. Their incentive to discourage higher-than-average claimants is offset by the larger pool of lower-than-average claimants.

The Bottom Line

My point is that, from a purely financial perspective, it doesn’t much matter whether the system for health insurance is based on a marketplace of private companies (the ACA) or a single payer (Medicare)—as long as there is universal participation. Phrased differently, neither the private health insurance market nor the single payer system will be viable in the long run without something approximating universal coverage.

There is little doubt that the ACA needs to be fixed to reduce the problems of adverse or biased selection. But when you hear a politician telling you that everything would be fine if only all health insurance was private or if we only had a single payer system, take it with a grain of salt.  You’re probably hearing an argument based on philosophy, ideology, or politics…not basic principles of economics or finance.

Letting Go of Anger


Letting-GoThe fine art of “letting go”—Buddhists call it detachment—has been one of my guiding principles since my early 40’s, when I spent a year crossing the Pacific Ocean on a small sailboat.

That was the year that I learned, in a visceral rather than intellectual way, that letting go is what you have to do if you hope to live in the moment.  A quest to find familiar foods—McDonalds and whole wheat bread—in Pacific Island communities could only hamper your discovery of such local delights as pamplemousse, guava, conch fritters, and ceviche.  Setting expectations—e.g. planning to arrive in Tahiti on a specific date and time—when you couldn’t control the weather or the currents was a sure-fire way to miss the sensual beauty of a day at sea … the dawn light creeping across the fluid surface of the sea, the porpoises who cavorted in our bow wake.

But letting go of these sorts of things has been easy for me compared to letting go of anger. Anger at a mother who neglected you. Anger at a spouse or friend who betrayed or demeaned you. Anger at the boss who passed you over for a promotion you deserved. Anger at anyone who violates your trust, who diminishes your self-esteem, who makes you question your self-worth.

I was reminded of this as I read a recent blog entitled, aptly enough, “Letting Go,” in which the author, Danielle, offered some practical tips for getting rid of anger.  Herewith, some tips of hers and some of mine.

  • Recognize that we all live in our own reality.

My mother was a case in point. She never intended to hurt her children, but she was so crippled by her own fear of being hurt that she had no emotional reserves to draw upon for the care of children. As she did with adults, she rejected me before I could even imagine rejecting her; she punished me for my inability to anticipate what she wanted. Somehow, my efforts to please her always failed.  I could never be the child she wanted.

Depression—anger turned inwards—plagued me until I was in my 40s, when I finally recognized that I had been an unfortunate bystander in her own personal tragedy … that it wasn’t “my fault” and I wasn’t a failure.  Only then could I begin to let go of my anger at her. Only then could I begin to live my own life instead of the life I thought she wanted me to live.

  • Recognize that anger is often a response to “old tapes.”

Letting go of my anger at my mother did not, unfortunately, erase 40 years of painful emotions or the automatic behaviors I had used to cope with her rejection. Over the ensuing decades, I have managed to break most of those old habits, but there are still times when something sets an old tape to running. A paralyzing anger is the default response.

As complementary personalities, my partner Kent and I occasionally set off old tapes.  Fortunately, we understand each other’s foibles and can usually recognize the pattern in time to head off an angry response. Even when we fall prey to the old tapes, though, we can usually figure it out within a few minutes and let the anger go.

It is not always so with friends, even some I know very well. I recognize the hurt … I feel the anger … but it can take days or weeks or months for me to understand how much of my anger is rooted in something that happened 50 or 60 years ago.

  • Recognize that we often impose a higher standard of behavior on others than we do on ourselves.

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes our intentions are good, but we just plain get it wrong.  Sometimes, we’re too busy and self-absorbed to see what’s needed. And then, of course, there are times that we do the wrong thing because we’re still playing out those old tapes of our own.

One of the benefits of maturity is the ability, when we make a mistake, to forgive ourselves, to move on even as we vow to do better the next time.  Too often, however, we do not offer the same generosity of spirit to those around us, responding in anger when someone we trust does something that is hurtful.

For example, I expect Kent to understand and be forgiving when I make a mistake that wounds him, but when he slips up in a way that is hurtful, my instinctive response is often anger alongside a quick march to the moral high ground. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is terribly—and wonderfully—human.

  • Recognize that the need to claim the high ground is another name for being a victim.

I have long believed that most things in life—including what other people say or do to us or about us—are fundamentally outside our control.

From this perspective, holding on to anger gives up the one form of control we do have—the ability to choose our response to what happens around us. Holding on to anger allows someone else to control your identity, to define you in terms of their actions rather than yours, to further diminish your sense of self-worth.

In a recent blog on The Confidence Gap, I observed that whenever something diminishes your confidence level, inaction erodes your confidence further, while positive action serves to rebuild it.  Holding on to anger is a form of passivity and inaction.

Letting go of anger represents an active decision to take control over your own life.

How does residual anger left from old tapes affect your life and relationships?

Memoir Vs. Fiction


Memoir vs. FictionIn conjunction with the launch of A Fitting Place, I’ve been invited to contribute to the websites and blogs of other writers who share my fascination with the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone.  

For the next few weeks, my blog will showcase these “hosted” essays.

The post below was published on June 3rd by Amy Sue Nathan on her thought-provoking website “Women’s Fiction Writers.”  


Memoir Vs. Fiction: Training Wheels for A Novelist

I am often asked which is the “better” vehicle—a memoir or a novel—for a story that has some basis in fact. As the author of both a memoir and a novel, I resist the notion that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for the reader or the writer. What I do believe is that for a newbie writer, a memoir is a much better place to start.

Unlike fiction, the outer boundaries of a memoir are defined before the first word hits the page. As a memoirist, you “know” where the story begins and where it ends, who the players are and what they’re like. As a memoirist, the number of your plot points and scenes are constrained by reality. Your job is to connect the dots, not make them up.

But getting the dots down on paper does not a memoir make. Knowing where the story begins and ends is not the same as having a strong story arc with identifiable turning points and scenes that propel the story forward. Knowing why your story matters is not the same as having a sympathetic protagonist that readers will care about, a protagonist with a clearly defined desire line that creates tension and keeps the reader turning the page. Knowing the players and their personalities is not the same as having complex and multi-dimensional characters whose strengths elicit our admiration and whose foibles gain our empathy.

In other words, a well-written memoir should read like fiction.

Learning the Writerly Craft

One advantage of starting your creative writing career as a memoirist is that, when you get it wrong in your first draft, you have fewer things to fix.

As a memoirist, you can’t change the trajectory of events, so you have to focus on doing a better job of building tension and establishing cause and effect within whatever storyline you have. You learn, by trial and error, which events move the story forward and how it feels when your story begins to unfold organically. You learn that ruthlessly cutting out events that serve no plot purpose can heighten the emotional truth of your story, with little damage to factual accuracy.

Similarly, as the author of a memoir, you can’t create new scenes or new characters out of whole cloth. All you can do is focus on re-writing those that are flat, on learning how to make them come alive, on using them more effectively to carry the plot forward. Your focus is on mastering the art of showing vs. telling, on finding the right balance between dialogue and narrative. You learn that what you don’t say often has as much dramatic potential as what you do say. Above all, you have some sense of what you’re aiming for as you try to repair a crippled story.

Learning to be a good writer is never easy, but it feels more manageable when you’re tackling a memoir than the bad first draft of a novel. With an infinite number of possible events, scenes and characters from which to choose, even an experienced writer can have trouble discerning whether a problem lies in the writing, in the story arc and structure, in the pace, in selection of characters, or some combination of them all. For a neophyte, sorting it out is all but impossible.

By the time I began my novel, I had some solid skills in constructing a story arc, both for the book as a whole and for each chapter along the way. I knew how to use dialogue and develop my characters through judicious use of scenes. I had a lot to learn, but completing the memoir gave me the confidence to attack one problem at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Without the memoir, there never could have been a novel.

Finding Your Voice

Another advantage of starting with a memoir is that it is easier for a newly-minted author to find her “voice” in a memoir than in a novel.

As a voracious reader, I recognized “voice” when I saw it, but I certainly couldn’t define it. When I turned my hand to creative writing, I had no idea how to find my own voice. That was hardly a surprise, as I’d spent many years as a writer in a business context, where I made a conscious effort to silence anything that might be considered a personal point of view.

Looking back, I’m convinced the dreariness of the first draft of my memoir was due in no small measure to the lack of a distinctive voice. But as I re-wrote and re-crafted and re-organized my story around situations I had lived through and people I knew well—as I got closer and closer to a story that read like fiction—my voice began to emerge.

Could that have happened if I’d started out with a novel, where all the elements—story arc, scenes, and characters—were potentially in flux? I doubt it.

Priming the Pump

Writerly skills are for naught unless you have something you want to write about.

The story behind my memoir—a mid-life coming-of-age experience after I left a successful career to sail around the world at age 40—had steeped in my brain for two decades before I put pen to paper. Not once, in all those years, did the possibility of writing a novel ever occur to me.

As the memoir unfolded and my voice emerged, however, I began to see that “the story” was much bigger than “my story.” Sailing on the open ocean was a metaphor for life: you can’t control your environment, the path is not well marked, and you often end up someplace other than where you set out to go. The lesson of that voyage, a lesson that changed my life, was that you learn the most when you step outside your comfort zone.

Suddenly I had a story with almost infinite variations. I itched to explore them. Voilà, my first novel.

It will not be my last.


I have loved the contributions of guest bloggers who resonate with the “relationship” issues addressed in A Fitting Place.  If you would like to be a contributor to the discussion, please contact me here.