Author Talks: Lisa Sun explains why confidence is your superpower

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Joyce Yoo chats with Lisa Sun, founder and CEO of GRAVITAS and former McKinsey consultant, about her new book, Gravitas: The 8 Strengths That Redefine Confidence (Hay House Inc., September 2023). Sun shares how her journey of self-discovery, self-reflection, and self-growth helped her redefine what confidence is in today’s world. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

This book aims to reset the standard for how we talk about and embody confidence and gives practical tools for anyone who wants to live with self-assurance.

There are three reasons I decided to write this book. First, I only wanted to write it if we could change the conversation around confidence and set the bar incredibly high. There are hundreds of books on confidence, and I wasn’t sure if we needed another one. When I say be more confident, we automatically queue up performative swagger or bravado. What we’ve learned is that confidence is a choice and a mindset. If you look it up in the dictionary, confidence is defined as an understanding and appreciation of your abilities.

What we’ve learned is that confidence is a choice and a mindset. We don’t all have to be performative and exude swagger to be confident.

It’s not about behavior but how you see yourself. We must change the definition of confidence so everyone can have it; we don’t all have to be performative and exude swagger to be confident.

The second reason I wrote the book is because of what I see when dressing thousands of women every year. I own a fashion company, and the dressing room is an analogy for how we take on the day. Women often come into dressing rooms self-loathing: “I’m going to lose ten pounds; I hate my arms; I hate my thighs.”

It’s how we start the self-talk of our day. We’re extremely negative. In 30 minutes, I can transform a woman’s negative mindset into a place of positivity and potential. Women often ask me, “What did you do? Is this a skinny mirror?” I say, “Nope.” They continue to ask, “What did you do?” I respond, “You set yourself up to fail when you came here. I’m going to set you up to succeed.”

I realized that many women can’t physically be in the dressing room with me; now they get to be with me every day and feel the transformative power of Gravitas.

The last reason I wrote this book is because we should write books that offer the advice we need for ourselves. In my 20s, I was told I didn’t have gravitas. In my 30s, I was fired for the first time. In my 40s, I saved my company during the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought, “Wow, I wish I had this book with me every decade of my life.” That felt like a deeply personal reason to write the book.

How did your personal journey inspire your research and writing?

My first 11 years at McKinsey deeply connect to my company’s name. During my first performance review at McKinsey, my manager told me that I didn’t have gravitas. In fact, the review stated, “Lisa comes across as young and overly enthusiastic at times. She should seek to have more gravitas.”

I began to have conversations with people about how to get gravitas. Someone suggested that I buy a new dress, buy new shoes, and wear big jewelry—now that’s quite offensive. In 2001, I made $43,000 annually, wore a size 18–20, and was told to buy new clothes. When I asked why, she responded, “You have to look at yourself in the morning, every morning, and you’re the first person you see.”

She continued, “You have to like yourself. I can teach you how to be good at this job, but I can’t teach you to believe in yourself.” Dumbo did not need a feather to fly, but it reminded him he could.

My company‘s mission statement is, “We catalyze confidence.” Confidence has nothing to do with fashion; it’s about how we feel about ourselves. That’s why I felt comfortable writing the book; it was about how our inner selves drive how people see us on the outside.

Who’s your target audience?

From a demographic standpoint, the women I dress span the gamut. So what I’ll do is I’ll explain psychographically who we serve and who the book serves.

The first is the young, ambitious explorer; she is someone who’s early in her career. It’s her first or second job out of college, and she’s still trying to establish what it means to be in a professional setting. I want to be there for her.

The second is the messy middle. She’s the woman taking care of everyone and everything in her life but herself. I want to be that confidence boost for her at that stage; think about mid-level career, almost on your way to a senior position.

Then there’s a huge group of women who’ve opted out of the workplace to become full-time parents. For them, stepping off the ladder can be an ego-destroying moment. We’re quite important to them in terms of helping them understand their self-worth on their terms when they’ve professionalized parenting in a way. How can they truly understand who they are and what they mean to the world?

Finally, there’s the senior-executive woman who’s over 55 and looking to create a legacy. She’s the most powerful in terms of having many superpowers. One superpower in the data set for women in their 20s and 50s is a quality called “creating”; this is where you envision possibilities and envision the future. You feel potential again. There’s a question of legacy for this group of women.

Did anything surprise you in the research, writing, or response?

I didn’t want to write this book alone, so I enlisted one of my mentors, Sally Dancer. She’s a former McKinsey partner and was one of the leaders in North America for consumer insights.

When I began thinking about the book, I said, “Look, I can write all my ideas on paper, but I really want qualitative and quantitative research to back it up.” During COVID-19, Sally and I conducted focus groups on Zoom, and it was cool to talk with groups of women who had an actual affinity for talking about confidence. Then we launched a 1,000-person quantitative study on confidence. The funny thing is, like any McKinsey person, you walk in with a set of hypotheses. Some of them are confirmed, and some of them make you say, “Okay, that makes sense.” Then there are responses that make you say, “Wow, I didn’t know that’s what it was going to say, but I’m so happy it was said.” In the research, we found these eight superpowers. There are eight types of confidence, not just one. I think society has given us only one type of confidence.

Of the eight types, most of us have two or three. Turns out, my mom has all eight! She took the quiz and said, “I’m all of these.” Two percent of our women have all eight. It was fun to see these different profiles of confidence.

In fact, one interesting finding is that less than 20 percent of people we surveyed have leading and performing as their dominant superpower. And yet, that’s what every confidence book is about. The fact that so many women had all these other ones begs the question: do we not all deserve to feel self-assured? The answer is we all do.

The first insight that surprised me was that only 20 percent of people had classically defined forms of confidence. The second insight we learned, which was surprising, came when we tested 30 life situations and asked, “Which of the eight superpowers do you need for each of these situations?”

One surprise finding was that asking for a raise and asking for a promotion require two different superpowers. Women sometimes fail because they try to use one superpower to do both. If you’re asking for a promotion, that quality is called “achieving.” Achieving says, “Here are my accomplishments, here’s what I’ve done, here’s why I deserve a title change and more responsibility.”

Asking for a raise takes a quality called “self-sustaining,” which few women have. Self-sustaining says, “I don’t need to impress you, I like myself, here’s my market value, and I’m willing to walk away.” The interesting question was, “Which superpowers do we need for each situation?” The superpower you need might surprise you.

The third most surprising thing is that you can love your confidence language. This didn’t really surprise me, but it reinforced systemic bias. You can love the superpowers you have.

Since we didn’t create the system and we don’t manage the metrics, there are a few qualities that we need to obtain, which are leading, performing, creating, and self-sustaining. These are four qualities that most women don’t naturally have that we do need because we’re playing in a world that has chosen those qualities as the winning, dominant ones.

Does everyone have a superpower?

Everyone has a superpower. Ask any five-year-old what they’re the best at in the world, and they’ll tell you right away, “I’m the best at everything!” There’s no way to measure that; it’s in your head. It’s your self-talk. We are born fully self-confident. I write about six forces that hold us back. Starting in adolescence, we experience setbacks and disappointments, and then we default to our comfort zones and lose sight of our potential.

We see our weaknesses and see what’s missing instead of our strengths and potential. One of the most important things is that everybody has at least one superpower. We are all here for a reason. We all have talents and strengths that create incredible moments in our lives.

We are born fully self-confident. I write about six forces that hold us back. Starting in adolescence, we experience setbacks and disappointments, and then we default to our comfort zones and lose sight of our potential.

We have a Confidence Language quiz that people can take online. Recently, I spoke at an event in Las Vegas, and people came up to me and showed me their results on their phones. Many said, “Wow, I’m more powerful than I thought; I have five of the eight superpowers. Is that right?” People think it’s a mistake, but it’s not. We underleverage our power because we’re not making our unconscious gifts conscious.

What is your superpower, and has it changed over time?

I’ve taken our quiz so many times. My number-one superpower is creating, and I think it’s because my parents were immigrants. Children of immigrants have the creating superpower because we believe in possibilities. I always say that immigrants are the original entrepreneurs. They pick up their families and go to a place they don’t even know and believe in something they’ve never seen. They can create something from nothing. I’m an entrepreneur because creating is my number-one superpower.

My second superpower is leading. I set direction, inspire followership, and course correct. My third superpower is performing. I wrote a book, stand on stages, and love the people’s energy. Those are my three most dominant superpowers.

During the pandemic, my company’s sales declined since I make women’s workwear for the office, events, and conferences. We have a 30-day return policy, and we refunded more than we sold. We pivoted our business to producing hospital gowns and face masks. That made me realize I gained two superpowers I didn’t always have. One of those was “believing,” which is positive intent. You see that you can recover from loss, move on, and know that you’re doing something in the service of something bigger.

I really needed that. A tiger mom raised me, and pessimism was built into my DNA. It’s this belief that you’re never good enough and you must strive for perfection. I call it perfectionist peril. You’re always striving. I had to break that belief and say, “I’m going to believe for my team. They need to know that it will work out and that I’m taking us somewhere important.” That’s “self-sustaining,” which is a quality I didn’t have. It’s knowing that nothing can hurt me. We’re going to get through this. It’s okay if criticism comes our way; we will keep going. Your confidence language evolves, which is an essential part of the book.

It’s not a static thing. It’s a self-affirming inventory of your strengths and capabilities. As women progress and climb the ladder, they go from having two superpowers to four or more. The whole idea is that we are adding more strengths and skills to our confidence language so we can do more and expand the concentric circles of our lives.

Should men read this book?

Yes, they should. Most of my speaking engagements include women, men, and nonbinary people. Confidence is a universal topic, and the framework works for everyone. Everyone needs to affirm their inventory of strengths, but men should read the book because there are two chapters that discuss the difference between female and male confidence languages. Here’s an example:

In 2013, Janet Yellen was nominated to be the first woman head of the Federal Reserve. There were hundreds of articles on how she didn’t have the gravitas to lead the Fed. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post wrote a beautiful Op-Ed that called out the naysayers because the pervasive view of gravitas didn’t stretch to include her.

She’s soft-spoken, she’s passive, and she’s the most qualified person for the job. Why isn’t that gravitas, too? If you look at some of the work [Yale University professor] Kelly Shue is doing [around behavioral economics and corporate finance], she’s saying, “Look, men are scored higher on promotion potential but lower on performance.” The reverse is true for women.

“They score very high in performance but low on management potential.” And it’s because we’re using charisma or swagger as the metric for management potential. We’ve got to change the scorecard we use to evaluate who’s confident and who’s not.

We can change the way we define confidence if men read the book. When I say, “Be more confident,” you can say, “Okay, which of these eight types do you want me to be?” It’s because confidence is such an ambiguous term. It’s in someone’s head. Which of these eight qualities do you want me to demonstrate or do I need to build on? It changes the entire way we talk about confidence in America.

Can humility and confidence coexist?

Yes, and that’s the whole point. We don’t just have one of the eight superpowers: we’re not just one thing.

There’s another surprising piece in the data set regarding people who have “giving” as their superpower; it’s those who support others and are collaborative and generous. You may use those qualities to describe someone as “humble.” If you add “leading,” which is another superpower, to that data set, they triple in confidence and capability across every situation.

It’s a bit of a contradiction that the most powerful people in our data set are capable, confident, and warm. It’s unfair. Adam Grant [organizational psychologist and author] recently wrote a whole Op-Ed1 discussing why we hold women to this impossible standard. The ability to coexist on all those dimensions makes for an incredibly capable and confident person.

What distinguishes your book from other books on confidence?

Most books on confidence are about behaviors. When I say, “Be more confident,” it’s interpreted as, “Stand on a stage, puff up your chest, be assertive, and speak up!” It’s all behavioral.

If you think about the iceberg model, only 10 percent of the iceberg is visible. That 10 percent represents behaviors. Ninety percent of the iceberg is below water; that 90 percent includes our thoughts, values, feelings, and ways we think about ourselves. Our book lives in the 90 percent region. Below the water is where we try to reset how we feel about ourselves and what we believe about others. The work we do on the inside translates into behaviors.

We’ve got to have an unshakable belief in ourselves that starts with what makes us uniquely us. Our book is quite different in that we don’t get to behaviors and how you interact with others until the end.

Parts one and two explore your strength. Things don’t get easier; we get stronger. Two-thirds of the book is about your mindset and self-belief. The last third discusses, “Now what do you do about it?” That makes it very different from other confidence books.

I hope this book starts a conversation about how we can change what it means to be more confident. When was the last time you heard the phrase, “You need to be more confident?” Did your anxiety level increase?

I hope we take what that question means and double-click on it. I want the book to remove the anxiety and the ambiguity associated with confidence. Certainly, my 22-year-old self wasn’t sure what to do when told I had no gravitas.

It’s a lifelong journey, and I’m still working on it. Every morning, I wake up and give myself a self-talk. I reread our book so many times through the editing process, and I take something new away every time I read it. I hope people return to it repeatedly and get something different every time.

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