Dream Big and Start Small

We can train our brains to feel more confident when we are in the midst of a job search, career change, or after a setback.

We’re always hearing that we need to be confident enough to dream big.

But few people are confident all the time, in every situation. Even seasoned executives can feel a bit off their game after a rough year or if a project doesn’t pan out. Everyone from job seekers to highly trained athletes can lose their cool when the pressure is on.

We can train our brains to feel more confident when we are in the midst of a job search, career change, or after a setback. The trick is to think a whole lot smaller than most people do.

“Too often people think confidence comes in one fell swoop,” says Renita Kalhorn, an Ivy Exec coach. “But you want to make deposits and build it up like a bank account, so when you need it you can make a withdrawal.”

Building Up Your Confidence

To feel confident in our abilities and ourselves we have to achieve things. When our goal seems far beyond our current circumstances or experiences, it is difficult to convince ourselves we really can do it. Or we simply get overwhelmed.

A common approach is to break the goal down into steps that are more achievable—what motivational guru Zig Ziglar called chunking. If you want to run a marathon, for example, set goals of running a couple of miles a week and gradually increase. Making such micro goals can provide a sense of satisfaction and build momentum toward your ultimate goal.

But another approach is to simply change your goals. Forget the marathon—at least, trick your brain into forgetting it—and make your goal running a 5K.

The approach worked for a lawyer I know who has been talking about leaving her job and starting a consulting firm for the past two years. She’s a well-respected lawyer with a specialty that is in high demand, so the odds are good she would do well as a consultant.

But she still stalls out when she gets closer to making the leap.

Recently, she changed how she was looking at the change. The primary reason she wanted to be a consultant was because she felt she would make more money. So she made that her goal. The change of perspective led her to call some consultants in her field and ask them if they had extra work she could assist them with on evenings and weekends.

One asked her to do some research for him, at an hourly rate. Another asked if she had time to write up a case study. Within weeks, she was making more money. She’s less interested now in becoming a consultant, but, paradoxically, even more certain that she will succeed if she does–she’s already lining up clients.

Using Small Goals to Build Big Momentum

Break it down.

Chunk your goal into steps, and focus on one at a time.


Your brain can feel just as good after achieving good feedback on a project idea as it might after completing the entire project. Acknowledge your achievements as they happen, however small, and allow yourself to feel good about it before moving forward on another goal.

Change the goal.

Kalhorn says try to find things that you get quick feedback about so you can start building up your confidence account. If you want to kill at an interview with Google, first decide to interview at another company and make landing that job your goal.

Stay in the present.

Kalhorn notes that athletes don’t allow themselves to spend too much time thinking about a gold medal or Super Bowl ring. They focus on what they are doing in the moment. Why? Because it is the only thing they can control. “If you rely on external circumstances to be confident, you have no control,” says Kalhorn. And with each victory in the present moment, you are moving forward with new confidence.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.