Are some people born with an inner confidence or does it come with age and experience?

Face of an angel, heart of a lion, Oskar Fee is a tiny tornado. All chestnut curls and good cheer, the 6-year-old from Grey Lynn tackles the world with gusto.

"He was an easy baby and always really alert," says his mum, Miriam Bell. "And from about 6 months I started to notice that he was very outgoing and wanting to engage."

His physical confidence matches his social aptitude. He recently started snowboarding, zooming down the slopes at Snow Planet. His dad, Damon Fee (boarder extraordinaire), is delighted.

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He's the sort of kid you wished you'd been, if you were [like me] always felt shy, physically inept and lacking in the social graces. But Oskar's also got his challenges, he has a condition called achondroplasia – the most common form of dwarfism.

It's not slowing him down. When we meet, he's bouncing around with a tiny puppy, sprinting from room to room in a state of exhilarated glee. He's never met me, but that's not a problem. He loves people.

"Will you play a game with me before you go?" he asks. How could anyone resist?

"He is incredibly social. He always needs people around him," says Bell. "He asks for playdates every day, even after he's spent the day at school."

Oskar Bell, pictured with his mum Miriam. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Oskar Bell, pictured with his mum Miriam. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

Natural confidence is a gift. You see it early; the kids who rule the kindy playground, answer questions at mat time, love being at the centre of everything.

For those lacking in it, confidence is another country, where the weather is hot, the streets rich with colour and sound. It's a beautiful, completely foreign quality for those not blessed with it.

There's no doubt that Oskar was "born" with the commonly held version of confidence – just ask his parents. His dad was a confident kid: "Unlike me," says Bell. "I was reasonably shy and anxious."

But defining confidence is difficult. The concept is slippery and even those who research it can't quite nail what it is. On the surface, extroversion may seem to serve as an adequate synonym. But extroversion can be a mask for deep insecurity and depression (Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain et al). Self-esteem and inner strength also need to be part of the equation.

So, what exactly is confidence? And is it the result of nature, nurture, or both?

One recent study may have uncovered a genetic tendency that may explain at least part of what makes up the confidence equation. According to psychologists, there are three psychological states that help people get through life's difficulties: optimism, self-esteem and mastery. These are also tied to confidence.

It had been found that variants (also called alleles) of the OXTR gene might be linked to certain negative psychological conditions (depression, for example). So, doctors at the University of California in Los Angeles decided to look at whether different alleles contributed to the opposite – optimism, self-esteem and mastery.

More than 300 volunteers were asked to complete a survey that measured these three states, as well as their levels of depression and self-confidence in certain areas. They also had samples of their saliva analysed for OXTR variants.

The results were fascinating. Participants who had one or two copies of the OXTR gene with the "A" (adenine) allele in a certain location, tended towards depression and low self-esteem. Those with two copies of the "G" (guanine) allele had higher levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery and lower rates of depression.

As we know, genes are inherited and innate. So, it may be the case that some people are born with the tendencies that lead to confidence.

Of course, there are a multiplicity of other factors that come into play when considering the confidence question.

Annette Henderson is a senior lecturer in the school of psychology at University of Auckland and the director of the Early Learning Lab. The lab is made up of researchers devoted to the understanding of how small children and babies experience the world around them.

She agrees that confidence can be a tricky concept to get a handle on.

"There is no one definition of 'confidence'. Traditionally, it was equated with self-worth, but over the past few decades psychologists have come to realise that it is multidimensional."

Younger children tend to display a natural confidence – even if they are socially reserved. They expect to be the centre of attention. But by the age of 10 or 11, their interactions with the world come into play.

"Academic achievement, social acceptance, athletic ability and physical appearance all start to impact on an individual's self-esteem at this age," she says.

A young person's self-perception will be influenced by how they feel about themselves in these key areas.

Self-esteem is fluid and changes throughout life. As mentioned, young children tend to have good self-esteem, but it drops as we enter adolescence. It then increases again as we mature, only to drop as we become old. (Note: Henderson says in countries where age is equated with wisdom and old people are valued, levels of self-esteem in the elderly are higher.)

But how does she view the idea that some people are predisposition towards confidence?

Henderson says that temperament and personality can definitely play a role in levels of confidence. These are apparent from a very early age.

Some kids (like Oskar) display signs of extroversion from 6 months of age; others tend to shy away from the spotlight and prefer the company of their close family. She says that personality traits (such as extroversion) may have a genetic basis; but confidence and self-esteem are also influenced by the myriad interactions and influences that make up a young child's early life.

Naturally extroverted kids may find it easier to make friends at school but that doesn't mean introverts can't be confident.

BY RHONDA Kite's own reckoning, she was "shy and fearful" as a young person. But the top New Zealand digital producer had a gut instinct that she was going to transcend the limits of her early life.

She had a wonderful family, hard-working and supportive but money was tight. Her family moved into then semi-rural Ōtara when she was 10 – a brand new house for nine kids, plus Mum and Dad.

Rhonda Kite, founder of digital media and tech company Kiwi Digital. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Rhonda Kite, founder of digital media and tech company Kiwi Digital. Photo / Dean Purcell.

She was brainy, fiercely so. She had a photographic memory for numbers and a talent for storytelling but the strictures of high school, the attendant uniforms, bells and conformity, didn't fit. However, there was a belief and but a resolve that revealed itself in small ways. It wasn't always welcomed.

"I remember saying to my family, 'I'm going to be an accountant when I grow up.' People just laughed at me."

Another memory still smarts. She was doing a project at primary school about the ways in which different birds fed: the teacher said that the caspian tern didn't dive for food.

After some research of her own, Kite discovered that the large, sleek creatures did plunge-dive into shallow waters to gorge on mullet and piper.

"I told the teacher what I had discovered and he was so pleased with me that he stopped the class from what they were doing and said that I had an announcement."

Brimming with pride, the young Kite shared her discovery. "I told the class, 'The caspian tern is a diving bird.' They all just laughed at me."

For all these humiliations, Kite's presentiment of future success never diminished. Even when she found that she was pregnant, aged 16.

She'd left school at 15 to work in as an office junior. "My parents let us kids leave school only if we had a decent job to go to."

When she found out she was pregnant she kept on working and went back to work eight weeks after the baby was born. "There was no choice, there was no DPB and I had to work to survive."

A few years later, the future came knocking. By this stage she was working at the Tip Top factory, the site of Auckland's first computer, a Goliath by all accounts, used to process orders. Kite was one of the first people in the country to operate a computer.

"It was like my brain had been waiting for this moment. I just instantly clicked with technology."

Decades passed and with them, stints in Australia and the United Kingdom. But at age 38, she co-founded a sound production business. It was then her career took off.

She would go on to produce Ōtara - Defying the Odds, which won a NZ Television award for best Māori Programme in 1999; and the feature-length documentary, Squeegee Bandit.

Another company she founded, Kiwa Media Group, developed VoiceQ, a specialist dubbing software program that creates scrolling text for actors working in the studio. It's sold globally and is the biggest provider of digital dubbing in the New Zealand market.

The roll-call of achievements goes on – her efforts in the media awarded by a New Zealand Order of Merit in 2018.

Recently returned to New Zealand after a stint living in the United Arab Emirates, she now has a new project, My Story/Taku Kōrero, a platform through which young people share, write and illustrate a story that is then turned into a digital book with dubbing into different languages.

Kite didn't have much of material wealth to start with, but she had family. And role models who, without the Western trappings of "success", provided her with the foundations of her confidence.

"My 'role models' were the women around me from Te Kao in Northland. They had come from a tribal environment, and found each other in the city.

"I was surrounded by women who still had the knowledge of the village life and early settlement, they had amazing energy and knew who they were. You just wanted to snuggle up to them."

They had an internal strength and character that Kite drew upon and which has remained throughout her life.

"Their influence gave me determination and the ability to listen to what was inside and follow through on it. Even if things don't work, to just remain connected to that."

REMAINING CONNECTED to one's self, even when times are challenging, is a key aspect of Stephen Jacobi's confidence. The chief executive of Jacobi Consulting has had a career in international diplomacy, has been policy advisor and now gives advice to corporations and the governmental representatives in areas such as trade, government relations and economic development.

Stephen Jacobi outside his office on Shortland St, Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Stephen Jacobi outside his office on Shortland St, Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

But he was brought up on the "mean streets of Māngere" (he says with a wry chuckle), to working class English parents. Although he attended (and was dux of) Auckland Boys' Grammar, he didn't grow up in a mansion in the leafy streets of Remuera.

His mum was 40 when he was born (although common now, this was old for the times) and he was a "golden boy" in the eyes of his parents and two older sisters. He played on the streets with a racially diverse mix of kids and his dad worked for Air New Zealand, so they got to travel regularly.

His world was safe and happy, and he was always outgoing. But when he was offered entry into Auckland Boys' Grammar (a neighbour had a brother who worked there, so he was allowed to sit the entry exam) his eyes were opened to a world he didn't know existed."

"I remember sitting in class, and there was this tall, golden-haired boy sitting in front of me. He took out a piece of lovely paper and a beautiful fountain pen, and wrote 'Prep' at the top of it. 'Prep?' I remember thinking. 'What the heck is 'prep?'"

The sons of the moneyed elite seemed "different" to him. But rather than creating a sense of insecurity, he simply noticed this and became more determined to succeed. And he did – becoming the head of the debating team, excelling at drama and eventually topping the school academically.

This confidence has stayed with him. "I do not need the approbation of others to define my self worth," he shares. As a Christian, he has a strong value system, values polite discourse, and the relationships he has, especially with his wife and children.

He says that he could have climbed the corporate ladder, but this wasn't his desire. He also has never had the desire for a mansion (he has a comfortable apartment in the city) or the trappings of materiality. He was happy to follow his heart and his own path.

His definition of his own confidence, could provide a lesson for those of us who sometimes feel on shaky ground regarding our personal self-worth: "Confidence is an awareness of your own personal worth and value and a realisation that your value is not defined by what others think of you."

Amen to that.