Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

The Provocateur
Emily Yoffe
57, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Occupation: Author of Slate magazine's "Dear Prudence" column

What sparks her mettle: Causing a stir

"An advice column is many things: counsel, entertainment, a little bonbon of the human condition. For me, the columnist, it's a forum in which I have to state my opinion and stand by it. My goal is to give a genuine response—I want to be honest, not obnoxious. But I do have some provocative answers, and when I do, I admit to thinking, 'This will be fun.' I inherited that slightly perverse quality—enjoying riling people up—from my father, who had a great sense of bravado. When he entered a room, you knew it. I strive to emulate that, to put on a face that makes people want to be on my team. But if people disagree with me, so be it. It's a particularly female trait to go through life thinking, 'I will avoid criticism by doing everything perfectly.' That just sets you up to feel devastated when criticism inevitably comes. I try to keep a distance between me and how I react to things. If someone doesn't like something I say, it isn't the destruction of my existence on this Earth."

Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

The Collaborator
Tracy S. Wang, MD
39, Milwaukee

Occupation: Associate professor of surgery, Department of Surgery, Medical College of Wisconsin

What sparks her mettle: Years of preparation

"For a surgeon, confidence is about falling back on your training. I've gone through years of study, asked my teachers a thousand questions, and worked on some complicated cases, so I know I can trust my judgment to carry me. But I also get confidence from the patient. She counts on me to make the right decisions. We may have several conversations about how things could go—and she still shows up on the day of the surgery because she's sure I know what's best. Of course, sometimes I don't. I often consult with colleagues to get another perspective. But there are a lot of surgeons who, if they're not sure of something, won't ask for help, and to me those are the ones who are actually the least confident. Self-doubt is not the worst thing, even in medicine. If you rise to the challenge, even if you're worrying the whole time, you prove something to yourself. And when the opportunity comes around again, you know you're ready."
go getter

Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

The Go-Getter
Pat Gallant-Charette
62, Westbrook, Maine

Occupation: World-record holder, oldest woman to swim the Catalina Channel and the Tsugaru Strait

What sparks her mettle: Small successes

"Sixteen years ago, the extent of my exercise routine was an occasional walk around the neighborhood. I knew how to swim, but rarely did. But my youngest brother, Robbie, was an accomplished swimmer, and my 16-year-old son, Tom, was on the school swim team. When Robbie died of a heart attack that year at the age of 34, it was a terrible blow. Tom told me he wanted to sign up for a local 2.4-mile ocean swim called Peaks to Portland in honor of his uncle, who'd won the race twice. I said, 'I wish I could do that.' He said, 'You can if you try.' So I started training in Robbie's honor. My first night at the pool, I asked the lifeguard to keep an eye on me. I didn't know if I could swim two laps. It took me more than a year to qualify for the Peaks—you have to swim a mile in less than 45 minutes—but I did it. Just before the race, I remember standing in my bathing suit, a big girl in her late 40s with gray hair, next to a bunch of slender young athletes. I thought, 'What the hell did you talk yourself into?' But then I told myself, 'Come on, Pat. You've trained for this. Enjoy it.' So I did, and I discovered the beauty of open-water swimming. Small successes make all the difference. As my endurance and speed have improved, I've gained confidence. Every record I break, every swim I take on, and every goal I meet gives me a little more belief in myself."
go getter

Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

The Performer
Hadiyah Robinson
35, Brooklyn

Occupation: Stand-up comedian

What sparks her mettle: Being heard

"I grew up in a family with seven kids, and in a house that loud, you learn to go above and beyond to get attention. I would stand in the middle of the room and scream, pull my shirt over my head, run in a circle, fall on the ground. That's where gutsiness started for me—the desire to be heard. I didn't try stand-up until 2004, when I was working at MTV. A friend was doing a music showcase with an audience of a hundred or so, and everybody was like, 'Get up and tell some jokes, Hadiyah, you so stupid'—which is a compliment for a comedian—so I did. I got onstage and talked about my toothache—I like talking about familiar stuff, things we all know. And I killed! I felt like Eddie Murphy. I knew comedy was where I needed to be. So eventually I went to my boss and quit my job, crying the whole time. I was scared. I'm still scared. I find myself thinking, 'What are you doing? You don't have health insurance. You haven't had cable in two years.' But there are things that keep me believing. Like what my boss said when I told her I was quitting: 'Stop crying. I just want front-row tickets when you do HBO.' Or my mom telling me when I was little that she expected me to make myself known in the world: 'Let them see you,' she used to say. And when I'm onstage, I feel like they do."

Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

The Crusader
Delcianna Winders
34, New Orleans

Occupation: Director of captive animal law enforcement, PETA

What sparks her mettle: Fighting the good fight

"I've always had an affinity for animals, and when I was a teenager I decided to spend my life advocating for them. I stopped eating meat at 14, and spent my high school years reading up on factory farming and other animal abuses. I wanted to right those wrongs. I decided to go to law school because I felt that was how I could do the most good. But an important aspect of a career in law is the ability to communicate with people, and I'm a naturally shy person—my mom still brings up how I refused to speak to any of my preschool classmates. I've had to push myself to be more outgoing. What keeps me strong is my conviction. It's very black-and-white: A hen shouldn't spend her whole life in a cage so we can eat eggs when we don't need to eat eggs; a circus elephant shouldn't be beaten so we can have a few minutes of entertainment. When something tests my resolve, I tap into the notion that what I'm doing is right."

Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

The Connector
Stephanie Ellis
32, Benicia, California

Occupation: Manager, Bookshop Benicia

What sparks her mettle: Doing it all on her own

"I was sheltered growing up, homeschooled from first grade to ninth. I always found interacting with strangers scary, like when I had to make a doctor's appointment or order a pizza. I ended up marrying really young, and a few years later, I was a 23-year-old divorcée with a 3-year-old daughter and a baby boy on the way. Suddenly there was no one else to make those appointments or order those pizzas. Or kill spiders. Or confront my daughter's schoolyard bullies. Or figure out how to submit the endless custody paperwork I had to file. Doing those things on my own was how I started to find my sense of ability. I bought tools and learned how to build things. When my washing machine broke, I fixed it myself. And I got a lot better at talking to people. Working at the bookstore, I meet a lot of people who come from a different walk of life than mine. (And who aren't half as pierced or tattooed.) But I don't ever want that to matter. I don't want to stand there with shaky hands, feeling unsure of myself. I want to make a real connection. Of course, there are mornings when I wake up and think, I am not fit for public consumption today—and other times when I think, 'I have no business raising children, let alone by myself.' But in both cases I remind myself that I have a role to play, a job to do. Until my kids are grown up, I don't have a choice. I can't falter. I can't fail."

Next: Dr. Phil: 6 steps to self-assurance