Re-post: Self-confidence tricks

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, we’re reposting some older writing for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on Apr 14, 2010.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

How do you keep up your inner reserves of self-confidence?

It seems like a certain amount of “irrational” self-confidence is necessary for success in geeky fields. STEM work usually involves a lot of failure before you figure something out. While you’re failing repeatedly, you have to keep believing you can do it and you’re smart enough to figure it out. But the repeated failures, to me, always seem like evidence that I’m not smart enough. From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this? And there seems like a lot of evidence that I can’t.

It seems like guys are less likely to have this problem. They don’t attribute the failures to their own lack of ability so much — they attribute the failures to the difficulty of the problem, the equipment they’re using, the information they were given. (Or maybe I’m wrong and guys also feel this way. But they don’t show it as much.)

Anyway, my questions are: Have you experienced this? What do you do about it?

While I’m actually a bit of a poster child for high self confidence (you sort of have to be in my field), I’ve been teaching tutorials at the university for 5 years so I talk to a lot of students who aren’t feeling so hot about their own abilities: the first year of an undergraduate program is especially hard for a lot of folk.

So here’s some of the things I tell my students about how to survive in an environment that takes a lot of self confidence. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments!

Remember that you’re not alone

Lots and lots of very smart people have trouble with self-confidence. In fact, there are so many people who have this problem, that they have a couple of terms regarding the phenomenon:

  • Imposter syndrome refers to the fact that many people feel like they’re not good enough to be doing what they’re doing. They feel like they’re impostors who don’t belong and eventually someone will notice and kick them out of the field.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a very strange cognitive bias: People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their abilities, and those who are highly competent will under-rate theirs.

So remember that your insecurity may actually be a sign of intellectual maturity: you’ve learned enough to understand what you don’t know. And remember that some of those people who say they’re awesome may not be. Especially in first year computer science, where I teach, there’s a lot of blow-hard teenaged boys, and I remind people of that regularly.

Cultivate your shield of arrogance

I joke about it a lot, but I’m not entirely kidding when I suggest that the best way to get through certain things is to have a thick shield of arrogance. I’m not the only one who says this. The perl folk tell us that The Three Virtues of a Programmer are Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris. Think of it as a tongue-in-cheek recommendation: I don’t really think you should all become arrogant jerks, but it’s really handy if you can grin, wink, and say “of course I can do that, because I’m awesome” and then follow through.

The amount of arrogance shielding you need is a bit of a personal decision. You don’t want it so thick that you can’t take constructive criticism, but you want it thick enough that pointless insults roll off you. I publish academic papers in computer security, a field known for harsh practitioners, so I need enough arrogance to look at a terrible review and say, “Does this person even know what they’re talking about?” before I think, “OMG, they hated my work.” But then I need enough humility to admit that their mistaken impression might be fixable if I explained something more clearly.

Also, note how I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

Find your cheerleading squad

Some days, things are going to get you down, and it’s really helpful to have someone who can cheer you up. People who believe in you and what you’re doing can help you through a lot of rough patches, including crises of self confidence in geeky fields. Constructive criticism can be great, but you also need the odd pep talk and some people who are willing to be really positive. And just like cheerleaders are often very talented athletes, you’re going to need some very talented people on your cheerleading team: people who can fairly judge your abilities and whose opinions you’ll actually believe when they say that you’re awesome. They don’t have to know everything about your geeky field, but they have to know enough about you to make some good judgments.

You may already have your cheerleaders among your existing friends, but one additional problem for geeky women is that they’re often surrounded by companions who think you’re hot and who have… other motives behind the compliments. This means cheerleading can quickly become icky. Not cool.

If this is a concern for you, consider looking for some extra cheerleading help from other communities. Women’s groups, especially, tend consider being supportive part of their charter (and often have rules against hitting on their members!) Some examples: Systers for women in technology, Linuxchix for women in linux and open source development… if you don’t know where to find such a community, ask on Geek Feminism and we’ll try to help you out, or maybe hook you up with other people who want to start such a community. Even if you don’t think you need access to such a community, you may be surprised by how much fun it is to have more people to interact with. And don’t think of it as a write-only relationship: hearing other people’s stories and getting to cheer them on is actually quite fun and rewarding.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Research has shown that women don’t promote themselves as much as they should. (If you want to learn about this, I highly recommend you read Women Don’t Ask!) This leaves us (and other shy folk) at a disadvantage because people around us may not realize and recognize how awesome we are. Even if you’re too shy to tell anyone but your cheerleading squad, give it a shot. And remember that some communities even explicitly encourage this, so you aren’t necessarily going to be out of place: Linuxchix, for example, encourages people to do “horn tootin'” posts where they celebrate neat things they’ve accomplished: a new job, a working system, a neat solution, achieving inbox zero, or even the first day your daughter sleeps through the night. Don’t feel you should only celebrate “big” milestones: if you do something that matters to you at all, allow yourself some time to brag.

You’ve got to remember to balance here: bad things happen, but if your cheerleading squad only hears from you when things are rough, it’s going to be harder for them to bring up examples later. So make sure they hear the good as well as the bad. I don’t know about you, but I find when I sit down and think about it there’s usually more good than bad.

Talking and writing about your accomplishments not only makes them more widely known, but also gives you practice expressing yourself… so not only are you advertising your awesomeness, you’re actually becoming more awesome in the process. How’s that for an extra ego-boost?

Don’t forget to be awesome

Just before I went in to do my proposal defence last week, my little sister sent me a text message that told me I had permission to be awesome. And when I asked her for advice on writing this post, she said I should give you all permission to be awesome too. It’s really hard to be down about yourself or your accomplishments when you’re too busy being awesome: that is, actually learning and doing the things that you want to do. It’s a bit circular: But if you can let go of self-confidence issues long enough to do cool stuff, then doing cool stuff will help you let go of self-confidence issues because you’ll have more examples of your awesomeness right there.

So go forth and be awesome!

5 thoughts on “Re-post: Self-confidence tricks

  1. Waquo

    Learned optimism is a concept I first learned about from Reg Braithwaite: https://github.com/raganwald/homoiconic/blob/master/2009-05-01/optimism.md
    Go ahead and read it, he’s a better writer than me.

    The basic idea is that optimism and pessimism are patterns of thought along three axes:
    personal – impersonal
    general – specific
    permanent – temporary

    When failing at a certain task, typical pessimistic thoughts are:
    I am too stupid (personal), I don’t know anything (general), I will never be good at this (permanent).
    Optimism would look like this:
    The question was ambiguous (impersonal), I don’t know enough about this topic (specific), I can try harder and do better next time (temporary).

    The crucial insight is that these thought patterns are largely habitual. We are less rational than we think we are.

    Changing habits is not easy, but it can be done. Start by reflecting on your thoughts to recognize pessimistic patterns. When you catch yourself being pessimistic, examine the facts and assess rationally whether your pessimism is rational or habitual. Discard habitual pessimism.

    Realize that pessimism is only useful when failure is expensive. When failure is cheap, pessimism is just a recipe for missed opportunities. Optimism becomes the rational choice, so just go ahead and try.

    PS: For positive thought the axes are reversed, so it is pessimistic to regard good things as not about you (impersonal), limited in scope/importance (specific) and temporary.

    1. Waquo

      The original question contains a fine example of irrational pessimism:
      “From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this?”

      If failure is costly, this is a rational. You don’t want to wrap your car around a tree because you thought you’re an excellent drunk driver.

      Most of the time though, failing is not a big deal and being a pessimist who doesn’t even try a losing strategy.

    2. Jayn

      One trick I learned years ago (and it did help) is to try and stop yourself from saying negative things. I used to have a habit of calling myself dumb and the like. I started trying to stop myself from saying them, and eventually they stopped even coming to mind. My self-esteem improved as well.

      It’s amazing sometimes, the effects small things can have.

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