Confidence is both a strange and fragile thing. It is strange because there are two sides to it – how others might perceive you as being confident; and how confident you actually feel. I’m pretty sure that most people reading this will have had their confidence broken or damaged at some point so will not require any explanation of its fragility. In this non-technical post, we’ll look at various aspects of confidence in what we do, and some strategies that I find useful in building confidence.
Confidence is not a tangible thing – it is a state of mind. That actually explains its fragility – if it is something that only exists within our minds then there is nothing to prevent it from being eroded or even destroyed very easily. It is not specific to working in software development, it affects everyone in both their working and personal lives, but some people are affected more than others.
People often assume that I’m a pretty confidant person because I write a blog and speak at tech conferences but the reality is that I suffer from the same breakdowns in self confidence that most folks do. When writing blog posts I find it pretty easy to write in a confident voice if I feel that I understand the subject matter well enough, and I have the opportunity to review and re-write the posts if they do not come across correctly – I’ll discuss this more in a future non-tech post about my approach to writing blog articles. The same applies when it comes to public speaking, although there’s a little bit of back story that I feel is pretty relevant.
When I was a child, perhaps around 6 years old, I had a real fear of singing in public and now I realise that the fear was simply a lack of confidence. I could cope with singing as part of a group, but the mere thought of singing solo in front of anyone was the scariest thing imaginable to me. That was not just a passing fear, it continued in to my teens. However, I used to love music (I’m a heavy rocker at heart) and in my teens taught myself to play guitar and I would play and sing along to records in my bedroom. As I got in to my late teens I slowly began to overcome my fears by joining various bands mainly to play guitar, but slowly began doing backing vocals as well. As I got in to my twenties, open mic / unplugged / acoustic nights became popular in the UK where local pubs and clubs would host evening enabling amateur musicians to perform, and I started singing and playing solo. This was the very thing that I was so scared of doing as a child, but over time I was able to not only sing in public, but actually became confident at doing it. I think that I have quite a strong vocal style and I attribute that to not wanting to be timid about it – if I’m going to get up on a stage and do the thing that so frightened me as a child, I’m going to do it with strength and confidence because that is an important part of overcoming that fear. I progressed from performing at these events to actually running them and being the MC which means that you need to fill in if there aren’t many people turn up to perform on a given night, and this certainly built my confidence further.
When I subsequently formed a band with a couple of fellas that had never performed live before, they commented on how I never seemed to be affected by nerves before we performed live. That isn’t true, I certainly felt nerves every time that we played live, but playing in a band feels much safer than when one is performing solo because individual mistakes are less obvious in a band scenario, whereas when you’re solo there’s nowhere to hide. This goes a little full circle back to when I was a kid and could sing as part of a group, but singing solo was really scary. Years of learning to manage the nerves I felt when performing solo is what my bandmates perceived as not experiencing nerves when playing in the band with them.
There’s quite an interesting thing here. When we look at our own confidence, we know that it is on an analogue scale – confidence is . But in others we tend to see it as a binary thing – that person either has confidence or they don’t. We actually tend to see confidence in others if they are slightly more confident about something than we are, or at least appear more confident. That’s what my band mates saw in me, but it was just that I was slightly more experienced in performing live than they were.
When I first spoke at a tech conference (AndroidConf in Rio De Janeiro – September 2011) I was extremely nervous, but felt that my experiences in performing music certainly helped me to channel that nervous energy in a positive way.
I still get nervous when I speak publicly, and this is usually at its worst when I perform a particular talk for the first time – the unknowns about how well the subject matter will go across, and how well the talk will fit in to the available time slot always cause some anxiety, and this lessens as I get more familiar with giving that particular talk, and getting a feel for how far through the talk I am in relation to the available time enables me to speed up or slow down as necessary.
Certainly my musical experiences have helped when it comes to managing nerves before public speaking, but they are pretty similar in that they are both public performance. The simple fact is that the best way to learn how to manage your nerves as a public speaker (or any kind of public performance) is simply to get out there and do it as much as you can. It can be quite astounding when people say that you don’t look at all nervous when really you’re a bag of nerves inside. But, as well as knowing the subject matter that you’re going to speak about, channeling that nervous energy in to a positive performance is what will make you appear as a very confident speaker.
A common manifestation of a lack of confidence in the workplace is the dreaded “Imposter Syndrome”. For those unfamiliar with the term: this is where one feels that they are inferior to those around them and that they do not deserve to be there. For those starting out in their career this can seem to be something that they alone are experiencing, but it happens to us all from time to time.
Imposter Syndrome is part of human nature, I think. We know our own failings, shortfalls, and flaws but don’t see them in those we work with a clearly as we see them in ourselves. When the difference that we perceive between ourselves and those around us becomes large, we begin to feel that we don’t deserve to be there on merit, and we’re an imposter.
The strategy that I try to employ to deal with this is to actually try and be helpful and supportive to others. Although this may sound strange: “How can I help others if I’m not worthy to be here?”, the reality is that we can help people in many different ways. Sometime just being a rubber duck to someone can help them to understand a problem. But often people with different experiences looking at a problem with a fresh pair of eyes can often help to crack problems. Being able to help others in this way is extremely valuable to any team and can be quite a useful way to show yourself that you are contributing to the team in a valuable way. Don’t just confine this to the times when you’re experiencing some degree of Impostor Syndrome, either. If you are always trying to contribute to the team in this way you’ll find that the occasions when you feel Impostor Syndrome become fewer and farther between because you get constant reminders that you are useful each time one of your team mates thanks you for helping them.
The other important thing to remember about Impostor Syndrome is that many of the people that you work with will also experience it from time to time. You can help your team mates to avoid it by taking the time to thank them if they help you, saying “well done” if they do good work (you don’t have to be someone’s senior to do this), and generally be nice and encourage those around you. The chances are that encouragement will be reciprocated, and it will help you to avoid your own Imposter Syndrome.
I discussed earlier that we perceive others as being more confident if they appear more confident that we are about something. If we see all those around us as being confident in different ways, it can be easy to fall in to the Impostor Syndrome trap. It’s worth remembering that the best teams are made of individual with differing skill-sets, and varying areas of expertise. If you are experiencing Impostor Syndrome, try and identify the areas where you feel that you contribute the most, and understand the value that you provide to the team. Once again, this can be reinforced by actively trying to support and encourage others.
So while we’ve only covered a couple of specific cases with regards to building confidence, and dealing with low confidence, these are things that I find incredibly useful. Confidence and be built by confronting and overcoming the things that scare you, and you can build on that to the point where you almost forget that you were scared in the first place. That initial fear was born out of a lack of confidence. We can also help ourselves and those around us by being helpful, supportive, and giving encouragement.
© 2020, Mark Allison. All rights reserved.
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